Anything can obviously be used to sweeten cocktails. I am drawn, however, to minimally sweetened cocktails, and have recently discovered savoury drinks that are often based around more vegetal ingredients. That said, the vast majority of mixed drinks are sweetened to some degree. Sugar comes in an almost infinite number of forms and many people don’t realize that by adding something like Campari, for example, or tonic water, they’re also adding a decent amount of sweet. The vast majority of cocktails are sweetened with one or more of liqueurs, syrup, honey, fruit juice, muddled fruit, jam or straight sugar in its various forms.
Liqueurs, Digestifs and Aperitifs
While it is incredibly rare for me to drink a liqueur on its own (other than bitters), they are indispensable when preparing cocktails. Unfortunately, to have a fully stocked bar requires many liqueurs, which can obviously get expensive. I have divided them based on what I consider essential, less so and liqueurs I rarely use. Some are available at the LCBO, but I find their stock to be dominated by creams like Baileys and junk like Alize and the poor McGuiness products. As such, I bring in many liqueurs from the US.
Crème liqueurs are differentiated from straight liqueurs in that they normally contain more sugar and approximate a syrup much more so than does a liqueur. Crème de Cacao, therefore is generally sweeter and more syrupy than a chocolate liqueur. Additionally, and not to further confuse, cream liqueurs (not crème) like Bailey’s, are liqueurs that actually contain cream.
The Bols (Holland), Giffard (France), Marie Brizard (France), Briottet (France), Massenez (France), Combier (France) and Marienhof Venningen (Germany) lines of liqueurs and cremes are worth mentioning specifically for their renowned quality. That said, only Bols and some Marie Brizard products are available at the LCBO.
I’d like to also mention that if you’re industrious and creative, it’s generally pretty easy and rewarding to make your own liqueurs. This is especially true for products that you can’t find locally. When I couldn’t get Crème de Violette, I made my own with Monin’s violet coffee syrup, dried violet flowers, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and vodka. Everclear makes a very high proof neutral grain spirit perfect for making your own liqueurs but, alas, we can’t get it in Ontario. Once in a while there is a high proof Spirytus Gdanski 76% product available at the LCBO that’s a decent second choice. Imbibe magazine regularly has liqueur recipes, especially around the holidays as they make great gifts.
- Cointreau – forget the inferior triple sec products and stick to the classic even if it’s a bit more expensive. Always available at the LCBO.
- Luxardo Maraschino – when I first tried this liqueur I think my life changed. I can’t imagine doing without this product now. You can usually find it at the LCBO in Toronto but the supply is spotty. I’d buy a few bottles when you find it so that you never run out.
- Benedictine – Similar to Chartreuse, this French herbal liqueur is indispensable in many cocktails, including the killer Singapore Sling I make at the cottage. Always available at the LCBO but normally only at the bigger stores.
- Green Chartreuse – essential in so many great cocktails, this product is readily available at the bigger LCBO stores. Be wary, however, as this legendary herbal liqueur from France is highly dominant in a cocktail, even in very small amounts.
- Apricot Liqueur – The LCBO carries the Bols version of this essential liqueur (among others) but most of the important cocktail books recommend Marie Brizard’s Apry as the apricot liqueur of choice. Cask out of San Francisco sells it online in select states and I think it is now available at other American online stores. It’s really too bad the LCBO doesn’t sell Apry.
- Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot – Any cocktail made with this ridiculous liqueur ends up better, plain and simple. Sometimes I just stare at the bottle, it’s so good. You will find it online in the US and if you have to make a special trip just to get your hands on it, do it.
- Aperol – The rumour I’ve heard is that we have the Terroni restaurants in Toronto to thank for the LCBO carrying this Italian aperitif as list. I don’t know if that’s true but I’m immensely happy to have regular access to this incredible product. It’s so indispensible that when LCBO’s stock once dipped suspiciously low, I drove around the city in a panic buying up what I could. Thankfully, my paranoia was misplaced.
- Campari – Although not as in demand as Aperol, probably due its more pronounced bitterness, I can’t imagine going without Negronis.
- Amaro – Owing to the huge Italian population in Toronto, the LCBO is well represented with Italian bitters. My favourite is Amaro Nonino, which I drink on its own after dinner, but use Amaro di Montenegro or Meletti most often when called for in recipes. I also stock Braulio directly from Italy, Ciocaro from the US, Fernet Branca, Lucarno, Averna, Del Capo and Ramazzotti (which apparently was just delisted from the LCBO).
