The era of the supersize Martini has faded, as modern bars now offer cocktails in manageable portions that won’t get warm or diluted before the last sip. The pendulum is also swinging in the opposite direction when it comes to drink potency: less is more.
Guests are increasingly requesting lower-alcohol cocktails, as they pair more seamlessly with food, and keep the imbiber clear-headed throughout the evening—and during the drive home. Bartenders are creatively using aromatized and fortified wines, amari, bitters and distinctively flavored liqueurs to mix up delicious sips with just a little kick.
“A strong cocktail can knock out the palate, but a low-alcohol cocktail, with a nice balance of bitter and acidity, serves as an aperitif,” says Eben Klemm, who consulted on the cocktail program for Pearl and Ash, a 62-seat American restaurant in New York’s Bowery neighborhood. Klemm points out that the restaurant’s primary beverage focus is wine director Patrick Cappiello’s extensive and exciting wine list, so cocktails need to preserve guests’ palates for what’s to follow.
Pearl and Ash offers six low-alcohol drinks, including the Television Tonic ($13), which mixes Bugey de Cerdon sparkling rosé from France with Byrrh Grand quinquina and strawberry. The savory Murder on the Ebullient Express cocktail ($12) includes white port, Bonal, celery and lime.
Ryan Goodspeed also sees the aperitif appeal in low-alcohol drinks. “I think it’s important to offer something light and refreshing without the full commitment to a high-alcohol drink,” says the beverage director for the five concepts of chef Michael Schwartz’s Miami-based The Genuine Hospitality Group.
Genuine’s 42-seat “Old Florida”-inspired restaurant The Cypress Room offers three low-alcohol cocktails priced at $11 each. The Go Lightly tops Cocchi Americano and St. Germain with sparkling wine, garnished with a lemon peel; the fizzy and whimsically-coined Sippy Cup combines Aperol, lemon, simple syrup and hibiscus bitters with a splash of soda water; and the Ah Shante mixes Byrrh Cinchona, Campari, yuzu, house-made bitters and sparkling wine.
All three of the low-alcohol cocktails at The Cypress Room offers include an effervescent element, which wakes up the palate and scrubs it in between courses. Bubbles also ramp up a drink’s aromatics, while tempering the alcohol content of higher-proof ingredients.
But Klemm notes that bubbly-based, low-alcohol sips need to get a boost from other components, or they may end up one-noted and simple. “The challenge is adding more complex tastes to appeal to different kind of drinkers.”
Klemm and the other bartenders at Pearl and Ash are fans of strong, bitter drinks, so they strive to introduce flavors like oak, coffee and hops to “widen” the flavor of these low-alcohol cocktails. For instance, the Bowery 75 drink ($13) tops oak-aged sake and lemon confit with sparkling wine, while the Area Code ($13) combines cardamaro with grapefruit, ginger beer and maple syrup.
Healthier and safer options
Low-octane libations have added appeal beyond their food synergy. They are also popular among patrons with health considerations, and those who need to get behind the wheel.
H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of the 45-seat Elixir, a neighborhood saloon and craft cocktail bar in San Francisco, was inspired to create his Low Impact menu over a year ago when his wife was pregnant. “I realized that most places I went had horrible non-and low-alcohol selections, so I aimed to fix that,” he says.
Elixir’s Low Impact menu contains six cocktails—all which can also be adapted to alcohol-free versions—and changes seasonally. Recent sips include the Manzana Fizz ($8), with Osborne Manzanilla sherry, apple juice, agave nectar, apple cider vinegar, egg white and soda water.
The Cubierto de Sangre ($10) mixes La Pinta Pomegranate tequila (19% ABV) with blood orange juice and house-made clove syrup. It’s served either flat and over ice, carbonated and over ice, or shaken with egg white and served up.
Ehrmann recalls a conversation with a recent guest who was excited to see the lower-proof selections because he had to drive home after his meal. “People need something low-alcohol for all kinds of reasons, but normally just give in to water, juice or soda, simply because that’s the norm,” he notes. Providing well-thought out and executed drinks—in all styles and concentrations—shows consideration and attention to all guests.
Time of day can be a consideration when ordering a drink. Pinewood Social, a 190-seat American restaurant, cocktail bar, bowling alley and karaoke lounge in Nashville, TN, introduced low-alcohol cocktails mainly for the brunch crowd. “Guests want to have a good time, but a lot of the time they have things to do afterwards,” explains beverage director Matt Tocco. “You can have a low-octane cocktail and still be able to go to the baseball game or the kids’ soccer game.”
Pinewood Social features five low-alcohol options. Most popular is The Italian Coke ($12), with Ramazzotti Amaro, Carpana Antica, Angostura bitters and soda water, which Tocco describes as drier and less sweet than a regular cola, and not quite as bitter as an Americano. “It’s perfect for someone who wants to bridge the gap in between.”
