Guests with an eye on their health (and their reflections in the mirror) are demanding low-calorie liquid options at restaurants and bars. So-called “skinny cocktails” strive to give patrons the flavor and experience of conventional libations, with a fraction of the calories and sugar. While you can’t really consider them health drinks, these sips are less guilty alternatives to help cocktail-loving customers stay on track with their fitness and weight goals.
“We have seen a huge demand for skinny cocktails, which have increased our specialty cocktail sales by 15%,” says Henry Michaud, vice president of food and beverage for Columbia Sussex. The private hotel company, based in Crestview Hills, KY, owns and operates 42 full-service hotels and resorts under eight brands, including Marriott, Westin and Doubletree.
Skinny libations account for 35% of frozen drinks sold poolside; within a recent six-week promotion, Columbia Sussex sold more than 3,000. The company currently features 10 lower-calorie signature cocktails, such as the Pomegranate Mojito (126 calories), which mixes Cruzan light rum and Hiram Walker pomegranate liqueur with muddled fresh mint and lime.
The skinny drinks, which are priced from $8 to $10, range from 95 to 183 calories. Columbia Sussex promotes them through menu inserts listing ingredients and caloric content, Michaud notes. Sweet and sour, Margarita and simple syrup-based cocktails often lend themselves to low-calorie versions, since lower-calorie sweeteners can be substituted, he adds.
Less waist, more taste
Ken Lennox, director of quality beverage for the 750 locations of Maryville, TN-based Ruby Tuesday, shares the casual chain’s process for creating its lower-calorie libations. “The first step was coming up with great tasting drinks,” he says. “After that we reduced calories, and decided we needed 150 calories to offer well-balanced and flavorful cocktails.”
When Ruby Tuesday launched its “Fit & Trim” promotion two years ago, management saw sales increase in that subcategory. What’s more, Lennox says, subsequent sales of corresponding “regular” versions of the drinks did not decrease.
The line includes the Skinny Patron Margarita, with Patron Silver tequila, lemon and lime juices, Minute Maid light lemonade and agave nectar, with a kosher salt rimmer. The Skinny Pink Lemonade combines VeeV Açai spirit, pomegranate, lemon juice and agave nectar, shaken with ice and topped with Minute Maid light lemonade. Prices for each range from $5 to $8.
A freshly squeezed lemon or lime garnish adds vibrant acidity and authentic bite to a low-calorie cocktail, Lennox says. Using either Splenda or agave keeps drink calories in check. He notes that even though agave is higher in calories than simple syrup, bartenders can use significantly less of it to get the effect.
Deborah Topcik of Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill agrees. “We have chosen to have a couple more calories by using agave and natural sweeteners like fruit, instead of using artificial sweeteners. It makes a difference,” says Topcik, director of marketing for the 11-location, casual Southwestern chain based in Scottsdale, AZ.
Eschewing artificial sweeteners for natural ones only adds a few calories, but majorly boosts flavor—a welcome trade off, she adds. (Another thing to keep in mind: A study released in February reports that cocktails made with diet mixers can increase the drinker’s rate of intoxication.)
Z’Tejas has had skinny cocktails on its menus for more than three years. It now boasts seven “Naturally Skinny” selections with 250 calories or less. The Skinny Margarita is most popular, with Cabo Wabo Reposado tequila, triple sec, lime juice, Herradura agave nectar and soda water. It’s also the chain’s fifth best-selling drink of all time.
The second most-popular skinny drink is the Antioxidant Martini, made with Bacardi Dragon Berry rum, lemon juice, Herradura agave nectar, fresh blackberries and blueberries, topped with Wild Berry Fomz, a fruit-infused foam flavoring. All of Z’Tejas’ Naturally Skinny drinks are priced at $8.50.
Skinny star power
The Melting Pot, a 141-unit fondue dining experience operated by Tampa, FL-based Front Burner Brands, ran a low-calorie cocktail promotion last summer. The program was such a hit that the company added two of its most popular drinks to the core beverage menu: The Tangerine Cosmo, which blends Skinnygirl tangerine vodka with Cointreau, cranberry juice and lime, and the Mangolicious, with Voli light vodka, pineapple juice and mango syrup, topped with Luccio sparkling moscato.
“These two specialty cocktails have been particular favorites with our guests,” says beverage manager Paul Brown. While these two drinks are not technically marketed on the core menu as “light” options, they do list light ingredients from the Skinnygirl and Voli light vodka brands, which clue in guests to their caloric content, he says. Skinnygirl was launched by former Real Housewives of New York cast member Bethenny Frankel (who sold it to Beam in March 2011), while Voli is owned by singers Pitbull and Fergie.