- Absinthe – When I first started into cocktail culture, I began with an obsessive interest in absinthe. I bought a fountain, glasses, spoons and many different brands. I’ve since backed off a bit, partially because my wife dislikes even a trace of anisette flavour in her drinks, and partially because of its 70% alcohol content. That said, I still love the magic and mystique of the louche. There’s a definite appeal drinking something that was outlawed the world over until only a few years ago. I use Pernod’s Absinthe for cocktails but it is no longer available at the LCBO. I’ve found they tend to change what is available often. Currently it is Lucide, Hill’s and La Fee Parisienne. My feeling is to stick with the original products, which are not available at the LCBO. Vieux Pontarlier, Duplais and Kubler from Switzerland are incredible, and available at the SAQ in Quebec or in the US.
- Curaçao – I own several bottles of this amazing liqueur made from bitter orange but two stand out, Senior Curaçao from the actual island of Curaçao and the Pierre Ferrand product now available at the LCBO. Like everything they do, it’s unique in a good way. Several bartenders I know have found many uses for it in drinks that would have normally called for triple sec.
- Falernum – John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum is unbelievable stuff, and a little goes a long way. Dale DeGroff in his Essential Cocktail book seems to call for it in every recipe so I can’t imagine doing without. It is essentially an alcoholic syrup with the flavours of almond, ginger, clove, lime and allspice added. BYOB in Toronto sells a nonalcoholic version made by Fee Brothers out of Rochester, NY.
- Cynar – This artichoke based Italian bitter is magic. I first tried it as a teenager on a trip to Switzerland and declared it the worst thing I’d ever had in my mouth up to that point in my life. I’ve changed my tune since, and now regularly use it in cocktails. Type Cynar into the search field at www.cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com for about twenty incredible cocktail recipes.
- Pimm’s #1 – The first of what totaled six cups, Pimm’s is essentially gin with added juice, herbs and botanicals. Only the sixth, based on vodka, is also still made in limited quantities. Pimm’s Winter Cup, of which I own a bottle, is based on the brandy cup #3 and is only seasonally produced. Essential in the classic and incredible Pimm’s Cup, this spirit/liqueur is actually called for in quite a few other drinks.
- Amer Picon – The original Amer Picon digestif is no longer in production and apparently it’s current version is nothing like the original. I picked up a bottle in Tokyo but haven’t yet had the time to compare it to the recipe described below as it’s up at my cottage and it won’t be open until May. Torani, the manufacturer of coffee syrups, makes a great alcoholic version, but, as per usual, we can’t get it in Canada. The remake is not widely available outside of France. That said, I make my own following Jamie Boudreau’s online recipe for Amer Boudreau at SpiritsandCocktails.com using ingredients bought at Herbie’s Herbs on Queen Street in Toronto.
- Creme de Violette – It is really a travesty that the LCBO does not carry Creme de Violette. Before buying it in the US, I made my own with Monin violet syrup I bought at a coffee supply centre, vodka, maraschino and dried violet flowers. I still use it, but now own Rothman’s Creme de Violette I got in the US and the superlative Benoit Serres product I found at TheDrinkShop.com in England. The Aviation was probably the first cocktail I really fell for, so Creme de Violette is still one of my favourite liqueurs.
- Creme de Cacao – The LCBO stocks both the McGuiness product and a version from Bols out of Holland but, hands down, the best product comes from the Swiss distiller Tempus Fugit. It is now available in the US but don’t hold your breath for it ever to be available in Ontario. Godiva makes a chocolate liqueur but it’s a totally different product.
- Creme de Menthe – The LCBO carries both the green and clear McGuiness products but good recipes rarely call for the coloured version. The Stinger stands as one of my all-time favourite cocktails. So simple but so incredible. Once again, Tempus Fugit makes the most incredible and natural creme de menthe on the planet. I love it so much I squirrel away extra bottles in the fear it will one day disappear. It’s not as minty as the others, but better for it. Also, it’s worth mentioning that Peppermint Schnapps cannot be used in place of Creme de Menthe. They contain very different concentrations of sugar and alcohol.
