I had just sat down at one of those generic hotel bars in a city on the East Coast — they all sort of run together after a while — when it struck me that something was missing. At first I thought it was the lack of interesting booze on the bar shelves: a handful of decent bourbons and scotches, a few premium vodkas, but no rye whiskey or any interesting liqueurs beyond a wayward bottle of Campari.
But that wasn't it. It took a little while for it to dawn on me, and when it did I knew that I had become spoiled by Charleston's surge of good cocktail bars. These days, I've come to expect a motley assortment of glass decanters and plastic squeeze bottles to be lined up along a bar, filled with tinctures and syrups of every hue. The only thing visible at this middling establishment was the standard-issue black plastic caddy with olives, maraschino cherries, and thin half-moon slices of lemon, lime, and orange.
And that meant there would be no cocktail for me, just a simple bourbon on the rocks. There would be no fresh-squeezed citrus juices, and, if there were bitters at all, probably a lonely bottle of Angostura, its paper label stained with drips and age. But the real thing missing would be the sugar.
The proper sugar, that is. There's plenty of sweetness available in an average bar. It comes in the form of soft drinks — a blast of Coke or ginger ale from a bar gun — or from prepackaged jugs of "sour mix" (which is usually more sweet than sour) and bright red grenadine, which in today's industrial incarnation is mostly high-fructose corn syrup and food dye. You might be able to get the barman to shake up neon-colored martinis with all the flavors of a candy store, but you wouldn't want to actually drink the things.
This doesn't mean, however, that sweetness has no place in a cocktail. In fact, it's essential.
Long ago, Americans started using a little lump of sugar and some water to cut the harshness of their spirits. Add some bitters and you have the original cocktail, which an 1806 newspaper defined as "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters." From the very beginning, sugar was one of the defining ingredients of a cocktail.
Over time, that basic recipe flourished into thousands of brilliant variations shaken with syrups and liqueurs and egg whites and citrus. And then, decade by decade, they were dumbed down by a relentless succession of "improvements," like prepackaged mixers and lemon-lime soda.
Perhaps no modern-day cocktail has fallen so low as the whiskey sour: a shot of house bourbon mixed with a glug of "sour mix" from a big plastic bottle, and, as a final indignity, adorned with a candy-red maraschino cherry and a slice of orange plucked from that lonely bar caddy.
It's a shameful state of affairs, because with just a bit of effort, a whiskey sour can be a delightful thing. The key isn't the sour flavor but the sweet. At the Rarebit, Brent Sweatman forgoes the corn sweetness of bourbon in favor of rye whiskey, and instead of the usual simple syrup he shakes in honey along with fresh lemon juice, resulting in a drink that is stiff but neither overly sweet nor overly tart, the honey muting the lemon and balancing everything out. The splash of cabernet floated on top is a perfect capper, adding a beautiful rosy color and a pleasantly bitter tinge.
At the Bar at Husk, bartender Roderick Hale Weaver and his colleagues are exploring new ways to incorporate the sweet element into their drinks, too. They use raw demerara sugar to make simple syrup, which results in a darker, richer sweetness than regular white sugar, and then they imbue it with even more flavors.
A jalapeño-infused syrup spices up the Burro and the Plow, which has Cazadores tequila, fire-roasted apple juice, mole bitters, and egg yolk. The emulsifying power of the egg creates a splendidly smooth, creamy drink, and the jalapeño heat lingers inconspicuously but pleasantly in the background.
One of the more unusual sweeteners at Husk is palm sugar. It's made much like maple syrup — by cutting slits in palm tree trunks, gathering the sap that drips out, and boiling it down. Husk buys theirs from the H&L Asian Market in North Charleston. "It's a unique sweetness," Weaver told me, as he unwrapped a cake and sliced off a sliver for me to sample. On the tongue, there's a big initial hit of sugar, but then an unmistakable flavor emerges, one that will transport you right back to the circuses and fairgrounds of your youth: cotton candy.
Weaver grew up in Darlington, and he uses that palm sugar to conjure a unique childhood flavor memory of his own. "When I was a kid," he says, "my babysitter would make this punch: lemon, lime, and orange sherbet with Blenheim's ginger ale."
The School House on the Rock is Weaver's homage to that concoction, updated for more grown-up tastes. He blends Cruzan white rum, bitter red Aperol, orange and lemon juices, and a dose of that palm simple syrup and tops it all with a splash of Blenheim Old #3 ginger ale (the hot variety with the red cap) and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.
