DIY flavored sugar cubes (these aren't the sugar cubes you're looking for)

DIY flavored sugar cubes tested from Small Company ArtworksI'm as guilty as the next person. Maybe more than most, even, since making things is what I do. But when it comes to "Make all the things!" I'm a sucker for sugar and cocktails. Here's what happened when I combined sugar and cocktails, in the widely-blogged-about DIY flavored sugar cubes.

All this started because I wanted to have a dessert party to celebrate, well, okay just to have a party. I thought I'd be super-clever and have a champagne bar with choose-your-own adventure cocktails. Pour some champagne in your glass, pick a flavored sugar cube, and drink!

Clever on ideation, less clever on implementation.

Ingredients for DIY sugar cubes

diy flavored sugar cubes, tested

First off, you're going to have to buy some stuff for this project. I'll tell you that upfront, so you might want to check out the prices of store-bought, flavored sugar cubes before you dive in. Just sayin'.

  • Superfine sugar. You can either buy this in the baking aisle, or pulse regular granulated sugar in your food processor until it's superfine, however you know that. Not having a food processor or patience, I bought the stuff.
  • Flavorings. You can use rose water, almond extract, bitters... the sky's the limit. But let's be honest: I'm all about cocktails. So I picked Angostura bitters, orange bitters, Peychaud's bitters, and Benedictine. Yes, the latter is not a bitters-type liquid. But I was curious how it would work out. That's about how crazy I get in my experiments.
  • Molds or cutters. I bought a silicone ice cube tray especially for this project. It creates the cutest, tiniest cubes you can imagine. Too tiny, as it turns out, so pay attention to size when you're buying.

step-by-step, in pictures

The process is almost too easy. First, measure some sugar into a bowl - I started with 1/8 cup just to see how many cubes this would give me (answer: not many). Then add a the flavoring of your choice, and maybe a little water (more on that below).

Actually, the process may be too easy. <cue eerie violins>

Bitters into the sugar

"But wait!" you cry. "What are the proportions I should use? How much water should I add to how much sugar? Why am I talking in italics?"

These are superior questions, my clever reader, and I would expect no less from you. And therein lies the rub: the proportions vary depending on what recipe you're reading online. Some people say to use a half-teaspoon of flavor to a 1/4 cup of sugar. Some say use only a couple of dashes. Some dilute the whole mess with water. And some even go so far as the smooth the top with egg whites, although I'm not sure what this is designed to accomplish other than sticky fingers and wasted egg whites, and possibly salmonella.

Why can't these people agree? Don't they realize the angst they're causing in the DIY world?

Here's how I figured it: 

  1. I wanted to make champagne cocktails and old fashioneds. Each of those requires 2-3 dashes of bitters per drink.
  2. If I planned to use 2-3 sugar cubes per drink (because did I mention my sugar cubes were tiny?), each sugar cube had to contain 1-2 dashes of bitters (or else why am I flavoring the darned things in the first place?). 
  3. So if I'm using 1/8 cup sugar, and that makes 18 sugar cubes, then, I need to add 1-2 dashes times 9, plus water to make the paste, plus more bitters to make up for the dilution of the bitters by the water, and then... Oh heck, I'm going to make a cocktail.

What I ended up doing was adding bitters until I got a paste in the bowl. Measuring is for other people.

Sugar with bitters and water

Then I smeared the whole mess into my dainty ice cube trays, using my fingers. I'm good with my hands like that.

Note: do this over the sink, unless you want to scrub sugar goo off your lovely countertops. Also, bitters might stain some counters. You've been warned.

Tiny tiny tiny sugar cubes

Then you're supposed to let the trays sit on the counter for at least 24 hours to dry. I am not a patient person, so I followed the advice of a website-that-shall-be-unnamed and popped my tray into the microwave for 30 seconds.

There should be alarm bells going off in your head.

First failed batch of sugar cubes

Because I didn't think about weight ratios and how microwaves work (it's not a matter of where he grips it), I put my dainty trays into the microwave for the recommended 30 seconds. And because microwaves work the way they do, 30 seconds is much too long for the volume contained in my dainty trays.

