Ask a Bartender: Why Do Some Cocktails Have Sugar Rims?

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Rimming a cocktail has become almost synonymous with the flaky salt lining the glasses of tangy cocktails like Margaritas and the aptly named Salty Dog. In these drinks, a salt rim complements the sweet and acidic flavors of fresh citrus, further balancing the cocktail.

But not all drinks pair well with a glass rim coated in salt. In fact, some are best rimmed with crunchy granulated sugar. To learn more about why some cocktails are better suited for a confectionary rim, VinePair chatted with head bartender of NYC’s Nothing Really Matters cocktail bar, Cyllan Hicks.

Much like salt on the rim of a glass, sugar is used as much for presentation as it is for seasoning the drink inside. For cocktails that have especially tart or dry flavor profiles, Hicks explains, a sugar rim incorporates a slight but much-needed sweetness. “The sugar adds another layer to the drink and helps better the balance of the cocktail’s ingredients,” he says.

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A sugared rim can also enhance the body of a cocktail and the overall sipping experience. “To the palate, it can add complexity by giving a particular mouthfeel and when used as a garnish, varying colors can give the cocktail a nice visual appeal,” Hicks says

When it comes to choosing which drinks best fit the bill for a candied rim, Hicks looks to citrus content. “There are a few classic cocktails that can handle a sugar rim, such as the Sidecar and the Lemon Drop Martini, thanks to the use of lemon juice in the ingredients,” he says. Lemons and other citrus fruits have tart and sweet undernotes, the latter of which are enhanced by a touch of sugar. For this reason, sugar rims tend to be most used when lemon juice is present in the cocktail.

Keeping balance in mind, it’s important not to go overboard during the application process. Hicks suggests first using a lemon or lime to coat the glass and either a granulated or finely concentrated sugar to rim only half of the glass. This way, you can enjoy the cocktail without overloading your taste buds with cloying sweetness. “You may not always know the preference of the drinker,” he says, “so by adding sugar to only half of the rim, you give them the option to choose.”