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Cocktail Time – The trouble with sugar

About a month or so ago a friend posted a picture on Facebook of two shot glasses of sugar syrup – one that had been made with boiling water and one in which the sugar had been dissolved into normal room temperature water. By next morning the post had attracted nearly a 100 likes and an equal number of comments. What is the big deal you may ask? Sure, the pic didn’t have a big bosomed lady holding the shot glasses. Neither has the price of sugar reached anywhere near that of onions or potatoes or what is being made of salt. But fact remains that it did generate a lot of excitement amongst people from my fraternity (including yours truly!). We debated, discussed, opined, experimented etc. So what was the fuss all about?


Lets begin by understanding the origins of this white crystalline substance. The worlds oldest known sweetener is honey. At a time when the ancient civilizations in India were already hooked onto sugar, most of the western world relied on honey. Europe came in contact with this “sweet salt” only when warriors returned from the Crusades around the 12th – 13th century. However the foundations of the modern day sugar industry / trade was laid when Christopher Columbus planted the first cuttings of sugar cane in Hispaniola. By the 16th century the English were hooked onto sugar and went to great lengths to monopolize the sugar trade. This also gave rise to a slave trade. Led to wars. Helped to lay the foundation of an empire. Etc. etc. etc.

Cut to behind the bar, sugar is, in my mind, probably the most critical element (along with ice) of a cocktail that calls for sweetness. Not only does it make for a great tasting drink, it also lends a certain amount of texture and weight to the end drink. It makes up for the lack of sweetness in fruits or juices, it takes the edge off a strong (read alcoholic!) drink and in the right amount and mix is great for the body. What my friend inadvertently did when he prepared the two samples of sugar syrup – one made with hot water and the other one with room temperature water – he ended up creating two liquids that behaved differently from each other despite being made using the same ingredients. The one made with hot water would typically have a heavier mouth feel and appear thicker. And typically contain a higher content of glucose. The one that was made by dissolving sugar in room temperature water would appear to be lighter on the palate yet taste significantly sweeter. This is because this time around, the sugar would have broken down into fructose instead of glucose. And to a trained hand behind the bar this is of vital relevance.

When I prep for dispensing drinks from behind the bar, I prefer to stick to sugar syrup that has been made in a 1:1 ratio of refined sugar granules and warm RO water (sometimes referred to as simple syrup). I then know how much to use while making a drink. And this would be dependent on the levels of sweetness of the other ingredients like fruit juices, flavourings, liqueurs etc that the recipe may call for. I have often noticed many bars miss this crucial understanding and sticking to set standardised recipes that call for fixed amounts of ingredients including sugar syrup. And then you may end up with a drink that is either a tad bit sweet or somewhat lacking in taste. And who wants to pay for one of those?

So the next time you ask for a dash of sweetness in your glass of nimbu paani, pat yourself on the back. ‘Cause you’d be paying homage to one of nature’s greatest gifts to us. And one which you can now see why, was fussed about in the opening lines of this piece.


Rohan Jelkie aka The Thirsty Tippler

Rohan is a beverage trainer for the wines & spirits trade in India and has had experience in running training projects in SE Asia. An ardent fan of the craft of the cocktail, you can be sure to run into him at a bar near by cloaked in his alter ego, the thirsty tippler.