The greatest obstacle I face in my line of work is staying sober while doing research. When I go out for drinks, it’s work-related. I’m tasting the work of other professionals, looking for inspiration and delight. Unfortunately, I’m good for about two cocktails before I start to feel the effects of the alcohol, so when I try out a new cocktail bar, I bring a buddy (and sometimes a designated driver) so we can sample each other’s choices before dinner. No matter what I do, though, I’m limited to how many cocktails I can enjoy. I’m not complaining; the renaissance of classic cocktails and the craft movement have both been really good for bartending. We are better technical bartenders and more creative because we have perfected classical techniques and expanded the range of our ingredients. Having said that, craft cocktails celebrate the flavor and texture of alcohol and classic cocktails are typically several ounces of spirit, so you can understand the challenge of holding onto clear-headedness. Recently, my Twitter feed included a recipe for a classic cocktail “made all the better” by 110-proof whiskey. Luckily, bartending is never in stasis and the next wave will soon be upon the nation: cocktails with a lower percentage of alcohol.
What are they?
There is no hard-and-fast numerical value representing the cutoff point between cocktails and Low-ABV Cocktails, but there are two ways of thinking about creating drinks in the latter category. The simplest for home drinkers is to use a low-calorie spirit and mix it with a low- or no-calorie mixer, or use a light hand when pouring. Slightly more complicated, but necessary for industry professionals, is to use a simple formula to calculate the ABV of an entire cocktail.
A professional bartender creating a Low-ABV cocktail or a menu of this style might include one or two “skinny” drinks, but then the doors would be open for bigger, more unusual flavors. You probably won’t catch a calorie-counter drinking a Camparimixed with orange and grapefruit juices (all that sugar!), but it’s a solid choice for the rest of us. Campari is bottled at a respectable 24% ABV, and this drink comes in at just 5.53% total alcohol when mixed with 2 oz. of each juice (and its volume increased by shaking with ice). How did I do that? I used a formula I found on the Art of Drinkwebsite. Multiply the volume of spirit by its percent alcohol, divide by the total volume of liquid ingredients and multiply the result by 100. To use the Campari example above:
(1.5 oz. x .24 ABV) x 100
5.5 oz. total liquid
Pros know that the actual volume will be slightly larger, due to the “hidden ingredient” that appears through shaking and stirring: water. I have elected not to factor this in when calculating the ABV of the examples and cocktails for this article as there are many variables that affect exactly how much melt will occur (i.e. size of ice, ambient temperature, etc).
To return to the subject at hand, compare the previous example to a more traditional, classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned. Assuming 2 oz. of an 80 proof spirit, .5 oz water gained from stirring, and .02 oz Angostura bitters, we find that this classic packs a whopping 32% alcohol. Still less than the 80% we’d get from just drinking the spirit, but considerably more than the Campari refresher we started with.
Professional bartenders all know the rhyme: 1 part sour, 2 parts sweet, 3 parts strong and 4 parts weak. Using this formula, we find that a drink created according to this Golden Mean will have 12% total ABV, which is a nice easy sipper that won’t leave you spinning.
The Skinny Spirit Phenomenon
For years we’ve seen low-cal options on our grocery shelves. It is only in recent years that the “skinny” philosophy has found its way into the spirit category, and it refers to an offering that has fewer calories than others in its parent category (e.g.. ‘light” vodka as a subset of vodka). The low-calorie spirit industry is made possible by a loophole in liquor laws: Vodka must legally be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV), on the other hand, flavored vodka is not bound by the same rule. A typical vodka cocktail will get 100 of its calories from a 1.5-oz. pour, plus any calories it gets from mixers. Flavored vodka can be bottled at 60 proof, bringing its caloric content for the same pour down closer to 75. The magic is in the water. Cocktails made with “light” spirit typically have a “thinner” mouthfeel and a synthetic sweetness because they are created with a keen eye on the number of calories they contain, and intended for use with low- or no-calorie mixers They get their flavors from the flavor factory and for better or worse, the market is growing for these products.
If you want to make your own skinny vodka at home, add 1 part of any non-caloric liquid to any 3 parts of base spirit. It will respect your budget, it won’t undo your workout, and it will make you look smart.
