If you haven’t noticed, sugar is a common crutch in cocktails, thanks to an overreliance on simple syrups—aka sugar water. But these days, bartenders across the country are dropping the sweeteners, in part to cut calories but mainly to focus on more natural, nuanced flavors.
“When you take out the one ingredient that’s like crack for our palates,” says Yana Volfson, beverage director at New York’s Alta bar, “we’re forced to find flavor in other ways.” Volfson and fellow bartenders find those flavors by pairing ingredients that play well together, like using amaro to draw out vanilla and spice notes in whiskeys, or teasing out subtle fruit and herbaceous notes by combining different styles of vermouth with gin, mezcal, or pisco.
Here are three to try now. (Recipes pictured clockwise from bottom left.)
1. Fez Medina
From Ky Belk, Edible Beats restaurant group, Denver
- 1 1⁄2 oz rye whiskey, like Old Overholt Bonded Straight
- 3⁄4 oz CioCiaro amaro
- 1⁄2 oz Aperol
- 3 dashes Strongwater Riza bitters or Peychaud’s bitters
- Lemon twist
- Dehydrated lemon wheel
Directions: Combine all ingredients except lemon wheel in a mixing glass with ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a double old-fashioned glass with a large ice cube. (And if you want to get extra fancy, cedar smoke the glass first.*) Garnish with lemon wheel.
*Burn a spot on a cedar grilling plank and invert the glass over the smoldering ember, allowing smoke to fill glass while making the drink.
2. Intro to Durango
From Yana Volfson, Alta, New York
- 1 1⁄4 oz mezcal, like Origen Raiz
- 3⁄4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1⁄2 oz Giffard white crème de cacao
- 1 pinch hoja santa (a popular herb in Mexico) or fresh tarragon
Directions: Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Double strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with extra hoja santa or tarragon.
3. Bad Blood
From Allison Hinson, Iberian Pig, Decatur, Georgia
- 1 oz gin
- 1 oz Aperol
- 1 oz blood orange puree, like Perfect Puree concentrate
- 4 dashes vanilla and clove tincture
- 1 star anise
Directions: Combine gin, Aperol, orange puree, and tincture in a shaker with ice and shake well. Double strain into a Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with star anise.