Simple Syrup Vs. Agave Nectar: Which Is Best For Your Cocktail?

Tis the season for clinking cocktails and soon, raising a glass to a brand new year. With holiday parties galore and festivities around every corner, you might find yourself stocking (and restocking) the bar a bit more often over the winter season. From bright bubbly champagne toasts to festive red cranberry cocktails and cozy cinnamon cider drinks, one of the staples you'll need for holiday cocktails — aside from your favorite booze of course — is the sweet stuff. Many drinks on traditional bar menus call for simple syrup, the staple sweetener of choice for so many classics from an old fashioned to a margarita. But for those looking to mix it up, agave nectar is a popular alternative. You might even have it in your pantry as we speak. 

The distinction between simple syrup and agave nectar is clear on a surface level — one's a concoction, the other a plant-based natural substance. But the difference between the two can be less clear when it comes to using them in drinks, as it seems like both might work equally well when tossed in a cocktail shaker. However, they're not quite interchangeable. The main difference (aside from the health profile) comes down to flavor. Simple syrup has a mild flavor and blends right into just about anything, while agave will leave a more noticeable caramelly, heavier taste. This rounds out some drinks beautifully but some may find it overpowering in lighter, clear-liquor-based drinks. Compare and contrast and let your tastebuds be the judge. 

Agave is heavier in flavor but more convenient

Both sweeteners get the job done and blend easily into a chilled drink, unlike plain sugar or honey. While there are differences in health benefits, if your main deciding factor is taste, this comes down to personal opinion. Some may find the heavier flavor of agave too much with some liquors, and others may find it works with just about anything. Agave typically blends beautifully with tequila for the sweetness in a simple homemade margarita. Similarly, try mixing up a fresh, zingy grapefruit paloma with agave. For delicate drinks like a French 75, mix in simple syrup with your gin, champagne, and lemon juice. Classics like old fashioneds or sours are typically made with simple syrup, but nothing is stopping you from throwing yourself a boozy taste test to see which you prefer in those whisky-based cocktails.

When it comes to cocktail hour, sometimes convenience is key, especially when drinks are spontaneous, answering a craving or serving a friend who dropped by. If this is the case, simple syrup may not be an option. Making it is as easy as combining sugar and water on the stovetop but it requires some forethought and time to cool. When happy hour calls, one major benefit of agave nectar is that it's always ready to pour. Just remember to reduce the amount you use since agave is more concentrated and sweeter — just a spoonful of it makes the cocktail go down very easily. Cheers!