Considering the average American consumes over 30 pounds of traditional sugar, or sucrose, a year, sweetening cocktails is a subject we must discuss. The aim of medicinal mixology is to mix cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks that are delicious and curative, and that concept is lost if too much sugar is included in the recipe. Now we don’t want to sound like complete hypocrites because we’ll be using sweetened liqueurs and a little sugar sometimes, but sugar amounts in a cocktail will be extremely limited for two reasons — (1) we don’t like sweet drinks, and (2) sugar is bad for you.
Even though Mary Poppins said, “a spoon full of sugar will make the medicine go down,” we have a slightly different approach to wellbeing. We believe that healthy cocktails can be both delicious and rejuvenating without loading the drink with sugar. Mary needed sugar to mask the awful flavors of her medicine, but we don’t have that problem. Our “medicine” is fresh herbs, fine crafted spirits, and botanical liqueurs that tastes really good. Sure sometimes we’ll use sweeteners or sweetened products to harmonize the bitter or herbal flavors in a drink, but our cocktails will never be liquid candy. And we’ll never use refined, processed sugar in our recipes for reasons we discuss below.
The next time you order a cocktail with a double dose of sugar, think about this: overindulgence can lead to diabetes, weight gain, fatty liver disease, tooth decay, and a host of other problems. Some people even claim that sugary drinks give them a more powerful hangover, or an immediate headache and stomachache. We’ve all heard doctors list the negative effects of sugar a thousand times, yet we guzzle sugary drinks as part of a daily lifestyle instead of an occasional indulgence, and we’re shocked when health issues arise as a consequence. Understandably, there are times when we all need a fix (to satisfy the sweet tooth craving), so what is the harm of consuming in moderation? That is the question we’ll explore.
Our search for a healthy sweetener spans the globe. In our discussions, we’ll define sweeteners that will make your cocktails taste delicious without overwhelming the medicinal goodness of your drink. In this article we will consider: sugar (and its many forms), honey, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, stevia, coconut nectar, and agave syrup.
The only thing as grievous as the effects of sugar on our bodies is the history of the crop. Sugar, referred to as “white gold” by merchants in the 1700s and 1800s, was a crop farmed by slaves on plantations in the Caribbean, Mexico, and New Orleans. The British owned sugar plantations (and slaves) in Barbados; the Dutch farmed cane in the Guyanas; and the French managed sugar plantations in Martinique and Saint-Domingue (Haiti). With the Caribbean Islands producing such a valuable crop, New Orleans soon jumped on the bandwagon– in 1795 Etienne de Boré produced around 100,000 pounds of sugar.
If you’re bored with all the historical mumbo-jumbo, just picture pirates or royal fleets carrying shiploads of sugar cane, rum, or slaves between New Orleans, the Caribbean, and the rest of the globe. Those three “commodities” ran this world and its politics at one time, and without one there would not have been the others. I mention the countries of sugar production because they are included in the descriptions of the categories of sugar discussed below.
Processed or Refined Sugar (common table sugar) should never, ever be consumed. It has been processed and bleached with chemicals in a way that strips the crystals of any nutrients or minerals. This is the stuff stocked in most diners or cheap coffee shops, and used for sweetening sodas (Coke and Pepsi), candy, packaged sweets, and nearly every beverage you can buy at the gas station. Avoid it. Traditional sugar is bad. Enough said.
Raw sugar (also referred to as “evaporated cane juice” or “unrefined sugar”) is the residue left after sugarcane has been minimally processed to remove molasses and refine the sugar crystals. Its flavors are similar to those of brown sugar, but raw sugar should not be confused with common brown sugar.
Raw sugar contains molds and fibers which are considered nutrients, but for the sugar to be sold in the US, it has to be gently refined, and, for this reason, the sugar loses some of its nutrients. There are three popular types: Demerara, Turbinado, and Muscavado.
