February 24th, 2017/ BY Silvana Lau

7 guilt-free tips to reducing the sugar – not the flavour – in your cocktails

Too soon? Is it too soon to be invited to a cocktail party just five days into my New Year’s resolution? It’s the first week of January, and most of us probably spent the week banishing bacon from our diet and digging out our running shoes from the pile of empty wine bottles in the recycling bin (what happened to the left shoe?). Ah yes, the New Year. The time to put diet and fitness goals into focus. Salads and going to bed early may get me that flat stomach, but why bother if can’t even show it off? What’s a girl to do if she wants to balance a healthy lifestyle with an exciting social life?

I suppose I have a few options: a) stick to my guns and decline the invite (tell my friends that I have to bathe the cat … I don’t even own a cat, or that I have to find that missing left shoe); b) accept the invite (with a side order of guilt) and commit to sipping on only vodka sodas all night; c) accept the invite. Chuck the “annual contract with myself” out the window and enjoy the free-flowing libations! There’s always next year. Or perhaps I’ll choose the most sensible option: d) accept the invite with no guilt. Drink less, but drink better. I will be smart and rethink my liquor choices and promise myself to steer clear of sugary alcoholic drinks to avoid Hangover-ville.

We’ve all been there before; a Margarita here, a few Negronis there, and a pounding headache the next morning because your sugar and calorie levels are through the roof — and you haven’t even had your Fruit Loops yet! From the white sugar in a Mojito, to the brown sugar in a hot buttered rum, to sugar cubes soaked in bitters in a Champagne cocktail, the sweet stuff is the most-used ingredient in many mixed drinks (and we haven’t even included the mixers yet).

While there are many uses and varieties of sugar, chemically speaking, each is a manifestation of the same beast: sucrose. Sucrose encompasses both fructose and glucose. Cocktails containing mixers and sweeteners (fruit juice, soda, agave syrup and honey) that are high in fructose are concerning. Unlike glucose, which can be used up by virtually every cell in the body, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver. Fructose is broken down in the same way as ethanol alcohol and, therefore, places double stress on the liver when consuming high-fructose drinks. This can lead to a host of nasty things including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, liver failure, tooth decay, and a host of other problems. Fructose is like alcohol without the buzz. Simply put, that Old Fashioned you are sipping on (albeit delicious) is making your liver work overtime.

There are reasons why we like sugar so much. We have been in love with this stuff from the time we lived in caves (no, not those caves). Evolutionarily speaking, foods that are sweet tend to be comforting and safe. This would explain why when I was (barely) of legal age, the Fuzzy Navel and Sex on the Beach were all the rage. Who wouldn’t want to quaff back a few of these sexual innuendo cocktails that sounded so fun and whimsical? Newbie drinkers (myself included) didn’t want to taste the alcohol in their cocktails. Instead, they wanted to drown in a thickness of sugary liqueurs and sickly sweet juices. These ‘90s cocktails had one common flavour profile: cloying sweetness (thankfully, my taste buds have matured!).

Fast forward to today’s world of cocktails, where everything old is new and trendy again.

From vintage glassware, to fun confectionary flavours (bubble gum cocktail anyone?), to the comeback of bitters, and even the role of the bartender.
Once upon a time, there was a mustache-less bartender, and nobody noticed him, he just got everyone beers and he didn’t know a damn thing about Chartreuse (tsk tsk!). The renaissance of the classic cocktail has led to a whole new generation of bartenders — often called bar chefs and mixologists — making their own sodas, bitters and infusions.



The guise of the bar patron has evolved as well. People are becoming more aware of what they put in their mouths. Consumers are following the footsteps of the artisanal food revolution, demanding cocktails made from quality spirits, fresh-squeezed juices, and local and seasonal ingredients. They are interested not only in how long their grass fed rib eye steak has been aged, but also how long their bourbon was aged before making a Paper Plane cocktail. These days, an emphasis on provenance and authenticity of the cocktail is at the forefront for discerning drinkers.

Moreover, we live in a very health conscious time. “In 1806, the first printed definition of a cocktail consisted of a distilled spirit, sugar, and a bitter. Sugar was considered a luxury item, so people did not consume it in high quantities. This pales in comparison to today’s time. People have no clue about sugar content; we are eating way too many hidden sugars found in processed foods. We have only ever been raised on calorie count and fat but not sugar. The awareness curve hasn’t even begun yet,” explains 20-year veteran cocktail trainer and consultant, Michelle Hunt from Toronto’s The Martini Club. It may taste sweet, but given the amount of bad press sugar has been getting in the news, it is leaving a sour taste in our collective mouth.

“Syrups, liqueurs, fruit juice and soft drinks all spell high sugar and out of whack blood sugars,” my Type 1 diabetic friend, Tod, explains to me (as we knock back a few sips of Mount Gay Rum Black Barrel). While it’s been great to see the innovation and talents of the bartenders’ eclectic new takes on classic tipples, health conscious individuals and diabetics can’t exactly indulge.