If you’re ready to start making your own light sippers at home, or you’re thinking about adding them to your bar or restaurant’s drinks menu, here are a few things to think about. First and foremost, the normal rules of cocktail creation apply: it’s got to be balanced and it’s got to be something you can make pretty quickly. Whether your guests are three deep at the bar or your kitchen island, hospitality demands that you make it look easy. This means do your prep work out of sight. Make your fresh juices, shrubs and syrups ahead of time. Keep plenty of ice and always have more glassware than you think you’ll need. When you’re thinking about balance, think of all the different flavors you can taste. The five to remember are Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty and Umami (savoriness). According to modern research there are even more diverse taste recoptors, but the Big Five are a good start. Balance in a cocktail means that it hits more than one note, and that the flavors complement each other.
As for your ingredients, you’ve already seen how to turn any spirit into a Low-ABV spirit: add water. Now that you’re thinking about making these drinks, turn your attention to some ingredients you might not normally consider as base spirits. Other cultures have been quietly leading the way with low-alcohol spirit options, and below are two examples from Japan.
Sake: Called nihonshu in its native Japan, this fermented rice beverage is usually bottled at 15% ABV. As with wine, there are many styles and flavors present, ranging from fruit to nuts to chocolate; finding one with a range of sweetness and acidity makes this an interesting, delicate option. Some research before purchase should give you the advantage you need to choose as style that works with the flavor profile you’re developing.
Shochu: Some sources use this term interchangeably with soju. The primary difference between them seems to be that soju is Korean and shochu is Japanese. The consensus among independent reviewers is that the Korean offering is more rustic by comparison to its Japanese counterpart; though it should also be noted that Korea’s Jinro Soju is usually the best selling spirit in the world. I encourage you to try them both, because it’s fun to try new things! Having said that, I elect to use a Japanese shochu distilled from rice in my own work because I like its smooth, unchallenging profile. It is alternatively distilled from barley or sweet potatoes, but another interesting variant is made from brown sugar. I have not tried this, but look forward to it as a Low-ABV rum alternative. A testament to its mildness is the ways in which it is traditionally enjoyed: neat, or mixed with water or tea. This distilled product is typically bottled at 25% ABV, and is one to watch because in recent years its growth is explosive -- in 2003, it surpassed sake in domestic shipments for the first time. With the globalization of the American palate, you have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge by incorporating shochu cocktails into your repertoire.
If your personal taste runs to more traditional choices, consider the following:
Vermouth:. It’s a great time to be drinking vermouth, a fortified wine, and two of my favorites are Martini Bianco and Carpano Antica. Vermouths are categorized as sweet or dry, and in fact fall all over the range between the two designations. Martini Bianco opened my eyes to vermouth on the rocks with its delicate, floral elegance. It mixes especially well with fruit juices and liqueurs. Carpano Antica is technically a sweet vermouth, but its flavor is much more complex and its rich color its very visually pleasing.
Wine: If you have even a cursory relationship with wine, you know that they run the gamut of flavors and textures, and you probably have some idea what you like. Easy iterations of Low-ABV wine drinks include the Spritzer, Sangria and brunch drinks like the Mimosa or a simple Bellini made with Champagne and Peach Puree.
Beer: Can’t decide between a beer and a cocktail? You don’t have to. The popularity of beer cocktails is definitely on the rise. New and rediscovered styles of beer are expanding the palette for mixologists. The Michelada (beer with lime juice, hot sauce and salted rim) is a classic example, as is the Shandy, which is essentially equal parts beer and lemonade.
Liqueurs: Take care in your selection as the range of ABV in this category vary widely, but there are many liqueurs in a wide range of flavors that can add a pop of tasty flavor to your next original cocktail. You can even simply add a little liqueur to wine, sparkling wine, seltzer or club soda for a burst of refreshing Low-ABV flavor.
Recipes for Low-ABV Cocktails
My mixological style leans heavily on fresh ingredients, using house-made whenever practical, as I believe this is the surest road to delicious cocktails. Personally, I don’t mind the extra work. If you do, or you are pressed for time, try them with juice from the produce section of better grocery stores. Where syrup is called for, use the best-quality pre-made you can find, or follow my instructions and see that it’s easier than you think..