- Turbindao Sugar: Unlike typical granulated sugar, Turbinado sugar crystals, caramel in color, are much larger than table sugar, and are made at an earlier period in the sugarcane processing method. The coarse crystals retain some of the flavor of molasses, but compared to Demerara and Muscavado sugars, Turbinado sugar tastes more like honey than molasses. Turbinado sugar takes its name from the turbines in which it’s spun, and most of it is grown in Hawaii or Mexico. A popular brand of Turbinado sugar is “Sugar in the Raw.”
- Demerara Sugar: To make demerara sugar, producers press sugarcane and steam the juice of the first pressing to form thick cane syrup. The cane syrup is allowed to dehydrate, leaving behind large golden brown crystals of sugar. Toffee and molasses flavors are more obvious in Demerara than in Turbinado, and Demerara is a darker sugar than Turbinado. Origin: the sugar takes its name from the Demerara colony in Guyana.
- Muscovado Sugar (or “Barbados sugar”): This sugar has two distinctive traits which make it quite unique. The first is the coarse grain– Muscovado sugar has very large, un-evenly sized, rough crystals. The second is the high molasses content of the sugar, which causes Muscovado sugar to be dark, strongly flavored, and very sticky. These two traits can make substitutions for Muscovado sugar quite difficult, as the sugar is prized for its moisture, coarse grain, and flavor. This cane sugar is made by pressing sugarcane to release the naturally sweet juice and then cooking it slightly before allowing it to dry. Because Muscovado sugar is minimally refined, it retains many of the essential dietary vitamins and minerals which are present in the sugarcane plant. While it may be odd to think of sugar as being good for you, Muscovado sugar happens to be high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron, among other nutritional compounds.
Date Sugar is 100% dehydrated dates ground into small pieces. It is a whole food, high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Date sugar can be substituted for granulated sugar or brown sugar cup for cup, but it does not dissolve in liquids. To experience the sweetness and distinct flavors of dates, you can infuse a spirit with whole, dried dates, or chop up a few dates and make a simple syrup. To make a syrup, cook 5 to 7 chopped dates in 3 cups simmering water for at least 10 minutes and then let the mixture cool. Strain and enjoy.
Moving on from the crystals to the syrups . . .
How many jars of honey do you think you buy within a year? If you’re a frequent honey buyer then you might want to consider a few interesting facts that should make you appreciate the golden liquid (or “liquid gold”, as it is referred to throughout history) ever so more than you did before. For instance:
Fact 1: A worker bee will only produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during her lifetime. That’s right, 1/12 of a teaspoon. Think about that. Some little worker bee will work herself to death within weeks of her birth just so that you can have 1/12 teaspoon of honey.
Fact 2: A single honey bee will collect nectar from 50-100 flowers during one trip out of the hive, and after multiple foraging trips, some bees visit up to 10,000 wildflowers in a day.
Fact 3: To make one pound of honey will be the lifetime work of approximately 300 bees, and those bees, in an effort to keep the colony stocked with nutrient-rich honey, will visit up to 2 million flowers and fly over 55,000 miles. And we’re talking no frequent flyer miles, zero vacation time away from the hive, and no benefits. It’s completely outrageous. Clearly they’re not unionized. I kid, I kid.
But I seriously hope that after reading those facts, you’ll cherish that jar of local honey a little more than you did a few minutes ago. Maybe we’re biased because we once managed several hives on an organic farm, but anyone can see that honey is a fascinating product, which is as diverse as wine in color and flavor. We miss the bees.
On the topic of flavor, a lot of people do not realize how many different types of honey there are on the market. Clover honey, which is light in color and delicate in flavor, is the most popular. Unless people shop at farmer’s markets or specialty stores, they’re unlikely to see all the variations of honey. Colors range from pale yellow to deep amber (almost black), and flavors range from light and floral to intense and caramel-y. So when you’re browsing for honey, choose one that best suits your purpose.
One thing to understand when purchasing honey is that commercial honey should be avoided. Mass produced honey is over-processed tar that is sometimes cut with high fructose corn syrup to decrease production cost. If you can find it, choose raw, local honey instead. Local, raw honey is a great cure for allergies, a sore throat, or a physically exhausted body. If you’re treating allergy issues, make sure the honey is local because you need to be consuming honey that includes particles of the very plants that are making you sneeze. If you’re in California, consuming honey made in Georgia isn’t going to soothe your hay fever.
