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Chris Amirault

Sugar, Brix, and Sweetness in Spirits

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I admit that I get pretty confused fast when I try to sort out the relationship between added sugar, brix, and perceived sweetness in spirits (which makes reading the sweetness in cocktail topic a bit tricky). Eric's post about Old Tom gin got me thinking even more about this.

Can someone school me on the basics -- as they apply to spirits, not, say, wine? Definition of fundamentals would help.

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To add to Chris's question, is there a simple way to measure the sugar in a commercial product? Is a refractometer required? Presumably a hydrometer is insufficient, since the alcohol will mess up the density... or is there an easy calculation you can do, since the alcohol content is listed on the front of the bottle?

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To add to Chris's question, is there a simple way to measure the sugar in a commercial product? Is a refractometer required? Presumably a hydrometer is insufficient, since the alcohol will mess up the density... or is there an easy calculation you can do, since the alcohol content is listed on the front of the bottle?

a refractometer won't work because they are only calibrated for water solutions so the presence of alcohol throws them off. but every bar should have a refractometer! i'm sick of tasting sloppy homemade syrups with wacky sugar contents!

a hydrometer works well (or better yet, a set of narrow range hydrometers) but you need two charts to decode the reading you get. one chart will tell you the influence of the alcohol printed on label and the second will convert the adjusted gravity to an easy to interpret grams / liter.

i have the method summed up on my blog in a few posts.

advanced sugar management basics…

advanced emotional content basics (liqueurs!)

the second link has lots of data on products.

the limits of the measuring technique are that you cannot find measures less than 30 g/l. so you are not going to get precise measures on old tom gin or that grappa, pisco or cognac that you think they rounded out with a few grams of sugar. it can do wonders for understanding liqueurs, especially orange liqueurs.

the chart i link to for finding the impact of the alcohol on specific gravity is not the best and has has no data for solutions under 20% alcohol. the best chart is in the reprint of Irving Hirsch "manufacture of whiskey, brandy, and cordials"

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I feel bad, bostonapothecary, for not responding to your post sooner. Thank you for that information! It sounds like it's certainly possible to do what I want, which is figure out the sugar content of M&R bianco vermouth. I've been thinking of taking another shot at a bianco vermouth sorbet, and knowing the sugar content should certainly help. In his book Frozen Desserts, Francisco Migoya says that a dessert sorbet should be between 25 and 32 degrees Brix; I imagine I'd want to be at the lower end, since the alcohol is also going to suppress the freezing point. Certainly having more information will make it easier to formulate something systematically. As soon as I have the time to do it...


Edited by mkayahara (log)

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I've been thinking of taking another shot at a bianco vermouth sorbet, and knowing the sugar content should certainly help.

I know this isn't quite what you're looking for, but I thought I'd share it here. Dolin Bland and strawberries are a match made in Heaven, and I've made an absolutely fantastic strawberry sorbet using Dolin Blanc as a base:

2 pints strawberries

1 cup Dolin Blanc

1 cup superfine sugar

2-3 tablespoons lime juice

Throw everything into the blender, puree until smooth, chill, then process in your ice cream maker. It's that easy, and the best strawberry sorbet you'll ever have, and a lovely texture. If you don't have superfine sugar on hand, put the sugar into the blender first, and pulse a few times until it's reduced to a fine powder. Then add the rest of the ingredients and proceed as above.

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Dolin Bland ...

As a frequent "typo-grapher" myself, sometimes you just have to laugh....

Ha! I wish this was a candidate for Damn You Autocorrect!, but sadly it was my own lazy typing.

