Healthy Drinking Tips For the New Year

Skinny Paloma, photo by Brittany Mullins
Skinny Paloma, photo by Brittany Mullins

Own it. In 2017, you’re probably not going to eliminate all carbs, master Crossfit, run a marathon or take a selfie of your new six-pack. But if you’re looking to cut sugar and calories out of your cocktails, we’ve got some fun, grown-up alcohol options that don’t involve Michelob Ultra, Rum & Tab or trolling the aisles at Costco for cases of Skinny Girl.

Bartenders from around the country were eager to share advice for ordering and mixing healthier drinks — from choosing the right traditional cocktails to their own innovative recipes that cut calories while cranking up the flavor.

One universal theme emerges — fresh ingredients are your best option and the majority of off-the-shelf mixers are a nutritional nightmare, especially if you’re cutting calories. “Most pre-bottled ‘just add booze’ cocktails are really, really, really, really overly sweet,” says Megan Splain, head bartender at Hourglass Tavern, 373 West 46th Street in Manhattan’s Theater District. “And I know it's everywhere but bottled sour mix just isn't right.”

Never Mix, Never Worry

Here’s some good news for traditionalists —“A ton of classic cocktails are actually pretty low in calories — Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and Gimlets to name a few.  Alcohol itself isn't that calorie heavy; it's everything that gets mixed into it.  The simpler the drink, the fewer calories it usually packs,” she emphasizes.

A little extra effort can go a long way. Juicing a few lemons yourself can drastically reduce calories vs. using a mix. Fresh lime, mint, and ginger also add flavor without calories.

Happy Hour = Hefty Hour!

Jack Rudy Tonic
Jack Rudy Tonic

"Avoid dive bar happy hour at all costs, because not only will you drink more (duh!), but that’s also when the bartenders pull out the Cranberry Ocean Spray and other high-sugar/high-calorie mixers," says Suzy Darling, owner of Hells Kitchen hangout Pocket Bar (455 W 48th St, New York).

For flavor without calories she recommends making a G&T with a tonic concentrate, such as the one from South Carolina-based Jack Rudy Cocktail Company or Tomr's Tonic, and then adding five ounces of club soda. “Also, especially at this time of year, a hot toddy is great, as is anything that uses water or club soda,” Darling says. “With lemon juice, a cinnamon stick, honey and hot water, a toddy is almost a health drink.”

Darling is a fan of Brittany Mullins, vegan chef and creator of the popular Eating Bird Food blog. She recommends Mullins’ Skinny Paloma (a far more sophisticated and delicious option than that mass-marketed, pre-made Margarita atrocity). At well under 200 calories, it’s a great alternative to restaurant Margaritas that use a sour mix, which run between 400 and 700 calories. This recipe serves two:

  • 12 oz/355 ml Fresh grapefruit juice (2-3 pink or red grapefruits, juiced)
  • 3 oz/89 ml Tequila or Mezcal (blanco or reposado)
  • 2 teaspoons/10 ml Fresh Lime Juice
  • Sparkling Water or Grapefruit Flavored Sparkling Water
  • Pink Himalayan sea salt (for the rim)

Divide tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice and ice into each glass. Stir to combine. Top with sparkling water and garnish with a lime wedge.

Mullins points out, “You get a healthy dose of antioxidants, like Vitamin C and lycopene, along with your cocktail.”

Bitter is Better

Jerry Slater has been the head bartender at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, run the Oak Room at Louisville, KY’s historic Seelbach Hotel and “The Best Airport Restaurant in the World” – Atlanta Hartsfield’s One Flew South. He’s also co-authored the upcoming The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails (October 2017).

“Drinking is like eating - its better to just eat real foods,” says Slater. “Don’t go to the store and buy a premix with hidden sugar. If you drink quality things with real ingredients, it’s the best way to eliminate simple sugars. I haven’t used a premix in 10 years.”

a world of bitter cocktails await at NYC's Amor y Amargo, photo by Amanda Schuster
a world of bitter cocktails await at NYC's Amor y Amargo, photo by Amanda Schuster

When prepared by an expert, even cocktails we think of as sugary aren’t so bad. Case in point: the classic Daiquiri. “It’s just two ounces (60 ml) of white rum, half an ounce (15 ml) of lime juice and half an ounce (15 ml) of simple syrup.” His other suggestions include replacing sweet Vermouth with Cynar— an Italian bitter liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants, including artichoke.

Slater and Darling agree: If sugar is your crack, try subjugating your sweet tooth by “developing your bitter tooth” as a New Year’s Resolution. Darling favors Sazeracs, which mix absinthe, bitters, rye or Cognac and just one sugar cube for sweetness, while Slater says, “A great bitter cocktail is a Red Hook, a variation on a Manhattan.” It features 2 ounces (60 ml) rye whiskey, ¼ ounce (7 ml) maraschino liqueur (such as Luxardo) and ½ ounce (15 ml) Punt e Mes, a moderately bitter and much less sugary variation on sweet vermouth.

Slater’s final advice for keeping it low in cocktails: “Get a little sugar and water and make your own simple syrup. That way you get to control the sweetness level." For citrus cocktails, "You can always up the citrus juice and take down the sugar a little bit.”

Distract Yourself With Beauty

Cocktail personality Matthew Biancaniello makes beautiful drinks from fresh ingredients that are surprisingly low in calories. Most are actually nutritious. The author of Eat Your Drink and host of A&E’s upcoming Good Spirits spent several years at LA’s Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, catering to the dietary requests of celebrities.

Travel for his A&E show took Mathew from Thailand to the Dominican Republic to Barcelona. In each location he created an original cocktail from locally sourced ingredients, including wild forest apples, various forms of fungus and even sea moss. Closer to home, he recommends cocktails featuring fresh pomegranate juice, which is relatively low in calories.

If you’re feeling ambitious at your next dinner party, try making his signature Stinging Nettle – which makes an impressive visual. The infusion takes a week; so plan in advance.

Stinging Nettle cocktail with Novo Fogo Cachaça, courtesy Novo Fogo
Stinging Nettle cocktail with Novo Fogo Cachaça, courtesy Novo Fogo
  • 2 oz/60 ml Stinging Nettle infused Novo Fogo or Avuà Silver Cachaça
  • 3/4 oz/22 ml Agave syrup (1:1 ratio of agave to water)
  • 3/4 oz/22 ml Lime juice
  • 1 oz/30 ml Fresh Pomegranate Juice
  • Pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
  • Sprig of fresh stinging nettle for garnish (optional)

For the infusion, take 1 pound (453 grams) of stinging nettle and place in an air- tight container with one bottle of the cachaça for 5-7 days.

Place all liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish if using.

Biancanciello adds, “Stinging nettle is a superfood with more protein than kale.”

A Workable Balance

But let’s not go crazy here. Eat Your Drink recipes are nutritious conversation pieces, but most of us won’t be going to that much trouble while playing barkeep for friends or work up the courage to order a drink with edible flowers at our local.

They’re for weddings, not Wednesdays.

Most of the New Year/New Attitude drinks we’ve featured are simple to make and easy to order without aggravating experienced bartenders. Though no substitute for acai and pilates, choosing Martinis or spritzes over beer, sangria or happy hour Margaritas is a “doable” resolution to help you start 2017 off right.

For more advice on drinking and weight loss, click here.

For more low sugar cocktail recipes, check out bartender Josh Powell's roundup here.