When you're sipping poolside or enjoying an afternoon tipple with friends, it’s easy to end up a bit tipsier than you meant to be. But there’s a new solution, and it’s a whole different way to shake, swizzle, and stir your way through a delightful drink (or two).
See if this sounds familiar: It’s 5 o’clock on a sunny summer day and you’re just packing up from the beach/backyard lounge chair/picnic table, heading home to get ready for the evening. But there’s a problem: You’ve been sipping your friend’s high-octane margaritas and are feeling more ready to hit the sack than the dance floor.
You’ve fallen victim to the perils of day drinking.
What’s the answer? Low-alcohol cocktails. No, this isn’t a Zima commercial; it’s a new way to think about the spirits that are going into your drink.
One Big Glass of Booze
Think about your favorite drink. If it’s whiskey on the rocks, it’s obvious how much booze you’re consuming. But many so-called “mixed drinks” are deceptive; did you know that a Manhattan, a Negroni, and many other cocktails are made only of booze? It’s true, there’s nary a drop of mixer in your glass, and even though it tastes delightful, it’s really just one big glass of booze. The top-rated Manhattan recipe on Allrecipes calls for 1.5 ounces of whiskey (80 proof) and a half ounce of sweet vermouth. Go to a bar, and you’ll likely get an even bigger drink, with more alcohol.
Tales of a Lower Proof
Though classic cocktails are still in demand at bars, lower-alcohol drinks are gaining traction, likely thanks to the increasing availability of lower-alcohol aperitivos (or aperitifs), and bar menus offering more amari- and vermouth-based drinks. These drinks are also called “lower-proof” drinks (a drink’s proof is twice the alcohol content by volume, so an 80-proof beverage is 40 percent alcohol). At 10-20 percent alcohol, they make easy sippers for people who don’t love the taste of spirits.
At Seattle’s Heartwood Provisions, beverage director Amanda Reed offers cocktail and food pairings, and says it’s often non-cocktail drinkers who are most receptive to lower-proof drinks
“They are softer, and people can drink more than one,” Reed says.
To pair the cocktails with food, Reed steers away from full-proof drinks in favor of those made with lower-proof ingredients, such as sherry, vermouths, and Amari. “The lower-proof cocktails work almost like a garnish to enhance the flavors of the food, rather than drowning them,” Reed says.
What to Order
In 2013, San Francisco author Dinah Sanders coined the term “shim” for a drink that “keeps you level,” like those little wedges you tuck under a wobbly table leg. When you’re hosting a party or heading out for a multi-stop night of eating and drinking, consider some of these “shim” options to keep you level.
Sherry and other fortified wines like Port and Madeira come in a wide range of flavors, from dry to sweet, raisin-y and complex, to citrusy and bright. They’re typically around 20 percent alcohol; consider asking a knowledgeable bartender to include one of these as your base spirit.
At Heartwood Provisions, spirits like whiskey and tequila are still used, but in more of a supporting role, in smaller portions (about a half an ounce).
Try This at Home
An easy low-alcohol cocktail to make at home is a Spritz. No, this isn’t your grandmother’s white wine spritzer, loaded with sugar. One of the most popular is an Aperol Spritz, made with the bitter orange-tinged Aperol (11 percent alcohol), sparkling wine (ditto), sometimes soda water, and a garnish. This drink looks pretty, has plenty of flavor, and keeps things on the lighter side. It’s also easy to assemble for a party, and you can try experimenting with a variety of amari, a type of Italian digestif that includes variations from Ramazzotti, Averna, Campari, and Cynar.
If you want to make a drink at home with sherry or port, make sure you don’t skimp when buying your bottle. Most sherries for cooking don’t taste very good, and some are made specifically not to be sipped. Dry sherries such as Fino and Manzanillo have delicate brininess and refreshing acidity, while medium-dry Oloroso or Amontillado have a bit more depth of flavor. Bring out the nuttiness of a White Port in a simple White Port and Tonic cocktail from South Carolina barkeep Brooks Reitz.
A refreshing, low-alcohol sparkling drink with a bitter-orange tinge.
A sherry-based drink served with fresh berries.
Low-Alcohol Cocktails from Amanda Reed of Heartwood Provisions
When you want to make drinks like a pro, Amanda has two suggestions for great drinks that taste divine and will impress your friends for a cocktail party or family gathering. “I have a martini play that's simple that people love called a Goldfinger,” she says. While a martini is normally made with 3 ounces of vodka or gin and an ounce or less of vermouth, this recipe balances things and takes them to a more flavorful finish.
1 1/2 oz Vodka
1 1/2 oz Dolin Blanc
Talisker Scotch Rinse (or any scotch)
Mix vodka and vermouth in a glass, stir with ice, and pour into scotch rinsed martini glass. No garnish.
A recipe the more advanced cocktail maker, or one who has shelves a bit richer in variety.
1 oz Yzaguirre Blanco Classico
1/2 oz Gin
1/4 oz Bertina Elderflower Liquor
1/4 oz Salers Gentiane
1/2 oz Lemon
Garnish: Lemon Thyme Sprig
Mix all ingredients in a glass or shaker. Shake until the outside of the metal shaker is frosted. Fine strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon thyme.