- Ginger – The LCBO usually stocks Domaine de Canton Ginger at the bigger stores and in the Vintages section. At times you will also find King’s Ginger out of England, which I prefer. There are other ginger liqueur’s on the market but none are available in Ontario. Ginger liqueur, while quite incredible, tends to dominate cocktails and therefore must be used sparingly.
- Sloe Gin – I am a giant sloe gin fan, which is made by macerating sloe (also known as Hawthorn berries) in gin and adding sugar. I currently have a batch brewing and will add an update when it’s ready. Because sloe berries, available at Herbie’s Herbs, are so expensive, it is cheaper to buy it ready made. Plymouth makes an amazing product, as does The Bitter Truth and Gordon’s, but I would steer clear of the sickly sweet McGuiness product available at the LCBO. Recently the LCBO has also started stocking Hayman’s Sloe Gin, which is excellent. Try it in a Blackthorn English and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.
- Elderflower – St. Germain Elderflower from France is now pretty easy to find at the bigger LCBO stores. Chase from England also makes a nice product that is sometimes available in Ontario. Dave Mitton from The Harbord Room called this product the “bartender’s cheat”, which I think is a reference to its subtle sweetness and ability to make any cocktail taste okay.
- Swedish Punsch – This ancient rum-based liqueur has been resurrected of late by brands such as Kronan out of Sweden. It is amazing stuff, but only available in the US.
- Pastis – Pernod and Ricard are widely available at the LCBO, this anise-flavoured liqueur can be used in place of absinthe when called for. That said, all anisettes (Arak, Ouzo, Pastis, Raki, Absinthe, Sambuca) dominate like no other liqueur and must be used with caution.
- Pear – Mathilde Poire, which is totally incredible, is often available at the LCBO. Rothman & Winter also make a superlative Creme de Poire.
- Peach – The only decent peach liqueur available at the LCBO right now is an Israeli product made by Binyamina. Peach schnapps, as you’ve probably gathered by now, won’t cut it. At some point, hopefully, they will start carrying the Mathilde product. Rothman & Winter make an incredible Creme de Peche.
- Yellow Chartreuse – More floral and subtle than the green version, this is a fantastic liqueur and available sporadically at LCBO Vintages. Though unreasonably expensive in Ontario, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles when you see it. My general understanding is that the two are interchangeable in most cocktail recipes, depending on your flavour goals. Chartreuse also makes an elixir that I keep in a locked cabinet mostly to make me believe it is treasure. My favourite chartreuse-based cocktail is The Last Word.
- Heering Cherry – Until recently this amazing liqueur was unavailable at the LCBO. It’s here now but if it doesn’t sell well, I’m afraid it won’t stick around. Like Benedictine, I wouldn’t even consider making a Singapore Sling without it. All natural and unchanged for hundreds of years, it puts to shame the neon pink products offered by McGuinness.
- Mandarine Napoleon – I bought this at the SAQ in Quebec where they have an amazing inventory of French products. It’s incredible, and could conceivably be used in place of Cointreau, Triple Sec or even Curacao.
- Rose – There are only old recipes from the Savoy that call for Rose liqueur, which I believe until recently had been out of production for decades. That said, I think it is phenomenal, and am strongly drawn to floral flavoured drinks. I own the Miclo product from France, which arrived in a stunning bottle with painted glass. Nonalcoholic rose syrup available at high end food stores is another way to introduce the flavour into a cocktail. Infusing gin with food grade rose petals works too.
- Pama Pomegranate – This is a really beautiful product from the US that I use almost exclusively for Cosmopolitans. I haven’t explored much with it, but imagine it would work well in other drinks. Widely available at the LCBO.
- Branca Menta – I bought this amazing mint version of the famous Italian bitter in the US, but you can also find it in BC at Legacy Liquors in Vancouver as well.
- Southern Comfort – This orangish American mainstay is called for in the odd cocktail. I think I got drunk on it as a teenager, which is probably why it took me so long to pick up a bottle. Widely available at the LCBO.
- Apple – The LCBO currently stocks Apfelkorn from Germany but I don’t know if it will be around forever. Regularly called for in the PDT cocktail book, buy it while it lasts.
- Vanilla – Galliano is a vanilla-based cocktail from Italy but Navan was my go to vanilla liqueur until Grand Marnier stopped production. The two liqueurs are very different and cannot be used interchangeably.