Once you’ve selected a jar, you’ll have plenty of drink recipes to choose from because the curative powers of honey seem endless — it’s hard to find a culture that doesn’t use honey to remedy an ailment or two. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine go so far as to prize honey as one of the five elixirs of immortality. We like the sound of that. And we agree that the many uses of honey make it more of a restorative syrup than just a sweetener. Mix honey with hot water and cayenne pepper to help with a cold. Add a slice of lemon to that mixture and you’ve got a great liver detox tonic. Swallow a few tablespoons of honey to soothe a sore throat or a night cough. Mix a few tablespoons of honey with citrus juice to recharge after a marathon or a day spent in the heat. The many medicinal uses of honey throughout the centuries would take up a lot of space in this article, so we’ll stop there.
Another reason why honey is healthier than some other sweeteners is that it’s not just sugar (like sugar cubes, high fructose corn syrup, agave.). Honey contains over 100 different compounds– not just fructose and glucose. It only has a small amount of minerals, amino acids, and vitamins, especially compared to supplements, but the point is that it’s not just sugar. One thing to know is that dark-colored, raw honey typically has more minerals and vitamins than lighter-colored, raw honey. The honey we produced in California was a deep amber hue, and had flavors of toffee, butterscotch, and vanilla. It was an intense and intriguing honey that only took a little drop to add plenty of flavor or sweetness to a beverage. Familiarize yourself with local honey producers at the farmers market or local shops, and mix a cocktail that gives you more than a buzzzz.
As with all highly viscous products, you’ll need to dilute honey before you add it to a cocktail. If you pour crystallized honey or thick syrup into a cocktail, it’s not going to mix very well. Add honey to warm water to create a simple syrup. Standard simple syrups are 1 part water to 1 part sugar, or 1 part water to 2 parts sugar, but that is way too sweet for us. Start with a few tablespoons of honey to one cup hot (not anywhere near boiling) water. Do not bring water to a boil. It doesn’t take much heat to soften honey, and you need to be careful not to burn it. Overcooking the syrup will destroy the nutritional compounds and change the flavor of the honey. If you want to make a more traditional honey syrup for your bar, use 2 parts honey to 1 part water. When using a rich syrup for mixing drinks, we suggest reducing the measurements in cocktail recipes so that the drinks aren’t too sweet. So if a recipe calls for 1/2 ounce of simple syrup, start with 1/4 ounce simple syrup and add to taste.
A maple tree is usually at least 30 years old and 12 inches in diameter before it is tapped; as the tree increases in diameter, more taps can be added — up to a maximum of four taps. Tapping does no permanent damage, and many maple trees have been tapped for upwards of 150 years, which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Each tap will yield an average of 10 gallons of sap per season, which boils down about one quart of syrup. It takes 30-50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup (seriously!?), and one gallon weighs 11 pounds. That is a lot of sap and some heavy syrup.
I know what you’re asking yourself: is the sweet syrup used for smothering pancakes really a possible ingredient for my next medicinal cocktail? Yes, but not that Aunt Jemima stuff. No sir. Avoid syrups that have added sugar, artificial colors, imitation flavors, or high fructose corn syrup. Opt for a simpler, more pure brand instead. I like to think my purchase is supporting a farmer who, coffee in hand, walks through the snow at dawn to collect the sap from the maple trees he’s nurtured nearly all his life. Perhaps that’s little more than a romantic thought, but I know that there are people out there who produce artisanal products like the ones made during the time of our great-grandparents. Manufactured syrup isn’t all bad; we just don’t like all the extra ingredients used by most generic brands.
