One of the defining characteristics of liqueurs is sweetness -often a LOT of sweetness. Of course, not all sweeteners are created equal. This post is a quick primer on most of the natural sweeters that can be used to make liqueurs (or cocktails, for that matter). Part one will introduce the main players.
This post is not about any of the artificial sweeteners including saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, or sucralose. None of them really taste like sugar to me and I have no plans to use any of them in our products. I am also leaving out stevia. Although this is a natural product derived from plants, I think it has a bitter metallic taste and won't use it either.
Okay, so where does that leave us? There are still a number of choices and more subtle variations within them. Carbohydrate chemistry is a fascinating discipline (to me), but I will keep the core sugar discussion to three compounds: glucose, fructose, and sucrose.
Glucose is probably the most abundant sugar on earth. Our bodies and cells literally run on glucose and most of the plant world is made up of one of two glucose polymers (strings-of-glucose). One is starch (amylose) and the other is cellulose (wood fiber). Either of these can be turned into glucose using enzymes, but most food products come from native glucose or starch. Glucose has a moderate simple sweetness about 70% of sucrose (table sugar, which we will get to in a mintue).
Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar in many fruits. One of its best features is that it is 10-40% sweeter than table sugar, depending on concentration. This feature is why high-fructose corn syrup exists. You take corn syrup (glucose), treat it with an enzyme, and "voila", you have a 50/50 mixture of glucose and fructose which is worth more money because it has greater sweetening power. Fructose is metabolized a little differently in our bodies and diets high in this sugar have correlated with obesity. Whether this is due to a quicker conversion to fat or just a cornerstone of too many empty calories is not clear yet.
So I have mentioned table sugar a couple times. Chemically, it is sucrose, a two sugar molecule (called a dimer) that is composed of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule.
Here is your one and only equation:
Sucrose is a naturally occurring sugar comes primarily from two sources: sugar cane and sugar beets. Cane is grown in the tropics and beets are mostly grown in temperate climates. I will confess up front that I have become a "sugar cane snob" when it comes to sugar. Taste is king. We'll get more into that in Part II where we look at the various mixtures and versions of these three building blocks that are commercially available.