- Grand Marnier – This orange-flavoured cognac is surprisingly absent from most cocktail recipes. I like it, despite being sickeningly sweet. Widely available at the LCBO.
- Belle de Brillet – Belle de Brillet is produced from infusing Brillet cognac with the essence of twenty pounds of pears per 750ml bottle. Probably not something you want to try at home. I have only ever used this in one PDT cocktail but it’s a really nice product that is sporadically available at LCBO Vintages.
- Becherovka – This spicy liqueur from the Czech Republic is incredible served ice cold out of the freezer. I have recently stumbled upon some great cocktail recipes for the product online. The cinnamon and clove notes provide an incredible depth to certain drinks. It is available at the bigger LCBO stores.
- Creole Shrubb – Another magical product from Rhum Clement, this rum-based orange liqueur was introduced to me while working through the PDT cocktail book. I’ve since become a big fan. It is available in BC and through Cask in California.
- Creme de Cassis – This blackberry flavoured liquor is available at the LCBO. I barely ever use it and don’t usually enjoy cocktails that call for it. For that reason I stock the smallest bottle possible and have had mine for about three decades.
- Creme de Banane – Marie Brizard makes a very nice version of this product but it is now discontinued at the LCBO. I previously shunned this liquor as low brow but recently have come to really enjoy it in certain cocktails. Look for the Bols product at the LCBO.
- Drambuie – I’ve only used this scotch and honey based liqueur a few times in cocktails. It obviously was made famous as part of a Rusty Nail. It is available at the LCBO and is one of the few liqueurs that is great on its own over ice.
- Honey Liqueur – The LCBO stocks Barenjager out of Germany and it is beautiful product. I’ve also seen Krupnik in the bigger stores.
- Kummel – I was shocked when this caraway flavoured German liquor showed up in the LCBO. Though it’s incredibly dominant, there are several old recipes calling for it from the Savoy that I really like.
- Licor 43 – This Spanish liqueur is made with the essence of, ready, forty-three different botanicals. I’ve used a few times.
- Strega – Strega is a fantastic Italian bitter that can really bring a cocktail alive. I don’t know why more cocktails aren’t made with it. Stocked at the largest LCBO stores.
- Suze – This gentian-based aperitif is a real beauty and something I would recommend everyone try to get their hands on. When I first started in cocktails the SAQ in Quebec was the only place in North America carrying it. Now it seems to be also available at the big online stores in the US. I will drink this straight on ice I love it so much. Salers is a backup option but Suze is a superior product.
- Nocino – Considering the size of the Italian population in Toronto, I’m surprised the LCBO doesn’t carry any of the many walnut liquors available. I bought mine in Italy but you can get the Nocino Russo product in BC. Several of the PDT recipes call for this beautiful product. In a pinch, you could probably use the hazelnut flavoured Frangelico in its place. I recently discovered the Nux Alpina Walnut liqueur from Haus Alpenz and, like everything they do, it is pretty phenomenal.
- Allspice – To be honest, despite several genuine attempts, I really don’t like allspice dram in cocktails. That said, I own it and it is called for in drinks like Navy Grog so I thought I should list it here. Also known as pimento dram, it is not available at the LCBO, and difficult to find in the US.
- Creme Yvette – This resurrected violet-based liqueur is available through the LCBO’s Vintages. It is called for in drinks like the Blue Moon but it is ridiculously expensive in Ontario. I prefer Creme de Violette.
- Parfait Amour – I own this because the bottle was beautiful but have never used it in a cocktail. It’s to purple as Blue Curaçao is to blue, in other words, food colouring.
- Amaretto – I tend to associate (probably unfairly) this almond-based liqueur with cheese ball bars (Amaretto Sour anyone?). That said, one of my favourite Frankie Solarik cocktails, aptly named The Almond, calls for Amaretto and it is required for the great summer Mai Tai. I stock the half bottle because I use it so infrequently. A fair number of people are revolted by the almond/marzipan/orgeat/amaretto flavour.
- Choya 23 Umeshu Liqueur – This liqueur sat on my shelf for a few years until I discovered the incredible Hideriboshi Cocktail from Kazuo Uyeda’s amazing book. It’s subtle and not overly sweet and might be one of the only liqueurs I now drink on its own over ice. I now own several higher end umeshus which, to be honest, are better.
