As we all know, sugar seems to be the motivating factor behind the majority of modern cocktail menu's. If you walk into a standard, college oriented, bar and ask for "something special" you will usually get some sort of dessert like drink, served in a martini glass. Along with that, I'd say that 98% of restaurants treat cocktails as something that needs to be served sweet. Obviously, the main culprit is sucrose and / or high fructose corn syrup. If you are keen to the idea that a cocktail is more than just something to satiate a sweet tooth, then working with alternative sweeteners, like birch and agave syrups, might be something to look into.
Sweetness in drinks is something you cannot escape. It is present, at some level, in almost every drink, be it beer, wine or cocktails. The trick is to keep it in balance and have it contribute, if possible, to the flavour of the drink. Beer and wine do this exceptionally well. With cocktails we usually have to work with table sugar (simple syrup) or liqueurs heavily fortified with glucose/fructose. These sugars work perfectly fine if you just want to add sweetness, but they don’t contribute much in the way of flavour.
Since the talent pool in the bartending world is growing rapidly, the idea of using sweetening agents that contribute flavour to a cocktail is also growing. One of the most common, new world, sweeteners is maple syrup. I find maple syrup a bit hard to work with, since the flavour is so unique, and strong, it will usually be front and center in a cocktail. There are alternatives to this though.
Maple syrup is a Canadian tradition, Quebec alone produces 80% of the worlds supply. The word in my family is that if we end up in a comma, please substitute intravenous maple syrup for the standard glucose drip. But there is a lesser know tree sap sweetener, which is from the birch tree, and it makes for a very interesting sugar substitute.
To make birch syrup, you need about twice as much sap as compared to maple syrup. It takes 80 to 100 liters of birch sap to make 1 litre of birch syrup. So this makes it relatively expensive. Currently, a 250ml (1 cup) bottle of Boreal Birch Syrup costs about $27.00. But what you get will go a long way since the syrup has a lot of flavour.
The birch syrup is very dark brown and resembles molasses. The aroma is unique and sweet like molasses, but has overtones of coffee and burnt caramel. Very complex and appealing.
Flavor-wise it is really hard to describe. It starts off sweet and bright with a slight sour note and flavours of dark caramel. There are some woody notes and no bitterness. There is almost a tingling sensation on your tongue when you try it straight. You could actually drink this stuff straight and not be put off by the sweetness. The finish is really, really long.
Overall, I really like the Birch Syrup. It is very complex flavour-wise and would really work with a lot of brown spirits. Think rum and bourbon. To test this theory I mixed up 1oz of Appleton Master Blenders Legacy rum with two teaspoons of Birch Syrup and a dash, or two, of Angostura bitters. Mixed in a glass with four large ice cubes. It really works well.
Why use the expensive rum you ask? Well, the Appleton has really strong wood notes, so I figured they would be able to stand up to the birch syrup, which it does.
It can be hard to find unique sweetening agents, but they are around. Using them can broaden your cocktail horizons without purchasing additional spirits. If you like to experiment, I highly recommend trying birch syrup, if you can find it. It is sweet without being bland and one dimensional. The trick to using it though is to keep your new creations simple.
Survival Tip: If you are ever stranded in the woods of northern Canada in the spring, you can eat the birch tree. Simply peel away the paper like bark and pull threads of the wood. It will look like angel hair pasta. Boil this in the smallest amount of water possible and you’ll have an almost decent tasting meal. The sugars in the wood will provide some energy, plus it has lots of fiber! Mmmmm fiber.