I ended up with a hardened, violently sticky mess that went to feed the disposal. Then I did the project AGAIN, this time with multiple flavorings. Hey, if it failed the first time, it was sure to succeed the second time, right?

Please do not laugh at me in that boorish manner.

Second batch of failed sugar cubes

This time, I patiently let the cubes dry overnight before decanting into adorable little mason jars with handmade labels and perfectly tied ribbons.

Haha! Yeah, so I tried to turn them out onto the counter and load them into some tupperware I had on-hand. But then Failure: Part 2 struck.

Sugar cube failures abound

As fate would have it, the amount of liquid in the paste makes a difference. Take a closer look at the trays above. See how wet some of the cubes look? Yeah, that's too much liquid.

The resulting wet cubes don't ever set up. I left them for three days on the counter, and they still wouldn't decant politely. This batch also went into the trash, although if I'd been less annoyed I suppose I could have used the sugar loose in a jar. If I liked wet sugar in a jar.

At this point, the project had gotten personal. I was determined to make sugar cubes if it was the last thing I ever did. So I made a THIRD batch.

This is the DIY equivalent of going into the basement when you're home alone in a horror film, and you hear a creepy noise.

Third attempt at sugar cubes. Damn this project.

If you insist on doing this project, you'll want to make the paste just wet enough to hold together when pinched. The consistency might remind you of properly damp sand for making sand castles, minus the itchy swim suit.

Then I patted the paste into trays, waited, and voila! Success!

Or so I thought.

Finished sugar cubes, with celebratory brandy

Sure, the cubes held together and looked lovely on display. They dropped into the cocktail glasses with the nicest tinkle. They stirred around gently with a stirrer. 

And that's all they did. They just sat there, not dissolving. I let the whisky infuse the cubes for a good three minutes, while learning that three minutes is my personal limit for staring at an untouched whisky drink.

And they never, ever dissolved.

So I got a muddler and attempted to muddle. I nearly broke my glass, the cube was so hard. The muddler actually kept sliding off the cube, sloshing liquid (precious liquid!) and threatening to crack my favorite old-fashioned glass. Yes, I have a favorite glass for old fashioned cocktails. Don't pretend you don't have one.

How the champagne bar should have looked

I tried cubes later in a champagne cocktail, and am happy to say those eventually dissolved. Unfortunately, this didn't occur until I'd finished a second glass of champagne, and the bubbles were dying in the third glass. These cubes could survive an apocalypse, I tell you. 

And once they'd dissolved, there wasn't enough bitters flavor to notice. I kid you not. These "flavored cubes" tasted like... sugar. Even with huge quantities of bitters mixed in to create rock-hard sugar pucks. I considered crying, but just went and had another glass of champagne.

3 things you're not going to want to do

  1. Don't use tiny ice cube trays. You'll have to use multiple cubes per beverage to get enough sugar, and that just feels like more work.
  2. Don't microwave your trays. At least, don't do this without thinking about volume and mass and all that, unless you like molten sugar smeared across the bottom of your microwave.
  3. Don't do this project. Okay, try it if you must, but only if you're determined to do it three times and still have useless sugar cubes.

final recommendation: go buy some flavored sugar cubes

While the concept continues to intrigue me, and the cubes seem so lovely in all the blogs and Pinterest Pins, I'm never doing this again. For the expense and effort, I ended up tossing out an awful lot of product with no satisfaction.

I'm willing to consider that my technique was to blame - we both know I'm not a skilled DIY person. But this is one of those projects that had zero return on a considerable investment. And even had it worked, I'm unconvinced it would have been worth the time, other than for prettiness on a buffet. And let's face it, a champagne bar manages to be darned pretty all by its lonesome because champagne.

And because seriously, how hard is it to pour a couple dashes of bitters into a glass, followed by a wee spoon of sugar? If you want, I'll go test that for you and report back. I'm pretty sure I've got the skill set for that one.

Of course, if you've succeeded in this project, I want to hear about it. Tag @smallcompanyartworks on Instagram and brag!


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