The celebrity tie-ins have helped boost recognition and sales, Brown says. “We were able to utilize their Facebook and personal tweets to engage consumers and create awareness for the cocktails.”
TY KU, a low-calorie, gluten-free premium sake brand, counts singer/producer CeeLo Green and Patti Stanger, who stars on the Bravo show The Millionaire Matchmaker, among its owners.
But name-dropping and low calories do not a great cocktail make. Brown says skinny drinks need to fit the same criteria for success as those in any other beverage category.
“For The Melting Pot, that means the drinks need to look great, taste even better, be easy to execute and also work financially,” he notes. Brown believes any light, refreshing cocktail that uses fresh fruit or juice can easily be tweaked to a skinny drink.
The Melting Pot has expanded its low-calorie liquid options with recently added Skinny Dipping cocktails like the Fresh Berry Fizz (92 calories), made with Voli lemon vodka, blackberries, lemon and club soda; and Pretty in Pop (106 calories), with Voli light vodka, cranberry and lime juices, muddled cucumbers and club soda.
For smooth, efficient drink making during busy times, The Melting Pot relies on mixers from Finest Call, which Brown says are easy to use and give great results.
Columbia Sussex also uses the brand’s mixers in its 103-calorie Strawberry Limeade (Absolut vodka, lime and Finest Call Strawberry Purée) and its 149-calorie Long Island Iced Tea (with Seagram’s gin, Smirnoff vodka, Cruzan light rum, Cuervo Especial tequila, Hiram Walker triple sec and Finest Call Sweet and Sour Lite). Finest Call offers three flavors in its Lite collection: Sweet and Sour, Margarita and Bar Syrup, with natural juices and Sucralose.
A bevy of other low-calorie mixers help operators quickly produce high-quality, skinny drinks. For instance, Powell & Mahoney now offers a Low-Cal Margarita Mixer with 25 calories per serving, made with pear, lemon and lime juices, agave and natural flavors. And Monin offers 17 sugar-free flavors, including pomegranate, mango and blackberry.
“Health and wellness is still high on consumer radar for 2013, and fresh juice and sugar-free syrups make ‘skinny’ beverages appealing to the growing number of consumers who want a high-flavor, low-calorie beverage,” notes Lisa Ash, Monin’s beverage innovation director.
As with other drink categories, staff training is key to marketing and selling skinny sips. Michaud of Columbia Sussex notes that bartenders and servers must be able to articulate the differences between a full-calorie cocktail and its lower-calorie counterpart. Staff should also be prepared to share the reasoning behind ingredient selections and how they affect the calorie breakdown.
Guests who order skinny drinks naturally tend to gravitate towards healthier or lower-calorie food options. So offering companion light dishes to enjoy alongside corresponding drinks is a win-win for patrons and operators.
The Melting Pot’s Skinny Dipping menu offers three courses of fondue for fewer than 700 calories. And Columbia Sussex’s Skinny Bites complement its low-cal libations: Guests can choose options such as an Herb-Crusted Chicken Sandwich (297 calories) or a Marinated Vegetable Sandwich (245 calories), all served with a small salad. The menu also offers a low-calorie wine, beer and cocktail selection, each less than 100 calories.
Skinny cocktails can seem a numbers game: the lower the calories, the more enticing to guests counting them. But in the end it’s about flavor and quality. As Ruby Tuesday’s Lennox puts it, “what we ended up with were drinks that we were proud to have listed on our menu, regardless of their calorie count.” ·
The well-designed Skinny Sip
No matter the calorie count, a great cocktail is all about balance. Cocktail consultant Tad Carducci of Tippling Bros. suggests operators first look at the alcohol content of a drink.
“While mixes, sodas and sugary or creamy liqueurs are certainly culprits, the base spirit generally accounts for well over 100 calories,” he says. “Think about offering smaller portion sizes, or lightening the spirit pour in certain cocktails.”
Carducci also advises selecting a high-quality low-calorie mixer. “The good ones have been created and formulated to offer lots of balance of flavor and mouth feel, while utilizing natural ingredients.” He believes wine-based cocktails and sours work well when tweaked as skinny sips, as do refreshing, effervescent long drinks like collinses, fizzes and rickeys.
Just make sure all elements—spirit, acid, fruit (if applicable) and sweetener are in check, Carducci says. “Our guests should not have to sacrifice their experiences in order to watch their waistlines.”