Plus, as it turns out, good quality maple syrup is great for you. Researchers have discovered 54 beneficial compounds in pure maple syrup that can treat type 2 diabetes and fight inflammation. The irony of a sweetener helping manage diabetes is not lost on us. Researchers refer to maple syrup as an “anti-oxidant cocktail of beneficial compounds” that contains some of the beneficial compounds of berries, teas, and flax seeds. Use this sweetener to mix healthy cocktails that will renew the body and delight the tongue.
Grade B Pure Maple Syrup is the best for mixology. Make sure the bottle is filled with 100% maple syrup.
As with all syrupy, viscous products, you might need to dilute maple syrup before you add it to a cocktail. If you pour thick syrup into a cocktail, it’s not going to mix very well. Add maple syrup to hot water to create a simple syrup. Standard simple syrups are 1 part water to 1 part sugar, or 1 part water to 2 parts sugar, but that is way too sweet for us. Start with a few tablespoons of maple syrup to one cup warm water. Do not bring water to a boil. It doesn’t take much heat to soften maple syrup, and you need to be careful not to burn it. Overcooking the syrup will destroy the nutritional compounds and change the flavors. Some maple syrups are on the thinner side, so test your syrup before you dilute it with warm water.
Blackstrap molasses is a type of molasses that is made from the third crystallization of sugarcane or beet juice. As these juices are being cooked down, crystallization can be forced to occur multiple times. The first makes Mild, or Barbados, molasses, which is lighter in color, fairly sweet, and subtly bitter. The second crystallization (or boiling) makes dark molasses, which is less sweet (as there are fewer sucrose molecules left in the solution), darker and more bitter. Finally, the third boiling makes Blackstrap Molasses, which is very dark (almost solid black), bitter, and barely sweet.
Blackstrap Molasses contains less sugar than white sugar, brown sugar, regular molasses, or dark molasses, but far more minerals and electrolytes. So, when you add a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses to your cocktail, you’re getting more calcium than a cup of raw spinach, twice the potassium of a banana, and almost 100 mg of magnesium.
The truth behind the phrase “slow as molasses” becomes apparent when you experience the viscous texture of blackstrap molasses. Featuring a robust bittersweet flavor, blackstrap molasses is a fantastic sweetener that will add complexity and subtle sweetness to cocktails while also adding a dose of healthy nutrients to your beverage.
Molasses is too viscous to be poured into a cocktail without any dilution. If you pour blackstrap into a drink, it’s not going to mix very well, but that is solved by combining blackstrap molasses and warm water to create a simple syrup. Standard simple syrups are 1 part water to 1 part sugar, or 1 part water to 2 parts sugar, but that is way too sweet for us. Start with 2 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses to one cup warm water. Do not bring water to a boil. It doesn’t take much heat to soften molasses, and you need to be careful not to burn it. Overcooking the syrup will destroy the nutritional compounds. We suggest starting with 2 tablespoons and working your way up from there because blackstrap molasses can be an overwhelming flavor if you’re not familiar with it; but if it’s something you consume regularly, start with 3 tablespoons of molasses to 1 cup warm water.
Oh this is a tough one. A sweetener as controversial as high fructose corn syrup, Splenda, or Aspartame, agave syrup is in a tough spot right now. I’ve been using raw, organic agave for the past few years with the belief that it was a healthy, low-glycemic sweetener. All of a sudden some doctors and researchers are denouncing the sweetener as one of the most processed sugars available for human consumption. Whoa, that certainly isn’t the image advertisers are giving us. What happened to the idea of nectar oozing from the sun-drenched, exotic agave plant into a glass bottle?
Here’s the scoop on agave.
Agave is mostly fructose; in fact, some are nearly 90% fructose, and compared to high fructose corn syrup which is usually around 55% fructose, that is a scary number. Sure it’s low glycemic because the Glycemic Index (explained later) is based on glucose intake, not fructose. Fructose is present naturally in honey, fruit, and molasses, but not in the same way it is presented in the highly processed agaves we’re discussing. Most agave stocked on the shelves of grocery stores is overly processed gunk that is no better for you than any other processed sweetener. That said, raw, organic agave is a much healthier alternative; even so, compared to the other syrups I’ve discussed above, agave does not appear as nutritionally sound as honey or molasses.