The quest for healthier boozing can be a tough field to navigate. Sure, you could always order a vodka soda (yawn). The cocktail equivalent of rice cakes, this “cocktail” has no added sweetener in the drink, but it can be hazardous to your health anyway. You could fall asleep while drinking it because it is soooooo boring (plus, by definition, it’s not even classified as a “real” cocktail). This can lead to choking and even death, pretty much guaranteeing you won’t get an invite to any future parties.

While some drinks may cause you to choke and others may cause you to bounce off the walls, sugar is a necessary evil in the cocktail world. For a well-made cocktail, it is unrealistic to remove sugar from the equation. Sugar isn’t solely used as flavouring, but it is used as a weapon to temper bitterness and acidity. “The biggest challenge to mixing a drink is finding an equilibrium between each ingredient to maintain a balance of flavour. To achieve a harmonized drink, there does need to be a sweet element,” says Claire Smith-Warner, head of spirit creation at Belvedere Vodka.

As co-creator of The Drink, Eat, Live program, Smith-Warner advocates mindful drinking. She has created a range of low-fructose, low-alcohol cocktails (combining Belvedere Vodka with an impressive list of superfood ingredients such as kale, coconut water and matcha) with the intention of striking a balance between being good to your body and imbibing on a cocktail or two. Rather than a feast or famine approach, Smith-Warner doesn’t demonize the powdered white stuff (sugar, that is), but believes that “sugar is an essential ingredient in cocktails, and when consumed responsibly, it is nice to have as a treat.”

For those in a search of the libation lift without the sugar high, there is life beyond the lifeless vodka soda. Here are seven tips that can make cocktails both delicious and rejuvenating, without loading the drink with a mouthful of sugar. Cheers!



#1 bye bye to sugary mixers

This is obvious. Ditch the high-fructose corn syrups found in soft drinks and fruit juices. Ditto for anything “skinny” or “diet” in the name. Ugh! Please. Don’t. Ever. Buy. These. The ingredient list in these products is inevitably long, indecipherable, and full of garbage. Bottom line: garbage in, garbage out. Using better ingredients (whole fruits, coconut water, fresh herbs, etc.) means you need less sugar/sugary stuff to balance out the cocktail

#2 don’t juice. blend!

Freshly squeezed juice may be healthier than concentrated juice mix, but blending fruits, rather than juicing them, is a superior method when it comes to reducing glycemic index spikes. The process of juicing extracts the liquid out of the fruits, leaving behind the pulp, fibre and all the vitamins and antioxidants along with it. Blending, on the other hand, pulverizes the whole fruit into a smoothie complete with fibre and all the nutrients. A glass of pulp-free orange juice is nothing but a fructose overload for your liver. It has the same amount of sugar as a can of soda (yikes!). “At Belvedere, we minimize the use of fruit juices and prefer blending fruit which maintains the fructose and fiber bond, helping the body remove the fructose,” Smith-Warner explains.
Those with diabetes should opt for fruits that are lower in sugars. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and citrus fruits like lemon, lime and grapefruit all fall into this category.

#3 not all sweeteners are created equal

When playing bartender at home, make your own syrups so that you can control the amount of sugar being added. The following common “alternative” sweeteners have their up and down sides.

Agave: Although derived from the same plant that produces tequila, after intense processing and refining of the agave plant, it is just another deadly processed sugar replacement. Gimmicky marketing has resulted in a surging popularity of agave among diabetics and the health conscious crowd who believe they are doing their health a favour by avoiding refined sugars and dangerous artificial sweeteners. Sure, agave syrup does have a fairly low glycemic index. So does Windex, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. You are better off having a shot of tequila straight. “We never use or recommend agave, which has up to 95 percent fructose,” advises Smith-Warner.

Rice malt syrup: A natural sweetener that is made from fermented cooked rice. It is a slow releasing sugar that is fructose free, so it doesn’t put pressure on the liver as much as pure glucose. A little goes a long way, as you need only a tiny amount to achieve sweetness. Make sure the ingredients contain only rice and water. Some brands add extra fructose-containing sugars.

Honey: Although it does contain fructose, many people swarm to honey for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Honey also has fewer calories than refined sugar. Swap out your simple syrup at cocktail hour for honey syrup. Spice up your honey syrup by adding cinnamon, clove, ginger or hot chili when dissolving equal parts raw honey into water.
Grade A maple syrup: Despite having a similar glycemic index as sugar, a true Grade A organic maple syrup is all natural and a source of several nutrients including calcium and zinc. Add a bit of Canadiana to your Old Fashioned, or just about anything made with bourbon or dark rum by using maple syrup instead of sugar. To make a maple simple syrup, combine equal parts of water and maple syrup until it has completely dissolved.

Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin: These artificial sweeteners should remain in the science laboratory and kept out of your cocktail glass, methinks.

#4 swap out bitters for tinctures

The salt and pepper of the cocktail world, bitters and tinctures have been changing cocktails and recipes one drop at a time. As we all know by now, bitters are the latest craze due to classical cocktails making a major comeback (if you didn’t know that, stop reading and go to any respectable bar and order a Sazerac).

Bitters are low-alcoholic concoctions flavoured with many things that you might not eat outright. Herbs, spices, barks, rinds, peels, garlic, eye of newt, tongue of bat, and dried fruit. All (OK, most) can all be placed in a jar with high-proof alcohol, and then infused for weeks. It is the go-to bottle when you want to “spice up” your cocktail, as it adds nuance to your drink, ties the diverse flavours together, and finishes it with some lovely aromatics.

But what are tinctures? Often confused with bitters, tinctures are less complex. They focus on one ingredient as opposed to an herbal blend. In essence, tinctures are bitters without the bitter element. A tincture is used when you want a subtle trace or hint of a single flavour. When you want to add intensity or complexity to the drink, bitters are used as they contain many different ingredients.

In a well-balanced cocktail, there is unity among every element, and no single flavour dominates the other. Sugars are necessary for a cocktail to balance out the bitters. If you want to make the cocktail less sweet, try replacing the bitters in the drink with tinctures flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cacao and liquorice. For example, take a concoction that uses chocolate bitters and swap the bitters with a cacao nib tincture. In this case, you wouldn’t have to add as much sugar to the drink for it to still be aromatic and delicious.

#5 tweak the sweet/sour ratio

Drink that damn cocktail, will you! But, be mindful of it. Savour it; really appreciate and acknowledge it for what it is. Like most things in life, moderation is key, not deprivation. Smith-Warner recognizes that enjoying a well-made cocktail is part of the social fabric of life. “Today we are aware of the harmful effects of overindulgence, not just from alcohol, but from sugar and artificial flavours, and Belvedere wants to show that there are ways to drink ‘better’ when armed with just a little bit knowledge,” she explains. Rather than using sugar substitutes and alternatives, Smith-Warner recommends actively reducing the amount of simple syrup and liqueurs in the cocktail by reformulating the cocktail recipe. Here is an example for a simple sour recipe:

Standard Recipe
  • 50ml Spirit
  • 25ml Sweet
  • 25ml Sour
Alternative Recipe (reduces sugar by 33%)
  • 50ml Spirit
  • 15ml Sweet
  • 15ml Sour

Smith-Warner further notes, “there is physically 10 ml less liquid syrup in the glass, which in reality is minimal, and will be practically unnoticeable. The resulting cocktail will still be well balanced and delicious (most important!).” Finally, a realistic and achievable option that will allow you to have your cocktail and drink it, too!

#6 find creative ways to flavour cocktails with minimal calories

Herbs, spices, and flavoured salts can enhance flavours to the base spirits. At your next cocktail party try:

  • Mashing fresh thyme into a gin and tonic
  • Stirring a sprig of fresh rosemary into your vodka martini
  • Crushing a couple of fresh cardamom pods into a drink and shaking it up for an instant South Asian cocktail.

#7 give tea time a whole new meaning

These humble little pouches can work their magic infusing spirits and syrups with floral, fruity and herbal flavours. Bonus, depending on the tea, you won’t need as much sugar when making tea-based simple syrups. The spicy flavours of chai and the smoky and sweet flavours of rooibos teas can also increase the perception of sweetness.




the belvedere spritz

Recipe provided by Belvedere Vodka

1 1/2 oz Belvedere Vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
2 grapefruit slices
1 sprig of thyme
Fever Tree Tonic water
Sparkling water

Combine Belvedere, Lillet Blanc and grapefruit slices in a spritz glass, filled with ice. Top with half Fever Tree Tonic and sparkling water. Garnish with thyme.

tod’s cocktail

Although this cocktail doesn’t “fit” the low sugar bill because of the bitter/sweet herbal liqueur Chartreuse, there are no added sugars in this cocktail. Tod, this one is for you, ‘cause even diabetics have to live!

3/4 oz Green Chartreuse
1 heavy dash Angostura Bitters
4 oz Brut Champagne
1 orange peel twist

In a flute, combine Chartreuse and bitters. Stir gently. Top the flute with Champagne. Garnish with an orange peel twist.

fig and cardamom martini

2 1/2 oz fig and cardamom infused vodka (see recipe below)
1/4 oz dry vermouth
1 fresh fig sliced

Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with fig slices.

fig and cardamom infused vodka

1 l vodka
350 g dried mission figs
2 tbsp cardamom pods, crushed
2 pods vanilla beans

Mix all the ingredients in a non-reactive glass or ceramic vessel. Let sit and infuse for at least 48 hours. Strain the vodka. Don’t throw out the infused figs, they make delicious snacks!



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