06. June 2013 · Comments Off on On the Joys and Frustrations of Cold Summer Drinks · Categories: Food, Ingredients

Photo by Flickr user KJGarbuttOh, the blessing of a cold, cold drink in a sweaty glass on a baking, steamy Mid-Atlantic summer’s day. Iced teas glisten in the sunlight. Cold coffee offers up a chilly mid-day kick. You load in enough sugar to get the flavor you want. Then you get to the bottom of your drink, and disaster strikes. Look out – here comes a sickening sweet mouthful of gritty, half-dissolved sugar. It is the penance that you pay for the pleasure that came before.

We used to have this problem around here. Between my wife and I, we rarely agree on the degree of sweetening for beverages. Things I like with less sugar, she likes with more, and vice-versa. So, especially for drinks like iced tea, I have generally taken to making them unsweetened and letting the drinker modify to his or her own tastes. Hence the bottom of the glass swimming in sugar crystals.

Of course, for some drinks, they start hot and are iced later. Coffee, for instance. However, cold-extraction can produce a better beverage and you’re right back to the problem of granulated sugar not dissolving in cold liquids. Bartenders used to get around this by using castor sugar – an extremely finely powdered sugar without the added starch of confectioner’s sugar. The only problem – it clumps without that starch keeping the granules separate. In a humid environment, you’ll end up with a sugar brick in no time.

The alternative is liquid sweeteners. Let’s take a look at a few and see where they would work well.


Honey is probably the first thing you think of when you want something pourable and sweet. It conjures thoughts of hot tea and lemon. And since honey brings along its own flavors, it’s with tea that it seems to work best. Iced green tea, especially those that are fruit- or floral-scented, goes with a clover or orange blossom honey wonderfully. For tart herbal fruit teas, try darker honeys such as wildflower or tupelo.

In making cocktails, whiskey pairs very nicely with honey. The famed Scottish liqueur Drambuie is made with Scotch whisky, herbs, and honey, and many other cordials use it as their sweetener as well. A simple example would entail 2 oz. of rye whiskey, a 1/4 oz. of light honey, and a dash or two of orange bitters stirred over ice. Topped up with branch water or club soda, and served with an orange zest twist.

Keep in mind that honey is an extremely concentrated syrup, so it may still take some vigorous mixing in ice-cold drinks, but it still won’t leave the sandy sludge in the glass.


In drinks, molasses is not that prominent a sweetener. However, if only once I would suggest making yourself an iced Cafe Creole. Stir 8 oz of strong black coffee with 1/2 oz (1 tbsp) of light, unsulfured molasses over ice.

Agave Nectar

The trendiest of the liquid sugars, this syrup comes from the same type of large succulent plant that gives us tequila. In this case, instead of fermenting the juice of the roasted and pulverized agave piƱa and distilling it, it’s boiled into an amber syrup and bottled. Originally a health-food-store alternative to honey for vegan eaters, it’s achieved a cult status as an erstwhile “healthy” sweetener. Even though fructose is fructose, the one thing that agave nectar does have going for it is a slightly caramelized flavor. As such, it mixes well with coffee and black teas.

Simple Syrup

Here we come to the most readily accessible liquid sweetener, that you won’t have to leave the house to go buy at the store. It’s the secret of every bartender out there. It’s neutral in flavor, almost as sweet as granulated sugar, and mixes instantly and transparently into any cold liquid.

Simple syrup is essentially a lot of sugar dissolved into a small amount of water. Basically, just enough water to keep it from re-crystallizing.

To make simple syrup, combine two parts sugar to one part water in a saucepan over low-medium heat. Stir frequently until all of the sugar is dissolved. Do not let the syrup come to a boil. When sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and let cool until at a safe enough temperature to pour into a clear plastic kitchen squeeze bottle. You will end up with slightly more syrup by volume than the volume of sugar used to make it.

Use simple syrup anywhere you would have used plain table sugar previously, and enjoy just the right amount of sweetness in crystal-clear non-gritty form.

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