One of the bigger trends on cocktail lists these days is serving low-ABV (alcohol by volume) drinks made with lower-proof spirits, wine and beer mixed with classic cocktail ingredients like bitters, garnishes and syrups.
Low-ABV drinks are typically defined by bartenders as using primarily low-proof liquors under 20 percent ABV or small quantities of liquors over 40 percent ABV. To give an example, the average vermouth, commonly used in low-ABV cocktails, has about 16 percent to 18 percent ABV. In more traditional cocktails, a higher-proof spirit, like mezcal, gin or whiskey, is used, which would typically range from 40 percent to 65 percent ABV.
The result is tipples that are not only delicious but also keep the drinker in the game without getting too drunk or, in some cases, packing on the calories. It also provides creative challenges and opportunities for bartenders: How does one make a complex, layered cocktail without needing to hide under the punch of high-proof spirits? There are many ways, ideal for parties at the bar or home entertaining, to keep alcohol consumption in check during the holidays.
“Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking can lead to poor decisions and increase your risk of accidents, high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke,” cautioned Dr. Jia Shen, cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “If you are planning to drink over the holidays, do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. The type of alcohol you consume also matters. A 12-ounce beer is equivalent to 4 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of 100 proof spirits,” she told HuffPost.
Aaron Paul, beverage director for Los Angeles-based restaurant group Alta Group, told HuffPost he loves low-ABV drinks, adding that his bartenders take a few different approaches when creating them.
“First, we always ask what the customer is looking for,” he said. “Some guests are looking for a lighter version of something familiar, like a Negroni, in which case we would pick a fun vermouth to work with and seriously lighten up on the gin.”
“We also love using sweet blanc vermouths as a cocktail base,” he added. “Blanc vermouths are just neutral enough to pick up fresh fruit and herb infusions, and are just bitter enough to give flavor complexity. We usually pick a seasonal fruit, a complementary herb and some citrus zest before letting them all infuse for a few days before straining the solids. You’ll end up with a clear, ready-to-go drink that is fruity and flavorful but comes across as more of a ‘cocktail’ than a juice drink.”
San Diego’s Trust Restaurant Group’s beverage director, Stephen Kurpinsky, shared his own take on lower-proof cocktails.
“Countless times in my career, I’ve seen guests at my bar struggle with that decision: Should I have one more? More times than not, I would suggest if you have to ask that question, you should ask for the check,” he explained.
“But there are many instances where a half of a cocktail or half of a beer would be perfect,” he said, conceding that it’s not always necessary or possible to just duck out of a holiday party. “Half beers are very easy to pour, and we do it all the time in the industry, but half cocktails are wasteful, as the other half gets thrown out. That’s what inspired me to create a daiquiri with all the flavor of a full-strength cocktail but only half the ABV.”
What if a guest wants no alcohol at all? “We are happy to do that; although we have found that with low-ABV cocktails, without a hint of spirits they can feel like a no-ABV drink,” he said, noting an entirely different category of drinks. “There is something about the bite of liquor that ‘makes’ a cocktail,” Paul added.
Shen favors wine for those who will choose to have multiple drinks in a single evening ― a fact that’s true for many holiday imbibers. Still, she knows some will stick to liquor. “If you plan to consume multiple drinks in an evening, especially those with liquor, play it safe. Choose beverages with lower alcohol content.”
Bartenders’ favorite ingredients for low-ABV drinks:
Prosecco, cava and other sparkling wines
Sherry, port and other fortified wines
Soju, sake and other rice wines
Amari like Zucca Rabarbaro or Fernet Branca
Liqueurs like Lillet and Pimm’s
Check out a couple of our favorite recipes for low-ABV cocktails.
By Stephen Kurpinsky, Trust Restaurant Group
1½ ounces amontillado sherry
1/2 ounce Dr. Bird Jamaican Rum
1 ounce lime
1 ounce house-made pineapple gum syrup
Pinch of salt
Mix all ingredients with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.
By Aaron Paul, Alta Group
1 ounce pomegranate juice
2 ounces Carpano Bianco Vermouth
1/2 ounce St. George Terroir Gin
2 drops of absinthe
1. Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.
2. Express a lemon peel and add it as garnish.