To agave or not to agave

‘YOU KNOW WHAT you should do?” a man I had never seen before asked me, unsolicited I might add.

“What’s that?” I said, looking around at the milling Wednesday night crowd that indicates a bar doing well.

“You should use agave nectar in your margaritas.”

“We have agave nectar if you want it.”

“No,” he said. “You should use it in your house margaritas, it makes them better and it’s all natural too.”


He then looked at me, as if I was supposed to do something.


“Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to do something about it?”

Sometimes customers think their requests are law. I once watched a grocery store clerk get chewed out because a customer said he wanted his favorite product “right there” on the shelf.

Now, I have studied the science of cocktails for many years — it being germane to my job. I obviously know that cocktails need sweetness. It is the balance of sweet and sour that makes cocktails work. But what kind of sweetener?

I routinely make simple syrup and have even endeavored to make gum syrup, that mysterious ingredient in many turn-of-the-last-century cocktails that involves the elusive gum Arabic, which is very hard to find. And I have noticed over the years that bottled products often use short cuts or preservatives. Simple syrup by definition is, well, simple. It is equal parts water to sugar brought to a boil and cooled.

Simple, right? But read the back of bottled products and you will sometimes see lactic acid, salt, other preservatives or even high-fructose corn syrup along with the other ingredients.

Since I know of no one making his or her own agave nectar, I naturally lump it in with all the other bottled products.

Here are five reasons I don’t use agave nectar:

• All natural sounds great. But I remember a childhood saying, “God made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt.” God also made arsenic (if you believe in supernatural intervention), and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to ingest much of that. If the end result isn’t very good for you than being all natural isn’t really going to help.

• Agave nectar isn’t even all natural.

It is highly refined high-fructose cactus syrup. Why does that sound familiar? Because high-fructose corn syrup is on everybody’s watch list right now. Granted, agave is actually a succulent, not a cactus, but still I suggest that high-fructose succulent syrup belongs there, too. Many experts agree that agave nectar acts the same on the human body as HFCS. So arguments about terminology are really missing the point. Your body doesn’t know the difference so who cares about the semantics. And because of its high-fructose index, some agave nectar is actually worse than HFCS.

• Nectar sounds so good, like something that just runs off of a plant. According to the dictionary, nectar is “the drink of the Greek and Roman gods; something delicious to drink; a beverage of fruit juice and pulp; or a sweet liquid that is secreted by the nectaries of a plant and is the chief raw material of honey.” None of which really fits highly refined agave nectar, the production of which involves pulverizing the heart of the plant, cooking it or processing it with enzymes until it results in high levels of fructose. Twice as sweet as normal table sugar sometimes.

• As for margaritas, premium tequila producers spend a lot of time getting their product to have the perfect balance of agave flavor. It is that very flavoring that makes the different brands of Blanco tequila so different. Unlike vodkas, which are only marginally different, tequila varies quite a bit in flavor. Adding agave nectar to a top shelf margarita is akin to adding industrial “meat flavoring” to your dry aged, ultra-premium Kobe beef ribeye steak. Just a huge waste.

• Not all agave nectars are the same. Some are made using organic practices, but many are not. Some are merely HFCS with agave flavoring added. So unless you actually read the ingredients on the bottle, I would be very careful when ordering anything including it.

All of which is just a fancy way of showing that the customer is not always right. Especially when he is very, very wrong.