Conclusion: raw, organic agave bottled by reputable producers is not evil. The agave sold at most conventional groceries . . . well, just read the label and ask yourself if you really trust it.
Stevia is a plant that produces a unique sweetener sold in powdered form, as liquid tinctures, or as potted plants. The plant grows easily in warm, temperate climates and is sold by some vendors at local farmers markets in such climates. Indeed, we visited several markets in California that sell stevia plants for you to take home and plant in your garden.
Traditionally the plant was paired with yerba mate tea in South America, but today it’s used to sweeten just about anything. People love it because it’s zero calorie, purely natural, and possibly packed with nutritional compounds. In fact, recent research has suggested that stevia may be an effective treatment for the insulin resistance of diabetics.
Try muddling a fresh stevia leaf in your next cocktail recipe to get the purest stevia experience, but remember to start with a really small amount. It is an acquired taste that is completely different from any other sweetener we’ve discussed. I’ll admit it’s not our favorite. Most stevia-sweetened beverages I’ve sampled have left me disappointed because the stevia overwhelms the drink and completely smothers other flavors. We’ll be experimenting with stevia in the future, but it’ll be in small doses. There’s only so far we’re willing to go.
Raw Coconut Nectar
100 % pure coconut tree sap. An amber colored, low-glycemic sweetener with 17 amino acids and several minerals. Like agave syrup, Raw Coconut Nectar is 90% fructose, but it contains far more minerals and nutrients than any agave syrup. Some researchers will even tell you it’s the most nutrient packed, sustainably grown sweetener on the market. Whether all of that is true or not, we love this fuel because of its subtle coconut flavor.
It is very viscous, so make a simple syrup like you would with honey. Diluting the nectar will give it a thinner texture, which is what you want when you’re mixing drinks.
Before you decide on which sweetener to use, there are a few more things to consider:
One thing to understand is the Glycemic Index and how it impacts your life. The Glycemic Index, or GI, is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down slowly, releasing glucose more gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI. Generally speaking, eating foods that have a high GI (such as soda and white bread) causes a spike in blood sugar levels. When you consume these foods, you may feel a surge of energy at first, but will have an energy crash soon afterward. High GI foods are the bad boys; in fact, they have been linked to an increased risk for cancer, type 2 diabetes, overgrowth of candida, acne breakouts, Alzheimer’s, and weight gain.
Don’t panic. Below, we’ve listed the sweeteners discussed in this article so you can see how they will each affect your body.
Glycemic Index Range
55 or Less is LOW
55 – 70 is INTERMEDIATE
Above 70 is HIGH
|Agave||15 – 30|
|Coconut Palm Sugar||35|
|Apple Juice (Unsweetened)||40|
|Evaporated Cane Juice||55|
|Refined Table Sugar||80|
|High Fructose Corn Syrup||87|
[Remember: The GI is a measure of glucose, not fructose.]
If it helps, we’ve categorized sweeteners in groups based on their nutritional content. The following sweeteners are organized by most nutritious to least nutritious.
1. Blackstrap Molasses and Stevia
2. Raw Honey, Raw Coconut Nectar, and Organic Maple Syrup
3. Agave Syrup
4. Evaporated Cane Juice (Raw Sugar)
*Notes: In this article, we suggested several simple syrups made with syrups (honey, agave, blackstrap molasses, maple syrup). Most bars use 2 parts sugar to 1 part water to make rich simple syrup, which is the preferred style of classic cocktail mixologists. We take issue with a rich syrup because of how sweet it is, but substituting simple syrup is murky territory. For instance, you could make the rich syrup (2 parts sugar: 1 part water) and simply use less syrup than the cocktail recipe calls for, so that your drink isn’t too sweet. Or you could make a lighter, thinner simple syrup by using less sugar, but that means you’re losing the viscous texture of a syrup. Either way, compromises have to be made, so find what works for you.
Stay tuned to see how Medicinal Mixology uses these sweeteners to experiment with recipes and mix healthy cocktails. Drink to good health!