Bad cocktails do not exist. However, cocktails that require a bit of attention exist.
As the moniker goes, don’t try this at home; here, we’ll say the opposite is true—do it at home and not the bar.
Mixing cocktails, whether at the bar or at home, is a balancing act: the sharpness of some spirits needs to be toned down by some sweetness or other times, enhanced by a bitter ingredient. And sometimes we get it wrong with our mixology attempts at home…
How do you fix an over-sweet cocktail, or even how do you make a drink less sweet?
Sweetness in cocktails is to balance our sour or bitter ingredients. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a drink that tastes like liquified sugarcane.
But, sometimes accidents happen, and you add too much syrup or too much of a sweet liqueur to your cocktail and need to bring it back from the brink of sugar death.
Enter our top 5 selections for making drinks less sweet:
- Bitters to counteract the sweetness;
- Lemon or lime juice will balance overly sweet flavors;
- Citric and malic acid is both a replacement for lemon/lime juice and a way to balance cocktails;
- Bitter liqueurs—a few drops can bring down sweetness quickly;
- Thinning a cocktail down with seltzer or tonic water.
First, we’ll look at some sweet drinks and cocktails that deserve a place on every bar’s menu—some people like them or even drink them rather than eating a dessert after a meal. Next, we consider the role of sweetness in drinks and how it balances other overwhelming alcoholic or bitter flavors. Finally, we’ll look at the top 5 ways to balance a drink or make it less sweet.
Sweet Drinks Have a Place in the Bar
Some drinks are designed to be sweet and easy to drink. Think along the lines of Coca-Cola Original with rum regarding soft drinks, Pusser’s Rum’s trademarked cocktail, The Painkiller, and the classic Pina Colada.
Novices in the cocktail world also mostly prefer sweet cocktails because they are easier to drink. Other times, we serve sweet cocktails as desserts (which we love!).
The Role of Sweetness in Drinks
If there’s one thing bartenders despise is when a patron prescribes to them, “don’t make it too sweet.” You should never say this to a bartender. Ever.
Here are the reasons some drinks have a sweet element to them:
- Calories: The sugar in your cocktail is not delivering the calories, but the alcohol is. The simple syrup added to your cocktail makes it more palatable, and you don’t have to drink strong, raw spirits that you don’t even enjoy. If you are trying to keep your calorie intake under control, sweet cocktails are a big no-no. However, options such as the Manhattan, dry Martini, or the Whisky Highball will still deliver a good alcoholic kick without added calories or sweetness.
- The balance: Creating a cocktail is all about balance. When you have a bitter or acidic element, you’ll need to balance it with a sweet element. Lime juice in your Margarita without the orange liqueur will taste like sour tequila, and the same goes for the tequila. The orange liqueur brings balance to the ingredients and produces a drinkable cocktail.
- The taste: A cocktail without the sweet element for balance will taste terrible. Please, do not ask your bartender to leave the sugar out of your cocktail. You will end up with a tart-tasting cocktail with a sharp liquor taste. And you’re going to run to your friends or social media to give a bad review for something that wasn’t your bartender’s fault.
Making Drinks Less Sweet
Sometimes mistakes slip in, and you read the recipe wrong while preparing a new cocktail at home. This can happen without realizing it.
When you sit down, you get surprised when your cocktail is overpoweringly sweet. Now, what to do?
We’ll look at ways you can bring your cocktails and drinks back from the brink of over-sweetness below.
One of the quickest fixes is bitters. You have probably heard of the main brands such as Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Bittermens.
The name says it all—it adds a bitter element to your cocktail. But what do they do?
Bartenders sometimes refer to bitters as the salt-and-pepper of the cocktail world and help to align flavors in your drink and accentuate certain flavors.
For an over-sweet cocktail, start with a drop or two of bitters to tame the sugariness. Be careful and add a drop at a time; otherwise, you might spoil your cocktail again and make it too bitter.
Or, maybe you made a cup of coffee and doubled your sugar, well, it is early in the morning, and no human should be functioning without coffee first thing in the morning. A drop or two of bitters can help balance the sweetness from the sugar and milk or cream.
Traditionally, Peychaud’s or Angostura is best. Be daring and try Fee Brothers’ Aztec Chocolate bitters for an added hint of chocolate.
2. Add Lemon or Lime Juice
Here you need to be careful if you use dairy-based liqueurs because they can curdle. The purpose of citrus is to balance opposing flavors in a cocktail, i.e., the sweetness.
Again, the key is to go drop by drop. Add a few drops of fresh lemon or lime juice to your cocktail and taste.
Still too sweet—add a few more drops until you reach the desired balance between sweet and sour.
3. Add Acid
Careful here. We’re not talking about any kind of acid, definitely not the kind you’d put in a swimming pool… We’re only talking about citric and malic acid. If you are going through huge amounts of lemons and limes, substitute these with citric acid and malic acid.
The simplest way to temper an over-sweet cocktail is with a 10% citric acid solution: dissolve 10 grams of food-grade citric acid powder into 100 grams of water, whisk or stir well to dissolve the powder, and allow everything to be thoroughly mixed.
Add your citric solution to the cocktail with a dropper until you reach the desired balance.
4. Add More Alcohol
Using bitter alcohols such as dry vermouth, amaretto, and bitter red liqueurs may all be the base for some of the most well-known dry (i.e., not sweet) cocktails.
Their bitterness can also add bitterness to your cocktails, bring some balance, and temper the sweetness.
5. Add Water
This should probably be the last resort, but adding a few drops of seltzer or tonic water can bring down the sweetness in a drink.
The magic ingredient in tonic water is quinine which gives it its signature bitterness. A few drops of tonic water might just be the thing you need to kick the sweetness back to enjoyable levels.
As much as both sweet and bitter have a place on a bar’s menu, it also has a role to play in drinks and cocktails. Accidents can happen, and you may add too much of a sweet ingredient to a drink.
Instead of throwing your drink out, try our top 5 ways to bring it back from the verge of a sweetness overload and make it enjoyable and balanced again.