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I feel bad, bostonapothecary, for not responding to your post sooner. Thank you for that information! It sounds like it's certainly possible to do what I want, which is figure out the sugar content of M&R bianco vermouth. I've been thinking of taking another shot at a bianco vermouth sorbet, and knowing the sugar content should certainly help. In his book Frozen Desserts, Francisco Migoya says that a dessert sorbet should be between 25 and 32 degrees Brix; I imagine I'd want to be at the lower end, since the alcohol is also going to suppress the freezing point. Certainly having more information will make it easier to formulate something systematically. As soon as I have the time to do it...

another way to look at 25 and 32 brix is 275 - 363 grams per liter of sucrose. bianco vermouth probably has between 160 - 175 g/l

though these ranges aren't good guidelines until they also state how much acid contrasts the sweetness. 363 g/l sounds cloyingly sweet without an intense amount of acid.

another thing to consider (if you want to exploit every variable possible) is the "sweettart" phenomenon. as sugar and acid increase (greater tension), so too does extract (dissolved aroma) or the result will taste hollow like a sweettart brand candy. this is something that dessert wine makers worry about; the trifecta.

extremes of temperature do distract us from paying attention to gustation of which sugar content is a part, but i wonder by how much.

years ago a pastry chef i worked with made a breathtaking bianco vermouth-bergamot orange sorbet for the james beard house. and recently i just had a stunning sorbet of a flavor i can't remember served with dolin bianco as an accompanyment which was a lot of fun.

keep us posted on your results.

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I admit that I get pretty confused fast when I try to sort out the relationship between added sugar, brix, and perceived sweetness in spirits (which makes reading the sweetness in cocktail topic a bit tricky). Eric's post about Old Tom gin got me thinking even more about this.

Can someone school me on the basics -- as they apply to spirits, not, say, wine? Definition of fundamentals would help.

Ahh, my line of work.

A refractometer measures dissolved sugar in solution. Although there are formulas for correcting for the presence of alcohol, it's best to just say that refractometers only work with sugar dissolved in water. This is measured in Brix/Plato -- both are a measure of dissolved solids. Brix is technically dissolved sucrose and Plato is any dissolved solids. In reality, they're interchangable. (Note, Plato is "PLAH-Tow" not "PLAY-Tow".)

A hydrometer measures the specific gravity of a solution (typically at 4 degrees Celsius. Distilled water has a SG of 1.00. Pure ethanol has a SG of 0.789. If you know the amount of alcohol and the specific gravity, you can work out how much residual solids (usually sugar) is left in the liquor.

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Bah, too late to edit. Work interfered (making a LOT of stout this week).

So, let's say you have a gin that you know to be 40% alcohol.

40% of 0.789 (pure ethanol) is 0.316. And 60% of 1.000 (distilled water) is 0.600.

So, a hydrometer reading of the gin would read 0.916 -- if it only had ethanol and distilled water. Anything above 0.916 is residual solids in the liquor -- most likely sugar, but not necessarily. For instance, with absinthe there is plenty of sugar, but also herb and spice extracts. That increases the specific gravity, but it isn't ALL sugar.

Having an accurate hydrometer that is scaled to the specific gravities that interest you is key. Knowing the temperature with certainty is also very important. There are conversion scales. But it is easier to use a 68f hydrometer at 68f.

In my beer-making world, I use a hydrometer that reads from 0.990 to 1.120. I'm buying another that reads from 0.990 to 1.080 -- because that's the ballfield I normally play in. I also use a refractometer and a CO2 meter regularly. My next purchase will be a dissolved O2 meter -- but those are very expensive. If I was a distiller, I'd use a hydrometer that went from 0.780 to 1.010 -- that's a good range for alcohols.

For home bar use, I'd go with an a hydrometer scaled for distilled spirits and another "beer and wine" hydrometer for concocting. Refractometers are great for making syrups. But a hydrometer will do the same job and costs less. (But a refractometer won't break into 1,000 pieces if you drop it six inches.) Your call. Either way, you can get the job done right for about sixty bucks.

Let me know if you need more info, I can talk about specific gravity all day long....

EDIT -- A fun thing to do with a refractometer is to measure the Plato of various sodas, grenadine syrup, tonic water, margarita mix and such.


Edited by ScoopKW (log)

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