Although it might seem that high-octane cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Negroni dominate the current bar scene, low-alcohol classics like Spritzers, Cobblers and Pimm’s Cups are still strong contenders. Guests seeking flavorful refreshment and a modicum of moderation now crave these lower-proof libations.
Low alcohol doesn’t mean low complexity, however. Formulating a tasty shim, aka suppressor or session, requires a more considered approach and skill set. But the recent proliferation of high-quality vermouth, aperitifs, fortified wines and other low-proof bases has benefitted mixologists.
“Low-alcohol cocktails are one more category in the bartender’s toolbox,” says Greg Best, co-owner of the recently opened Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta. Back in 2012, Best was among the pioneers of the low-alcohol cocktail movement and popularized the term suppressor.
“We thought it would be worthwhile and tongue-in-cheek hilarious to create a style of drink that was the anti-venom to the Corpse Reviver,” he recalls. “Now years later, there are bars from all over the country adding to the canon of suppressors.”
Although there are always one or two low-alcohol cocktails on the Ticonderoga Club’s menu, they aren’t singled out or labeled as suppressors. Arranging menus by categories can be excluding, believes Best. For example, the restaurant has removed the word “appetizers” from its food menu.
“We want people to engage at any level of our menus; it’s DIY, they can choose their own drinking and dining experiences.”
A low-alcohol drink can be an ideal aperitif or a nightcap option, he suggests. Ticonderoga Club’s current list includes the Poor Fella (a.k.a. Suppressor 78), which combines tawny port and fino sherry with lime juice and Coca-Cola.
“We are doing low-alcohol cocktails, but not as a special thing,” says Miguel Lancha, head of national cocktail development for ThinkFoodGroup, chef Jose Andres’ 14-unit restaurant empire. “We don’t take ABV levels into consideration when we design cocktails; we think in terms of flavors.”
For example, two popular drinks at ThinkFoodGroup’s The Bazaar concept are wine-based sangrias. Sangria Roja has a base of spiced red wine, as well as some brandy, gin and citrus fruits; White Sherry Sangria starts with manzanilla sherry, topped with cava and citrus. Both are prepared tableside and priced at $16 each.
Seeing the Light
What’s driving the low-alcohol cocktail trend? For one thing, “The era of the three-Martini lunch is long gone,” says Bryan Dayton, co-owner and beverage manager of the Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn restaurants in Boulder, CO.
Oak at Fourteenth’s Libations menu is arranged by ABV, with sections labeled No Alcohol, Low Alcohol and High Alcohol. “That way guests can see the options spelled out and make their own choices,” explains Dayton.
Moderation in alcohol consumption and health-consciousness are fueling interest in low-octane drinks, he says. And while customers might indulge in higher-alcohol drinks on the weekends, they often select low-proof options during the week when they have to get up the next morning to go to work.
Oceana, the fine-dining seafood house in New York, also calls out “Low Alcohol” in a section of its signature cocktails. The current menu offers two spritzer variations, one built with a two-amari base, the other with St. Germain liqueur as a base; both topped with prosecco.
“It’s a great upsell for our guests, who, if they are looking for something low alcohol, might be more inclined to order a soda or juice or even just drink water,” says bar manager Dan McLaughlin. The low-alcohol label helps steer customers toward those alternatives.
The low-proof options pair well with the restaurant’s varied clientele, says McLaughlin. Oceana’s guests include people who want to go out after work but don’t feel comfortable drinking a lot with coworkers or bosses; tourists tired from walking around all afternoon; commuters who want something light before they catch their train home; and theater-goers who want a cocktail that won’t put them to sleep halfway through the show.
The popularity of Italian aperitivo culture and lighter Spritz cocktails is fueling the trend as well. “I love Spritzes,” says Jon Lewis, bar director of Rue in Portland, OR, a neo-bistro restaurant, serving a vegetable-forward, small-plate format menu, “They are a good way to start a meal or just to enjoy by themselves,” he explains. “And you can drink them all day!”
The restaurant opened in June, so Lewis is still gauging the interest of his clientele. The menu now includes two low-proof drinks: The Artichoke Spritz ($11, and pictured atop)), made with Cynar, Punt e Mes and Pamplemousse liqueur; and the Giulo Spritz ($10), concocted with Cocchi Americano and lemon juice, topped with sparkling rosé.
Licensed for Low-proof
Thamin Saleh, owner of the Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar in Pacific Grove, CA, has a solid business reason for serving low-alcohol cocktails: he has a license for beer and wine only. “A liquor license is a really big investment, and it didn’t make sense with the small bar area I have, and my demographics,” explains Saleh. Full liquor licenses run as high as $50,000, he notes, while the beer and wine license cost him just $500.
The sommelier started experimenting using beer, wine and soju from his stock. Saleh labels the drinks “Shims + Sessions,” hoping those terms will intrigue guests into trying them. It has: The cocktails have been a hit with customers.
“Furthermore, we figured that having a low-alcohol cocktail prior to the meal, for example, would not compromise the opportunity to sell wine with dinner.” The hunch proved correct: So far beverage sales have increased by 7.4%, and Saleh expects that to rise to 9% by the end of the year.
Some operators are pairing lower-proof cocktails with meals. “Low-alcohol cocktails is a subject I am very passionate about,” says Amanda Reed, beverage director at the recently opened Heartwood Provisions in Seattle. “Our concept is focused on food and cocktail pairings, so almost every dinner and dessert menu item has a suggested cocktail pairing,” she explains.
The cocktails selected for the pairings are all low proof, using wine, fortified products, beer or cider as a base. The drinks, which are about half the size of a standard cocktail and priced from $5 to $8, are meant to be almost a garnish to the accompanying dishes.
Low-alcohol cocktails are ideal for this purpose, because they don’t overshadow the food, and guests can enjoy multiple drinks with dinner without getting inebriated, says Reed.