As shorts and T-shirt season approaches, weight-conscious folks are seeking more ways to shave off calories from their favorite treats, including their liquid ones. Bid hello to the “skinny” cocktail.
Operators report getting increasing requests for low-calorie alcoholic drinks that taste as good as their higher-calorie counterparts. Some have even witnessed diners sneaking in with a packet of Sweet’N Low and creating their own drinks. As a result, several national and regional full-service restaurant chains, ranging from high-end steakhouses to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, have added entire skinny drinks sections to their bar menus.
While most people are aware that many food preparations pack on the calories, they often don’t think about calories contained in their favorite libations. Typical calorie counts for standard preparations can be as high as 780 for a Long Island Iced Tea, 740 for a Margarita with four ounces of tequila, 644 for a Piña Colada and 425 for a White Russian, according to Forbes magazine research.
A typical shot of straight spirits without any mixes contains just 64 calories, notes Eric Boyd, bartender at The Bar at the Peninsula Chicago. “All calories come from complex carbohydrates and liquor has no carbohydrates,” he explains. “It’s what you add to it that makes it higher-calorie.”
Many mixers, even fruit juices, contain natural sugars that turn into carbohydrates. So, Boyd avoids using juices in his skinny cocktail recipes, of which he currently has three: Pimm’s Royal at 170 calories for $18, JC Premiere at 200 calories for $16 and Strawberry Fields at 265 calories for $12.
Pimm’s Royal contains Pimm’s No. 1, simple syrup, muddled mint leaves, lemon wedge, a strawberry and a cucumber slice. It’s shaken with ice, strained into a Champagne glass and topped with a little Champagne.
Strawberry Fields uses diet citrus soda for sweetness, while the JC Premiere, a take-off on a Manhattan and suggested by a regular customer, uses blood orange bitters and Noilly Prat sweet vermouth with Blanton’s Bourbon.
Each Peninsula Hotel around the world has its own drinks menu, although the beverage departments share recipes with each other upon request. The upscale bars attract a good contingent of local regulars, Boyd says.
A Natural Evolution
Like Boyd, other mixologists usually start with classic cocktails and experiment with natural or artificial sugar substitutes to make them “skinny.” Marian Jansen op de Haar, a Napa, Calif.-based beverage consultant, began with variations on the cosmopolitan to create several 99-calorie drinks for Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the 64-unit chain out of Newport Beach, Calif., where she worked on staff for many years.
“We saw people eating lighter and wanted to have a lighter cocktail,” she recalls. Her Farmer’s Daughter, a mixture of one shot of Ketel One or other vodka, sugar-free cranberry juice and Truvia sweetener, made from the leaves of the subtropical stevia plant, has become a permanent bar menu fixture since its introduction last year. Varying by location, prices range from $8.95 to $10.95. The limited-time Tickled Pink, priced at $9.95 to $11.95, depending on location, combines sugar-free raspberry preserves and Mionetto prosecco with Belvedere vodka in a Martini glass.
Although Fleming’s doesn’t have demographic data, bartenders observe that more women than men order the skinny Martinis and that they sell as well as other non-skinny cocktails.
Skinny cocktail programs are also popping up at more casual restaurants. Lenexa, Kans.-based Applebee’s launched its Skinny Bee program in January 2010 in its 1,900 domestic restaurants with the Skinny Bee Margarita. Other chains with similar programs include The Cheesecake Factory, Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, RAM Restaurant & Brewery and RA Sushi.
RAM, based in Tacoma, Wash., has a Skinny Lime Bite Cooler for 80 calories made with Captain Morgan Lime Bite Rum and Diet Coke at its brewpubs in five states, priced at or around $5.50.
Applebee’s Skinny Bee Margarita is made with Hornitos Agave Tequila and its signature Margarita mix for a total of about 100 calories. Its Skinny Bee Long Island Iced Tea contains Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum, orange liqueur and a proprietary low-calorie sweet and sour mix, diet cola and fresh lemon juice for 110 calories. Allowing the Skinny Bee Mojito to weigh in at about 90 calories is Applebee’s no-calorie simple syrup. The cocktail prices are either $3.99 or $4.99, depending on location.
While a variety of guests order from the company’s Skinny Bee choices, younger women are the biggest fans, says Brian Masilionis, manager, beverage and brand marketing, Applebee’s Services. “We’re always watching beverage trends and listening to guests, so it’s possible more drinks will be added to the Skinny Bee lineup,” he adds.
Marketing is done via the main menu, menu inserts, table cards and other communication channels. The 150-unit Cheesecake Factory, headquartered in Calabasas Hills, Calif., rolled out a skinny cocktails line in March, consisting of low-calorie versions of Sangria, Mojitos, Margaritas, Cosmopolitans and Long Island Iced Tea, all targeted to be 150 calories. Printed menu promotion is its main marketing tool.
“As a category, they are being very well received,” says Heather Berry, director of beverage and bakery operations. “We hope they will enhance the drinks menu and not take away from something else; we will watch it. It’s still early.”
The hand-crafted cocktails use Splenda artificial sweetener in their housemade simple syrup. Pricing ranges from $7 to $11.
Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, the 11-unit dinner house chain in five states with a Scottsdale, AZ headquarters, uses natural sweeteners in its six-drink Naturally Skinny line, all under 250 calories. Its Açaí Basil Gimlet uses VeeV Açaí spirit, fresh lime juice and basil leaves, and other drinks are sweetened with Herradura Agave Nectar.
“The category is working well,” says Deborah Topcik, director of marketing. “We are a Margarita house; Naturally Skinny is our second-best category, and the Skinny Margarita is the sixth- highest selling Margarita out of 28 on the menu.” Prices are in the $8 to $8.50 range.
As Americans continue to seek painless ways to keep off extra pounds, they are likely to demand fewer calories in their favorite cocktails. Operators can expect the skinny cocktail trend to fatten their bottom lines.