For health reasons that I won’t bore you with, the Dean household has been on a dietary journey that has taken us through low-carb, keto, and paleo, all of which share an aversion to sugar. Sadly, sugar is a fundamental ingredient in a great many cocktails. Being strict on sugar will take a lot of traditional cocktails off the table. Now, I’m not going to take that lying down, so I have rolled up my sleeves and done the hard work of testing many low- or no-sugar cocktail recipes. Strictly for scientific purposes, of course.
Fruit juice: Lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange juice have between maybe one gram (lemons and limes) to 2.5 grams (orange juice) of sugar per ounce . There is no substitute for fruit juice, and so we just take the (small) sugar hit on fruit juice.
Liqueurs: Some liqueurs are sweet, but good luck finding the sugar content for them. If you are seriously avoiding sugar, I think more than a small dose (1/3 of an ounce?) of sweet liqueur like Grand Marnier, Drambuie or Amaretto is going to deliver more sugar than you want. This presents a particular problem for this margarita fan, as orange liqueurs are pretty damn sweet and I don’t think you can make a margarita without a decent dose.
Soft Drinks: Sadly, my real sugar Mexican Cokes are verboten, as are full-sugar soft drinks of any kind. The good news is, there are some pretty damn good sugarless or low(ish) sugar soft drinks out there. The Zevia branded cola isn’t bad at all, but for sugar-free colas we prefer the Blue Sky cola. For ginger beer, we have found that the sugar-free Cock and Bull is excellent. There doesn’t seem to be a sugar-free tonic water, but the Q Tonic Light is an excellent low-sugar option, but still delivers 8 grams of sugar.
Sweeteners: Sugar and simple syrup are right out, which leaves you with the myriad of substitutes, none of which are entirely satisfactory. In our experience, stevia drops are the best substitute for a keto cocktail; you’ll have to experiment to find the right level for you, but we settled on about 1 – 2 drops per ounce of drink (liquor, mixers, and all), with an extra splash of water. If the cocktail has lemon or lime, you might want a drop or two more stevia to offset the sour fruit juice.
You have some options if you are willing to tolerate some sugar but want a low-glycemic sweetener. Honey and agave nectar aren’t on that list, despite the claim of some sellers that agave nectar is low-glycemic. Agave nectar is basically the same as honey, as near as I can tell. Warning: there are a number of alternative sweeteners out there, some of which you may not like the taste of, and some of which your digestive tract may object to. Be prepared to do some experimentation.
The two low-glycemic sweeteners that seem to work the best are yacon syrup and Dolcedi, an apple-derived sweetener. The Dolcedi is clear, has a very clean taste, and comes close to the right mouthfeel. Yacon syrup is dark, has more of a molasses flavor, and also has a good mouthfeel. These are spendy, but the good news is you should be able to use around half as much, give or take, compared to simple syrup.
We have noticed something else, as well: Since really cutting down on sugar, a lot, we are “resensitized” to sweet flavors – it takes less sweetener for things to taste sweet enough/not too sweet.
With this in hand, you should be able to take a fair amount of sugar out of your cocktails. Probably the highest-sugar cocktail still on our menu is Margaritas (made with tequila, Salerno, lime juice, and yacon syrup or Dolcedi).
But what’s an R C Dean post without a cocktail recipe or two?
Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned
Your typical old-fashioned has a dose of simple syrup (often one part simple syrup to two parts booze). This recipe is kind of cheating, because it relies on home barrel-aged rye to provide the sweetness.
- 3 oz. Barrel-Aged Bulleit Rye
- 6 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 3 dashes Fee’s Aztec Chocolate Bitters
Stir, pour over rocks.
A variation on this, if for some reason you don’t have any barrel-aged Bulleit rye on hand, is to add 1/3 oz of maple syrup. Which kinda blows the strict keto thing (you’re looking at 5 – 6 grams of sugar), but the maple flavor blends right in with the rest. And, of course, sweetens the drink. There are some low-glycemic maple syrup substitutes, but we weren’t all that impressed. You can also dose with the Dolcedi or yacon syrup if you need a little more sweetener
Keto Whiskey Sour
This is pretty much a straight substitution of stevia drops for simple syrup. The result is not as sweet and a little drier than a classic whiskey sour. Using stevia, there seems to be a limit; its fine to a point, and then, one drop too many makes it taste kinda weird.
- 3 oz. rye (or whatever your whiskey of choice is)
- 1 ¼ oz. lemon juice
- Splash of water
- 5 – 8 drops stevia
Shake over ice, pour over rocks. Again, if stevia isn’t your bag, you can try to the Dolcedi or yacon syrup.