There are a number of reasons to offer low-alcohol cocktails to your guests. The most obvious is that you won’t have to worry as much about overserving them, and the guest’s drive home is likely to be a safe and sober one. But you can raise your check average while still serving the customer responsibly.
If the first cocktail served is low in alcohol, there will be more room in what I call the guest’s “booze tank” at the end of the meal. This means that you can responsibly serve them a digestif, coffee drink or dessert cocktail at the end of the meal. And since you sold them that aperitif, the after-dinner drink is a novel sale, and will increase your check average.
It’s a different story if the guest starts with a couple of gin Martinis straight up, and has wine with dinner. In that case, you should be watching for signs of inebriation, and the after-dinner drink menu isn’t even an option.
A lot of classic aperitif cocktails are, not surprisingly, low in alcohol. This is not only to limit the initial intake of alcohol, but mostly because the lighter drinks won’t dull your palate before dinner.
Aperitifs also usually have high acidity. When your mouth waters and you swallow, it starts up your digestive system. So a slightly sour drink has the potential to increase a guest’s appetite.
Just because these drinks have less alcohol doesn’t mean that they are bereft of flavor. Some of the wine-based concoctions like spritzers can be pretty delicate, and that’s what some guests want. But the fruit juice in Mimosas and Bellinis can add a lot of flavor, as well as additional acidity.
In fact, sparkling wine with any kind of fruit juice or a liqueur can be that low-alcohol cocktail on your menu. And with the plethora of great bitters on the market now, the possibilities are endless. Prosecco with Italian orange soda and a few dashes of orange bitters? I’ll take one.
If you want to bump up the overall flavor of the cocktail, it helps to start with an ingredient that has more flavor. One way is to go up just one step on the alcohol scale, and into the world of fortified and aromatized wines.
Since sherry seems to be the cocktail ingredient of the moment, a whole slew of recipes is only a web search away. As for aromatized wines, there is a cocktail from the 1940s called a Vermouth Cassis, simply made with the two named ingredients (dry vermouth, please) and some soda water. Very tasty and refreshing.
Go ahead and experiment with these categories, since aromatized wines and sherries are both hot. From old-school Dubonnet and Noilly Prat to the Dolin vermouths, Cocchi Americano and Carpano Antica Formula, there is a lot to play with out there.
THE BITTER TRUTH
There are many types of bitters, ranging in alcoholic strength from 17% to 45%. What they have is a lot of flavor, because they’re all extracts of various aromatics. Cynar is a classic aperitif on its own, and at just 16.5% alcohol, can add a lot of flavor to a cocktail.
Similarly, Campari is low in alcohol but big on flavor, so any cocktail using it will have a ton of flavor without the kick. But perhaps the best example of a flavorful low-alcohol cocktail is the Aperol Spritz.
Aperol is similar to Campari, but even lower in alcohol—only 11%. Mix it with some prosecco and soda water, garnish with an orange slice, and you have a full-flavored and very light cocktail.
For whichever rationale you choose, these relatively low-alcohol drinks can be a great addition to your cocktail menu. ·
John Fischer is an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and a former wine director at several New York restaurants.