What Is Monk Fruit, And Why Is It in My Booze?
Cocktails and beer now have a no-cal sweetener. Here's our review.
While low-ABV and alcohol-free are buzzwords in the booze industry for 2019, a real healthy drinking renaissance might come from a no-calorie sugar substitute that effectively solves most of the issues that plague artificial sweeteners.
It’s called monk fruit, and while it’s been a staple of health food stores for a while, it’s finally making its way into cocktails and beer.
Earlier this year, Dogfish Head released a lo-cal, monk fruit-infused beer called Slightly Mighty that had the usual hop character you’d expect from an IPA, but at just 95 calories. More recently, a monk fruit, simple syrup substitute called Swoon hit the market, originally targeted at bartenders but certainly applicable across the boozy- and non-boozy drinks spectrum.
A quick overview: Monk fruit (also known as luo han guo) is a sub-tropical melon that has been cultivated in China and Thailand for centuries. It’s 100 percent natural, recognized as safe by the FDA and it’s 150+ times sweeter than sugar. It may even have anti-inflammatory properties.
Most importantly, it has a taste profile that’s far superior to Stevia and other sugar substitutes.
“We landed on monk fruit for a few different reasons,” explains Swoon co-founder Cristina Ros Blankfein. “The all-natural part, and — compared to other natural, zero sugar sweeteners — it has a neutral flavor and it didn’t contain sugar alcohols, which aren’t absorbed as well by our bodies and can result in stomach aches and pains.” (Swoon is the first liquid monk fruit sweetener that doesn’t contain sugar alcohols.)
“For [Slightly Mighty], it was really difficult to find the right balance of big hop character and malty sweetness and body,” says Mark Safarik, Brewmaster at Dogfish Head. “Sam [Calagione, founder] happened upon monk fruit during a trip to the grocery store. We did a ton of research, a bunch of test brews and Slightly Mighty was born.”
Swoon was actually borne out of necessity. Blankfein’s co-founder, Jennifer Ross, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes as a child. “I always looked at nutrition labels to find things that were delicious, natural but don’t raise my blood sugar,” explains Ross. “After we met in business school, Cristina and I decided to find a way to eliminate sugar from cocktails, which is how [zero-calorie cocktail mixer] Be Mixed was born. After getting cocktails down, we felt like it was time to expand our takedown to coffees, teas and lemonades.” Which led to a mixable, liquid sugar substitute.
Monk fruit has already provided a few unexpected advantages for each company. The creators of Swoon were able to create a product with a viscosity that more closely resembled sugar. And with beer “it creates a fuller taste profile that makes it drink more like a full-calorie beer,” says Safarik.
While monk fruit has proven easy to work with and it’ll certainly cut down on the 82 grams of added sugar per day the average person consumes (and that’s before boozing), a widespread adaptation of the sugar substitute really comes down to taste. So, a review:
We tried Slightly Mighty earlier this year and we agree that Dogfish Head has managed to create something “hop-forward, citrusy and tropical,” as they were attempting. The beer didn’t taste “watery” and it certainly didn’t come across as artificial. Granted, yours truly isn’t a huge IPA fan, but I enjoyed it as much — and perhaps a bit more — than the usual hoppy brew.
After that, we sampled Swoon in iced coffee, a pre-packaged lemonade and in two cocktails at Thomas Keller’s TAK Room. In the non-alcoholic drinks, it’s a home run; the taste was imperceptible from a sugar-based simple syrup, it dissolved easily and everything was sweet, delicious and lacked any sort of bitterness, a common trait in non-sugar sweeteners.
In the cocktails? They were adequate. We had a tequila with lime and grapefruit twist (recipe below) and an “Orange Caipiroska” (vodka, lime, Swoon, orange slices); in a lack of time, we skipped a strawberry mocktail. In the boozy drinks, we found a slight lingering aftertaste that reminded us a bit of Sweet’N Low (in the finish, not the taste).
The cocktails themselves were certainly approachable, if not complex. To be fair, both co-founders admitted Swoon isn’t going to replace a bartender’s homemade Demerara syrup — that said, you can find it in pretty elevated places like Eleven Madison Park and Bluestone Lane, so the chance that some mixologist is gonna hit on a great cocktail using Swoon is pretty high.
You can order SWOON here.
Regal Tequila Shake
By Tim Fitzgerald, head bartender at TAK Room
Half dollar size grapefruit twist in shaker tin
1 oz lime juice
3/4 oz Swoon
2 ozs Casa Dragones Blanco Tequila
Combine all ingredients in the shaker and shake well. Pour into a glass and serve up with garnish, if desired.