With the first sip, you get a big bite of rum and citrus, but the palm sugar adds a distinctively candy-like sweetness. Then, the heat from the Blenheim starts sneaking in. The drink gets better with each sip as the whipped cream infuses its way into the rest of the ingredients, leaving a smooth blend of creaminess, sweetness, and spice.
These sorts of cocktails orchestrate all five of the tastes, and the sweetness of the sugars is what binds and smooths them, bringing harmony to what would otherwise be a bunch of disparate flavors. You don't even notice the sweetness in the final drink, but try making one without the simple syrup. It would be sharp, tart, and harsh on the tongue. Like Lebowski's rug, the sugar really ties the whole thing together.
Black sesame, sorghum, and cane syrup have all found their way into cocktails at various times at Husk, and there are some even more intriguing experiments in the works. Dan Latimer, the restaurant's general manager, revealed that Weaver is experimenting with what he's calling "grit orgeat," steeping stone-ground corn, instead of the usual almonds, in water to extract the natural corn sweetness. "It really fits with the overall Husk philosophy," Latimer notes. We can only hope they get that one perfected real soon.
As bartenders move beyond plain simple syrups, they can even use a sweetener to change the mouthfeel of a drink. At the Gin Joint, Joe Raya makes a cinnamon syrup by grinding whole cinnamon sticks to infuse a simple syrup. "When you crush cinnamon," he explains, "it has this pectin-y sort of thing that leaches out, and it changes the texture of a drink, like using gum arabic."
Raya deploys that cinnamon syrup in his Vagos Motorcycle Club cocktail, where it joins Los Nahuales Mezcal, pineapple and lemon juices, and yellow chartreuse in a tall hurricane glass filled with plenty of crushed ice. With its pale yellow color and slice of lemon adorning the top, it looks at first as if Raya has slid some fruity tourist drink across the bar, but the first sip says otherwise. The mezcal is sharp and smoky, but the tang of citrus and the sweet spiciness of the cinnamon cut right through it, creating a subtle, well-balanced, and dangerously fast-sipping cocktail.
In the winter months, the dark sweetness of maple is a natural match for whiskey cocktails, and the Gin Joint steps up this pairing by using only B-grade maple syrup. "People would think B-grade would be poorer quality," Raya says, "but it's not. It's real dark, real rustic, super, super maple-y."
I've tried making cocktails at home with B-grade maple syrup straight from the bottle, but I've found the sharp maple taste to be overpowering. Raya has a trick up his sleeve. He slow-smokes his maple syrup at 200 degrees, which imparts a pleasing smokiness and also transforms its natural flavor. "It brings out this crazy butter character in the maple," Raya explains.
That syrup is the key ingredient in his smoked maple Manhattan. The recipe is simple — just Rittenhouse rye, the B-grade maple syrup, and a few dashes of black walnut bitters — but the flavors are bold and complex. Served over a single big chunk of ice, it's bitter, smoky, and just slightly and teasingly sweet.
The trend toward a more subtle, complex use of sweetness is starting to make its way out of the specialty cocktail bars and into more mainstream establishments. At the Thoroughbred Club, the lobby bar at the Charleston Place Hotel, lead bartender Mouzon Taylor just overhauled the entire cocktail menu to get rid of the sweet stuff and focus on what he's calling the "clean and clear." Gone are the sugary martinis like the Key Lime Pie and the Godiva chocolate liqueur-laced Run for the Roses. In their place is a far more subtle and interesting selection.
In the Harvard Cooler, Calvados apple brandy and honey are shaken with ginger, lemon, and Fee Brothers orange bitters. "The idea is to balance the sweetness against acidity and bitterness," explains bartender Malachi Topping. Indeed, the sharp bite of the citrus and bitters is nicely offset by the sweetness of the apple and honey, resulting in a smooth, sippable cocktail with bright orange notes.
Balance is the key to the Islay Fog, too, which blends Disaronno amaretto, bitter Fernet Branca, and two Scotches, Chivas Regal and Lagavulin. "The sweetness of the Disaronno is balanced against the smokiness and dryness of the Scotch and the Fernet," Topping says, and it takes things in a dark, rich direction. The cocktail looks like a Manhattan, but the smokiness from the Lagavulin merges with the almondy sweetness of the Disaronno and creates a crisp, smooth, almost chocolatey drink. And it all comes not from any additives, but solely from the array of flavors inherent in the liquors themselves.
That, ultimately, is the power of sweetness when it comes to a cocktail: not to blast your tongue with stimulation but to add depth and complexity and make all the other elements taste better. One can only hope that more and more bartenders start backing away from the slurpee flavors and retire their flavored martinis in favor of more sophisticated libations. That would be a pretty sweet deal for local cocktail lovers.