- Mathilde Framboise – This highly regarded liqueur is normally available at the LCBO and is quite beautiful.
Other Liqueurs I Own: Leila Carob, Xaica Hibiscus, Kenyan Gold Coffee, Godiva White Chocolate, Frangelico, Leroux Peach, Fragoli Strawberry, Frangelico, Okanagan Spirits Sea Buckthorn, Agwa Guarana, Mekhong Thai Whiskey, Southern Comfort, Sortilege Quebec Whiskey Maple, Bailey’s, Ramazotti Black Sambuca, Pages Verveine Velay, Minaki Blueberry, Thatcher’s Cucumber, Zwack Unicum, Riga Black Balsam, Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse, Mephisto Absinthe, Taboo Absinthe and Pimm’s Winter Cup, and many more not listed.
Simple syrup is made by mixing sugar and water with a bit of heat on the stove or, if you’re really patient, by stirring it for an hour at room temperature (I’m not that patient). Most recipes assume a 1:1 ratio of the two, but 2:1 is common and I’ve also worked with 1/2:1. It is obviously imperative to be aware of the proper ration for a given cocktail. It’s easy to see how using twice or half the correct amount of sugar in a syrup will totally alter the composition of the cocktail. Most cocktail books, such as the PDT, will state the ratio at the outset.
From simple syrup, the sky is the limit. One can pretty much add anything into the sugar water mix at the time of heating to create fascinating flavours for cocktails. Common syrup flavours include cinnamon, mint, vanilla bean, black pepper, honey (substitute honey for sugar), demerara sugar simple syrup, caramelized sugar simple syrup, tobacco (use a shredded cigar), clove, rosemary, etc. It’s literally endless and incredibly simple, literally. I keep squirt bottles around and only ever make small batches as syrups don’t really last that long. Adding a bit of vodka and refrigeration extends longevity.
I make my own Grenadine with pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, orange peel and orange flower water. See the recipes section. I keep it in mason jars with vodka. It tastes so much better than the store bought stuff. There are lots of recipes online as well.
I also recently acquired a bottle of the Rhum Clement Sirop de Canne made from sugarcane and gently spiced with cinnamon and clove. To be honest, I can’t really taste the spices; they’re that gentle. This makes a nice substitute for simple syrup, if you can find it.
Freshly prepared (ideally) fruit juice is a flavourful way to add sweet to a cocktail. Fresh orange juice is probably most common, but I use pineapple a lot as well. Tropical drinks call for a myriad of juices that are normally only available in specialty shops (Chinatown). If you can’t press your own, be careful to select products that are 100% juice and ideally contain only the fruit in need. Ceres out of South Africa makes a wide range of great products that are available in most regular grocery stores but be mindful how much white grape juice they’ve added in lieu of the fruit you’re seeking.
If you’re a fan of the Bloody Mary or the far superior Canadian version, Bloody Caesar, you will also need either tomato juice or Mott’s Clamato juice. It’s not really sweet, but I’ve lumped it in here anyway.
I guess this is really juice once it all gets mashed up at the bottom of a mixing vessel. Obviously fruit, in any form, can be used to sweeten a cocktail.
Jam and other similar preserves might be my favourite way to sweeten a cocktail. For some reason, preserved fruit makes a drink come alive in a way that fresh fruit or juice cannot. I try to use the Bonne Maman products wherever possible. Check out the recipe for The Real Lady Marmalade in the Cocktails section for a great usage of jam as a sweetener.
Straight sugar is almost never used in cocktails because it doesn’t mix well. That said, a properly made Old Fashioned, the holiest of all fireside cocktails in my mind, begins with a sugar cube (Taikoo Demerara cubes, ideally). The Sazerac and Caipirinha are two others that come to mind. Honey is also normally mixed into a syrup rather than being added straight to a drink. It too doesn’t mix well in cold liquids.
As most people know, maple syrup mixes beautifully with whiskey, and can be used instead of simple syrup (at the correct ratio) in cocktails made with this base spirit. Living in Canada, ground zero for maple syrup, it is readily available and more affordable than in many countries. I’ve not really used it with other spirits but imagine it would also go nicely with a dark rum like El Dorado 12.