A big reason sugar makes a cocktail taste better: It covers up or distracts from ingredient flaws or imbalances. If you play with flavor and balance your cocktails a little better, you can significantly reduce the sugar excess since you're no longer using it as a "problem-solver."
Good technique indicates proper dilution: Spirits are made to be "watered down," with mixers/lighter ingredients and with water/melted ice. Adding water actually increases the aromatics significantly—trust me: it's science—so when people complain about "watering their whiskey," they don't know a thing about whiskey. In addition to better flavor balance, appropriate dilution tames the burn and shock of ethanol, for less urge to hide that burn behind sugar.
Bitterness excites the palate and makes sweet flavors stand out. Explore adding bitter liqueurs and ingredients to make other ingredients seem more sweet and balanced in contrast. The American palate is woefully afraid of bitter flavors, yet I'm deeply committed to encouraging everyone to develop an interest in bitterness—you'll be shocked to find how much it lessens sugar cravings.
If you use sweetness in a drink, find something with complimentary flavors to the spirit, encouraging you to use less. Complicated, interesting liqueurs can add a rounded, rich profile and create a more "complete-tasting" drink without simple, flavorless sugar. Complex sugars such as varietal honeys, caramel and jaggery are used more sparingly than white sugar and simple syrup, giving the effect desired as you reduce overall sugar content.
Experiment with better-quality spirits and explore new flavors with your local bartenders. And when you're at wits end, try a different recipe. You'll find it easy to reduce your sugar and still cocktail like a pro.
I've been making this riff on a Manhattan since I discovered the spicy, powerful Fernet Branca. Bitter and intense on its own, in a cocktail like this smoky herbal notes shine and make the cocktail seem more chocolatey than it is ...
2 oz. Bourbon
.75 oz. Carpano Antica Vermouth
.5 oz. Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao
.5 oz. Fernet Branca
3 dashes Chocolate Bitters
Twist of orange, to garnish
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir well for a full 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick-and-Nora glass and throw another log on the fireplace.
The perfume-y character of the liqueurs tricks the brain into thinking this dry, clean cocktail is much sweeter than reality. Using a sugarless fruit spirit is a great way to maintain the illusion of fruitiness without sugar.
1.5 oz. Pear brandy (make sure it's a pure spirit, not a sweetened liqueur)
1 oz. Fino sherry
.25 oz. DiSaronno Amaretto
1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir well for a full 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick-and-Nora glass and garnish with a lemon twist or a sprig of rosemary.
Culinary educator, food writer, sommelier, chef, gentleman adventurer: Torrence O'Haire creates rich experiences and richer meals, exploring every side of hospitality. Through writing, consulting, events design and media he shares culinary inspiration and education, and encourages finding more passionate living through gustatory enrichment. Follow him at bacchanology.com or instagram.com/bacchanology.