February 8, 2016

∴ The Forgotten Ingredient

One of the three classic cocktail styles, the sour, includes an ingredient added almost as an afterthought: sweetener. Acting as a balance to lemon, lime or other sour flavoring, this component is most often simple syrup, a 1:1 mix of water and granular table sugar, or sucrose.

But “simple” can be a wee too neutral. I used to employ simple in my Lemon Drop cocktails, but changed sweeteners to agave syrup because it imparts a strong richness amid its sweetness. That richness stands up well to the Lemon Drop’s Cointreau and lemon juice components, adding depth to the drink. No small task against pungent flavors.

This weekend, though, I began experimenting with a classic cocktail, the Daiquiri. The original version (which involves no ice outside of a shaker tin) was around long before Hemingway made it his drink of choice. Simply made of two parts white rum, one part fresh-squeezed lime juice, and three-quarters part sweetener (more on this to follow), this cocktail is said to demonstrate much about a bartender’s skills.

  • Measurement of all ingredients is the key to a well-made cocktail, and there are not only three to this drink, but one is measured from a fruit press. Whether you use a two-handled model or a tried-and-true countertop twist-style, you’re not pouring from a bottle for this one.
  • Fruit preparation is important here. Either style press will give you proper juice, but giving your limes a roll on the cutting block while pressing down with moderate force will begin breaking down the pulp structure, helping release more juice. One medium lime should provide an ounce of juice, maybe a little more. Measure it to be sure.
  • Too much leverage on a one- or two-handled press will release oil from the rind, resulting in an overly sour drink. Knowing when to stop squeezing is make-or-break.
  • Shaking technique is all about combining ingredients while chilling to the right temperature, and diluting the ingredients with just enough melt water. It’s said that 20% of a properly made cocktail is water from the shake or stir. The more practice made at getting that dilution, the easier it is to know when it’s reached. For this drink, shaken, the ice should just begin to sound soft. You’ll know it when you hear it.

These are the details that make for a fine cocktail. Attending to them, out pours one of the simplest cocktails in the book. But not so fast: I found ¾ part simple syrup left the drink a bit sharp on first sip. A guest might pull up short on such a sip - removing that hesitation is why I switched my Lemon Drops to agave syrup. But agave is far too rich for the delicate flavor of a fine white rum. Something else is needed.

The Daiquiri calls for cane sugar syrup. Made by stirring two parts evaporated cane juice sugar into one part water warming on the stove, this sweetener adds a depth of flavor absent in simple syrup, yet less imposing than that of agave syrup. It preserves the delicate flavors of white rum while taking the edge off fresh lime juice. It is the perfect correction to that sharp first sip.

I performed a direct comparison between two sweeteners today, shaking two Daiquiris identical in composition save for the syrups. Into one tin went ¾ part simple syrup, and into the other went ½ part cane sugar syrup. I tried the simple syrup-laced cocktail first, noting the sharpness of the lime juice first, which then gave way to the rum flavors. The sugar cane syrup-laced drink blended, where no one flavor overshadowed the others. The sweetener, so minor a player in this ensemble of ingredients, turned out to be a key player.

(Take a sip of the cane sugar syrup-laced version first if you try this for yourself. The initial tartness of the simple syrup-laced version threw off my palate, and it wasn’t until I walked away from the two for a few minutes and came back to a slightly warmer, and more flavorful-for-it drink that I noticed the difference.)

The beauty of cane sugar syrup is that it may be used anywhere simple syrup is called for, and will provide an additional dimension to your cocktail. Though its sweetness is the same as table sugar, in my view, go a little lighter when subbing in for simple syrup. Cane’s depth of flavor, though subtle, adds to its sweetness. Use ½ part cane sugar syrup for ¾ part simple in a Daiquiri, for example. Play with it to find your “sweet spot.”

So what’s the difference between common table sugar and cane sugar? Table sugar is fully refined from raw, brownish, milled sugarcane. I’ve never given it much thought; I’ve just grabbed the bag from my wife’s baking supply and mixed in an equal part to make simple syrup. Evaporated cane juice is made by removing moisture from milled, pressed sugar cane; it’s partially refined, and that leaves in enough molasses to enhance its flavor.

Finding evaporated cane juice sugar is not a straightforward task. Skip the baking aisle of your local grocery and go instead to the organics section. I found a number of sweeteners there, including two labeled “organic cane sugar.” Only one listed evaporated cane juice as its sole ingredient. Caveat emptor, and have a good look at the nutrition label before buying.

I titled this article The Forgotten Ingredient, because few think about the sweetener when building a cocktail. It’s usually last into the shaker, and one’s mind is on buttoning up and shaking - but don’t be hasty in your preparation: the right sweetener can make all the difference.

* I found this interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry for sugar:

Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

All that for (by?) a simple, organic compound. Wow.

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