The Essential Guide to Cocktail Sweeteners

honey sweetener

Due to the closure of all bars, we are all having to be our own bartenders for the time being. I thought this would be a good time to look into the different ways you can sweeten your cocktails at home.

Sweetener is an important ingredient in many cocktails, but the way the sweetness is added can change the taste profile of the cocktail. The purpose of a sweetener is to enhance the flavour, to balance bitterness or acidity and to add texture. The drink will also gain sweetness from the spirits, liqueurs and juices, therefore you need to consider the amount of extra sweetener based on the other ingredients you are using.

sugar for cocktail sweetener

White sugar

White sugar only adds sweetness and doesn’t really contribute to flavour. The best way to use white sugar in cocktails is to make it into a simple syrup (see recipe below). If possible, use caster sugar instead of granulated sugar as it will dissolve easier. Sometimes a white sugar cube is used to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.

White sugar can also be flavoured with various ingredients: herbs, spices, berries, fruit or vegetables.

Brown sugar

White sugar goes through a purifying process to remove molasses. In brown sugar some molasses is retained or, alternatively, molasses may be added to white sugar. As well as adding colour, molasses also increases the calcium, iron and potassium content of the sugar. It also adds a caramel-like flavour, which is why many prefer brown sugar with coffee. Many mistakenly consider brown sugar to be a healthier option over white sugar, but one teaspoon of brown sugar has 15 calories while white has 16.  

Brown sugar is often used for Mojitos and Caipirinhas when it is muddled together with lime wedges. You can also use it to make sugar syrup.

Demerara sugar

Demerara sugar is made from pressed sugarcane and undergoes less processing than white and brown sugars. It has the same number of calories as brown sugar. Demerara has a nice toffee flavour and it works perfectly with darker spirits.

Muscovado sugar

Muscovado is unrefined cane sugar with a moist texture, similar to wet sand. It is labelled as light or dark based on the level of molasses, darker being the most common. The flavour profile of Muscovado is much more complex, with a rich flavour of the molasses. It is bittersweet and you can detect some burnt toffee and caramel.

Both Demerara and Muscovado make a delicious addition to rum drinks or cocktails with Amaro or coffee.


The great variety of honey available makes it an ideal cocktail sweetener. The flavour can range from mild and delicate to strong and almost medicinal. I just recently bought a honey that has a very strong elderflower flavour, which makes it great for drinks but not so nice in my breakfast porridge. Make sure to test the honey first, before deciding on the cocktail recipe.

Honey is a tad too thick to be used in cocktails (it really doesn’t mix well with ice), therefore you want to turn it into a syrup just like you would do with sugar. Depending on the type of honey and the flavour and consistency you want to achieve, you can choose to use 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. Honey also works nicely in flavoured syrups, especially with some herbs or spices. A teaspoon of honey has 21 calories.

As honey is an animal product, you might want to make sure your happy-hour guests aren’t vegan.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is sweeter than sugar syrup, so you won’t need to use as much. Also, you can use it directly in the drink without having to heat it up with water first. A teaspoon of maple syrup has 17 calories.

It works beautifully with darker spirits, especially with bourbon, rye whiskey and cognac.

Agave nectar

Agave nectar is made from the sap of an agave plant, and like tequila, the best juice comes from 100% blue agave. The nectar comes in various shades, the lighter ones being milder in flavour and the darker more intense, closer to some honeys. All shades come from the same plant and the colour varies depending on the filtration (or the lack of it).

Agave nectar can be used straight from the bottle and there is no need to dilute it with water. The nectar is one-and-a-half times sweeter than sugar so you can use less of it when making drinks. This cocktail sweetener makes a great vegan alternative to honey as they taste rather similar and have the same number of calories.

Ready-made syrups

You can buy ready-bottled gomme syrup (gum syrup from the sap of the acacia tree). Many bars use it as it helps to keep their drinks consistent. There is also a great number of flavoured syrups, pretty much any flavour you can think of (MONIN has 150 flavours!). Some flavours are unique and easier to buy ready bottled than to find ingredients to make one for yourself. The shelf life of ready-made syrups is around 18 to 36 months if stored properly.

Monin tiramisu flavoured sugar syrup

How to make a sugar syrup at home

To make the sugar syrup, you should start by deciding whether you prefer a 1:1 ratio or a 2:1. The latter will add more texture, while one part sugar, one part water may dilute your drink a bit more.

Simply add a cup of water into a saucepan together with one cup of sugar. Keep stirring on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. If you want to use a 2:1 ratio, add the second cup of sugar once the first has dissolved. Do not let the liquid boil. Remove from heat and allow to fully cool before pouring into a sterilised container. Store in the fridge.

Flavoured syrup

To make a flavoured syrup, simply add sugar, water and your chosen spices/berries/herbs to a saucepan. If you use berries, muddle them well to release all the flavour. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat, cover with a lid and leave to sit for one hour. Strain and store. These can last up to two weeks if kept in the fridge.

Tip: Combine various flavours together in one syrup. For example, Blackberry-Lavender, Sage-Pear-Ginger, or make a “gin” syrup, which is a great alternative for non-drinkers when used in mocktails.

Do you like to use different sweeteners in cocktails? Have you tried ready-bottled syrups?

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