Sugar and the Novice Bartender

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Sugar is a wonderful thing in the world of cocktails. Sugar and bitters are the barman’s equivalent of the chef’s salt and pepper. But just as novice chefs overuse these master spices, the novice bartender will manage to ruin a perfectly good cocktail.

Sugar can make a drink taste, well, more like itself. A mojito made without sugar will taste like a mess. Add a cube of sugar and suddenly the flavors show themselves, swirling about the different sections of the tongue like a symphony. Add too much sugar and the drink has become a syrupy-sweet Sno-Cone, where no flavors are discernible. At this point, the drink has been ruined and there’s nothing that can be done to revive it.

Sugar can be used in another way, and it’s here that you can really separate the amateurs from the professionals. It’s one thing that can make or break a bartender: the Sugared Rim.


Sugaring the rim of a glass is essentially a garnish. Just as a wedge of lime will be added to the rim of a glass for adjusting the tartness of the cocktail, the sugared rim is used as a way of adjusting the sweetness of the drink. In fact, a perfect rim is one that is only sugared halfway – it gives the imbiber an option.

This rule falls to shit when someone hands you a mixture of pineapple juice, vanilla schapps, raspberry vodka and cream – with a sugared rim.

  • B-52 with a sugared rim? Dumb.
  • Cadillac Margarita with a sugared rim? No way, José.
  • Half-and-half Rose’s lime gin gimlet with a vanilla-bean infused sugar rim? I’m getting diabetes just thinking about it.

Now think of the Sidecar: tart, bracing and strong, it’s possibly the world’s perfect cocktail. The balance of sweet and sour is nearly perfect, but a lemon wedge perfectly balanced on a neatly sugared rim makes for the perfect set of accoutrements.

So the next time you’re about to shell out perfectly good money for a dessert drink with a sugared rim, ask yourself the question your bartender most likely failed to ponder: why am I doing this?

2 Replies to “Sugar and the Novice Bartender”

  • jack says:

    There’s a really small bar here in Chicago – Matchbox – the name gives you an idea of how small it is! They make a fantastic Vodka Gimlet with Powdered Sugar and fresh squeezeed Lime Juice. I was sceptical at first, being a huge fan of the VG, but it really is great. If you are happen to be in Chicago, check it out!


  • scott in the LBC says:

    Hey Jeff–I’m surprised this post is over a year old and has no comments. I’m sure it’s not because nobody out there has ever come across the problem you discussed. For a cocktail to be its best, all the little things (glass, ice, liquids, preparation, garnish) have to be done correctly. One could look to the proverbial ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’. A few sugar-based questions:
    1) What do you do to teach your novice bartenders the rules of garnish? 2) Do you care much about the type of sugar? That is, do you think there’s much difference between inexpensive processed sugar and more expensive organic sugar? 3) Have you ever used turbinado sugar for any particular drink; and if not, can you think of one it might be particularly suited for (either as part of a simple syrup or a garnish)? I hope so: I have a lot of leftover turbinado right now!
    I have a few other questions, but this is plenty long already. I hope this finds you and you get a chance to reply.

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