Campari & Juice
Campari is a solid choice as a base spirit for this endeavor, but if you want to bring your total percentage down even further, this drink can be made with Aperol. If made with Campari, the total ABV of the cocktail is 6.55%; if with Aperol, an even 6%. Also, these spirits blend really well with lots of juice varieties, including citrus but also strawberry and pineapple.
1.5 oz. (45 mL) Campari (or Aperol)
2 oz. (60 mL) Orange Juice
2 oz. (60 mL) Grapefruit Juice
Shake and strain over fresh ice. Orange wheel garnish if desired.
The Elegant Stranger
This is a drink I developed for the Summer 2013 Cocktail Menu for the HotelRED in Madison, Wisconsin. It contains a Japanese soju, which is a low-proof rice-based spirit. I used Alakey soju, but any soju of similar quality would be a fine substitute. A 48-proof soju will produce a total ABV of 12%.
3 oz. (90 mL) Soju
1.5 oz. (45 mL) Lemongrass Syrup*
.75 oz (22 mL) Lemon Juice
.75 oz. (22 mL) Quince & Apple brand Citrus Syrup
Shake and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass; lemongrass knot garnish, if desired.
*To make the lemongrass syrup, begin by dissolving 1.5 c. sugar in 1 c. water over low heat, add a handful of lemongrass and simmer for about 20 minutes, tasting as you go. Any agrarian harvest has natural variances that you can adjust as you simmer.
The Constable Crush is named for The Constable, an orange tree in England alleged to be over 450 years old. I developed this drink at the Great Lakes Distillery, using their house-made Orange Liqueur, which has a sturdy ABV; there are many varieties of this ingredient with lesser percentages which could produce an even lower ABV, should you so desire. I calculated this drink’s ABV based on 80-proof spirit, and its total value is 8.75%.
1 oz. (30 mL) Martini Bianco vermouth
.5 oz. (15 mL)Orange Liqueur
1.5 oz. (45 mL) Orange Juice
1 oz. (30 mL) Club Soda
Combine first three ingredients and stir, strain over fresh ice and top with Club Soda. Orange twist garnish, if desired.
Sangria is typically batched ahead of a large gathering for ease of service. It is best to let this recipe rest for at least a few days to let the fresh fruit flavors macerate into the liquid. I used Door Peninsula Blackberry Merlot, which has 11.5% ABV and an 80-proof Avion Tequila. When serving, pour 3 oz. of the mixture into a glass over ice and top with another three ounces of juice and white soda for a total of 6 ounces. If prepared in this way, your sangria will have a nice low ABV of 3.68%.
3 c. (711 mL) Blackberry Wine
1 c. (236 mL) Tequila
1 c. (226 g) Fresh Blackberries
1 c. (.226 g) Fresh Pineapple cubes
1 Lime, cut into wheels
Combine all ingredients in a glass jar. Give it a shake when you walk past it, for the next 3-7 days; then it will be ready to serve. When serving, pour 3 ounces over ice, and top with equal parts pineapple juice and white soda.
The Rum Rendition
Enjoy some international flavor with this simple riff on the sweet coffee drinks of Vietnam and Thailand, developed for the HotelRED. It takes a little preparation, but the strength of the syrup keeps it from tasting watered-down as the heat of the day melts the ice. This variation of the original has just 8% total ABV.
1 oz. (30 mL) Roaring Dan’s Maple Flavored Rum
2 oz. (60 mL) Very Strong Espresso Syrup*
1 oz. (30 mL) Espresso
1 oz. (30 mL)Milk/Cream/Soymilk
Shake vigorously for a slow count of ten and strain over fresh ice.
*To make the espresso syrup, I infused sugar with espresso by combining equal parts and letting it sit for a few days. Then I used a french press on the whole thing, but if you don’t have one handy, put your sugar and espresso in a strainer, on a filter and run hot water through it. Add strong espresso and sugar until you have the right consistency and a big coffee flavor. Also, to add to the mellowness of the result, I used sugar with some color to it. The idea is to make the syrup’s flavor so strong that your guests don’t lose any flavor as the ice melts.