Agave nectar, or agave syrup, is a natural sweetener commonly used in food and drinks. It can be used as a substitute for sugar, simple syrup, honey, and molasses to sweeten a variety of beverages, including cocktails, coffee, and tea.
The flavor of agave nectar is unique. It is sweeter than sugar and most similar to honey. It does, however, have a more neutral flavor than honey and it is thinner. Commonly used as a vegan alternative to honey, agave nectar lacks the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners, though it is not necessarily a "healthier" drink sweetener.
How Is Agave Nectar Made?
Agave nectar is made from the juice of the agave plant. As in the production of tequila, agave nectar typically begins with 7- to 10-year-old agave plants in Mexico from which the piñas are harvested.
The juice, or sap, is extracted from the piña, filtered, then heated slowly at low temperatures until the carbohydrates are broken down into sugar. "Raw" agave nectar is a type that's heated to no more than 117 degrees Fahrenheit. However, many agave nectars today are highly refined products and comparable to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Also like tequila, some of the best agave nectars are made from blue agave. Labels will clearly state if that nectar is "100% Blue Agave." There are also "certificate of origin" laws for agave nectar, though that is where the similarities with tequila end. Agave nectar is alcohol-free.
Grades of Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is widely popular and can be found in many grocery stores. You can often find it with other sweeteners or in the natural foods section. Similar to other syrups, agave nectar is available in a range of color and flavor intensities:
- The lighter grades look similar to simple syrup. These are best for lightly flavored cocktails like the Rosangel margarita and vodka sour because the flavor is almost transparent.
- Amber agave nectar has a stronger flavor, near the intensity of honey. The most common, this grade is very versatile and can be mixed into nearly any drink, including those with strong flavors such as dulce de tequila and many of your fruity margaritas.
- The darkest nectar is likened to light molasses and is best used sparingly in mixed drinks. It makes a nice coffee sweetener and is a good alternative in the handful of drinks that use maple syrup.
Adjusting Agave Nectar to Taste
If agave nectar is too sweet for you, try watering it down: Mix nectar and distilled water at a 1:1 ratio (or slightly less water) and stir until it is an even consistency. You can also heat it slowly to thicken it back up, but this is usually unnecessary.
Agave nectar can be infused with flavor. For instance, mix ground cinnamon into agave nectar or use cinnamon sticks for an infusion. Vanilla is another great option: Mix in 1 teaspoon or so (depending on the volume) of vanilla extract or do an infusion with a whole vanilla bean. The whole spice infusions will require about one month to get a full flavor.
Another option is to mix the nectar with flavor-infused water. Some recipes even mix it with another liquid such as balsamic vinegar.
Agave nectar is an excellent drink sweetener. It mixes just as well as a simple syrup in both hot and cold drinks and works better in cold drinks than honey. Use it in coffee, tea, or any mixed drink recipe that calls for another drink sweetener.
- For hot coffee and tea drinks, begin with 1/2 teaspoon and add more to taste.
- The two agave products are natural companions, so it is an ideal sweetener for tequila cocktails. Try it in a spicy jalapeño margarita or tropical papaya smash.
- Agave nectar also pairs nicely with most other distilled spirits. For instance, it is paired with rum in the daiquir-ease, whiskey in the hot buttered whiskey, and vodka in the celery cup no. 1.
- It's not all about the alcohol, either. The autumnal temptations recipe is a perfect example of how well agave nectar works in mocktails.
- You can even make fresh-squeezed lemonade with agave nectar rather than sugar or simple syrup.
Agave Nectar Substitutions
Using agave nectar as a substitute in food recipes can get complicated, but it's much easier to substitute it for other drink sweeteners. To avoid drinks that are too sweet, you will still want to make adjustments and, as always, use more or less to fit your personal taste.
- Agave nectar is much sweeter than sugar. When using it as a substitute for granulated sugar in drinks, reduce the measurement by one-half or more. This can be as little as 1/8 teaspoon per drink.
- Simple syrup is not as sweet as sugar so drinks often use larger measurements. In simple syrup recipes, reduce the agave nectar measurement by one-half to one-quarter. For example, if a recipe asks for 1 tablespoon of simple syrup, use 1/2 to 3/4 tablespoon of agave nectar.
- When using agave nectar instead of honey, no adjustment has to be made. However, cold drink recipes often use honey syrup—honey diluted with water—because it mixes better. In this case, either dilute the agave nectar in the same manner or use half of the recipe's measurement.
Is Agave Nectar a Healthy Sweetener?
When it first became popular, agave nectar was often touted as a healthy sweetener. This is not necessarily true. Nutritionally, agave nectar and table sugar are comparable in calories and carbohydrates. What grabs the most attention is the fact that agave nectar is lower on the glycemic index than refined sugar, meaning it will affect your blood sugar more slowly. However, agave nectar is 90 percent fructose and too much fructose can raise triglycerides, affect insulin resistance, and have a negative impact on oral health. While it is a tasty alternative to sugar, it's still a good idea to consume it in moderation and to speak to your doctor or dietician if you have special dietary concerns.
Gardner, E. Alternative sugars: Agave nectar. Br Dent J. 2017;223(4):241-241. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2017.697