The Easy Like Sunday Morning cocktail ($8) combines palo cortado sherry with Fernet Branca and demerara sugar, and the beer-tail Gentleman-Mosa ($10) tops brandy, Amaro CioCiaro and orange juice with ale. Tocco also reaches for Cynar, Aperol and Campari when he wants complex, flavorful additions to low-alcohol creations.
In some cases, low-alcohol cocktails may be the only type a venue can offer ometime, because of liquor license regulations. TBD, a seasonally-focused, 50-seat restaurant and bar in San Francisco is one of four concepts operated by Mercer Restaurant Group. TBD has a beer- and wine-only license, but it offers four selections on its Loopholes drink menu ($11 each) that contain fortified and aromatized wines (a.k.a. the loophole), juices and bitters.
Owner and manager Matt Semmelhack notes even though bitters are 44% ABV, they are legally permitted as an exception to his concept’s license. “The assumption is that bars are only using a dash, but put half a bottle of bitters in a glass and voila, you have a booze drink!”
Most popular is the Nogroni, in which Peychaud’s bitters stands in for Campari, and juniper-infused fino sherry for gin (the inclusion of sweet vermouth in the classic sip remains.) The Stouter Old Fashioned mixes oloroso sherry and a healthy dose of Angostura bitters with a Bourbon barrel-aged stout.
“It takes some know-now and creative ability to make the thing taste good, but that is our bar team’s specialty,” he says.
Developing high-impact, lower-alcohol libations
For successful low-alcohol sips, Semmelhack suggests bartenders go beyond the usual citrus or soda, and add other ingredients and flavor profiles to their backbar repertoire, such as roots, wood, berries and herbs.
And Goodspeed admits this category of drinks requires a little thinking outside of the box. “They need to be approachable, so you kind of end up looking at the ingredients and presentation from a different perspective.”
When creating new options for the Low Impact menu, Ehrmann turns to ingredients including aromatized and fortified wines, uniquely flavored and low-alcohol liqueurs, and tea, all of which offer multilayered flavor. “Build a [low-alcohol] drink just like a regular cocktail, and think about texture, aroma and appearance,” he advises.
Beverage director Bryan Dayton, who runs the cocktail programs at the 67-seat Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, CO, and the 120-seat Acorn in Denver, suggests tweaking crowd-pleasing sips. “Look at some of your favorite cocktails, and think about ways they can be scaled back in terms of alcohol content.”
He reaches for sake for the Pimm’s Cup riff The Japanese Cup ($10) at Oak at Fourteenth, which is mixed with Pimm’s No. 1, cucumber, ginger and lime. Oak at Fourteenth has three low-alcohol libations priced from $8 to $10.
Acorn offers four low-alcohol selections, including Brunch on the Danube ($7), with tawny port, Nocino walnut liqueur, ginger beer and Zwack, a Hungarian liqueur with more than 40 herbs and spices. Across the Mediterranean ($9) stirs Bonal, Contratto Bianco white vermouth, Licor 43 and Cocktailpunk cherry bitters.
Both Oak at Fourteenth’s and Acorn’s cocktail menus are divided into no-alcohol, low-alcohol and high-alcohol sections. “People like having options, especially as they make their way through a meal from beginning to end,” notes Dayton. ·
Fancy a Shim?
American largely forgot about low-alcohol cocktails in the shadow of Prohibition, but their recent resurgence has staying power, according to author Dinah Sanders. “What is happening in cocktails now is a return to the kind of ingredient-focused drinking without bias of alcohol content which was known before Prohibition.” Her 2013 book, The Art of the Shim: Low–Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, explores drinks that “provide all their pleasures without walloping you over the head with booze.”
Saunders, who coined the term shim for low-alcohol cocktails, says the foundation of many great shims is fortified or aromatized wine such as sherry, port, vermouth and quinquinas. She encourages operators to offer them both as aperitifs on the rocks with a twist, neat or on a single large piece of ice, as well as in cocktails.
The former will allow guests to learn more about the ingredients’ aroma and flavor profiles, while the latter will help with quality control and inventory.
“Cocktail usage will ensure that you go through bottles fast enough to keep the solo presentation shining with the flavor of freshly opened bottles,” Sanders notes. She cites Lillet and Punt e Mes as two great bottles to start with when crafting shims; Saunders also likes amaros and sherry.
The Sophia Loren shim, created by Kim Rosselle, bar manager at Flora and Fauna in Oakland, CA, is a good fit for the warmer weather, Sanders says, plus it doesn’t call for any juice from the currently-expensive-to-procure lime. The shim mixes 2 oz. of Aperol, 1 oz. of lemon juice, ½ oz. of bourbon and four dashes of Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters; it’s shaken then garnished with two lemons peels rolled into a flower.Shims appeal both for their food compatibility, and their ability to keep the imbiber lucid and witty, Sanders says. “They’ve always been part of the cocktail spectrum, and are too delicious and useful to let go again.”