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Restaurant and bar operators report a small but growing market for low alcohol by volume cocktails. Commonly abbreviated as ABV, these drinks combine plenty of flavor and style with not much proof, and are ideal for lunch, brunch and any occasion when full-strength cocktails are simply too much.
Bartenders are mixing lower-proof signature drinks with the same tricks and techniques they use for fully loaded libations — fresh juices, herbs and produce, bitters, shrubs, flavored syrups — made in-house as well as by commercial brands. They also use lower-proof spirits, liqueurs and aperitifs and even standard wines, beers and spirits — the latter in modest amounts.
One and done
Operators are living in a Golden Age of creative, delicious craft cocktails. Nevertheless, a full-strength drink can be a “one and done” experience at times, says Brenna Washow, bar manager at Split-Rail in Chicago. “Sometimes you just want something light and refreshing.”
Split-Rail answers that need with Freedom From Want. This low-proof cocktail contains gentian and elderflower liqueurs, fresh grapefruit juice and rosemary. Flavor-wise, it’s about the interplay of the bitter gentian and the sweet, aromatic elderflower. Each is about 20 percent alcohol, half the strength of many other spirits. A dash of cinnamon bitters puts a bow on it. “You don’t feel bad about drinking more than one of these,” says Washow. “You can even have it at lunch.”
Lighter drinking may be a generational trait. “Millennials like to go out, but they don't drink as much as previous generations,” says Gerardo Bernaldez, beverage manager of Imperial Lamian in Chicago. He created the easy-sipping Pingguo cocktail, a medley of Calvados, Italian hazelnut liqueur, allspice dram liqueur, cider and white grape juice, with millennials in mind.
More is less
Low-ABV libations are core to the concept of Bad Hunter, a vegetable-forward restaurant in Chicago’s Heisler Hospitality group. “Our cocktails are rich, complex and refreshing, and they don’t put you down,” says Michael McAvena, beverage director. “We have a mantra here: ‘Drink more, less drunk.’”
The Spicy Carrot Cooler, a popular signature, combines French aperitif wine, fresh carrot juice, Jamaican jerk bitters, pineapple juice and small pours of tequila and banana liqueur. “It’s super refreshing, textural and juicy,” says McAvena.
Lower-proof tipples are dubbed Day Drinks at Regards to Edith, another Heisler restaurant in Chicago. The popular Deli Counter Fizz is a concoction of Polish buffalo-grass vodka, wormwood schnapps, pineapple shrub, lemon, soda and fresh celery. The flavor recalls the celery soda sold at some old-school delis, McAvena says.
Rightsizing the martini
Smaller cocktails with less alcohol is an idea so old it’s new again, and scaled-down beverages may soon be offered at Booth One, a new Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant in Chicago. The fine-dining spot is a revival of The Pump Room, the legendary celebrity haunt that hosted cocktail-sipping Hollywood stars from the 1930s on. “A big part of dining in this space is starting your experience with a martini,” says beverage director Nate Redner.
Patrons might appreciate a smaller martini that remains cold from start to finish. And they might be more inclined to enjoy wine with dinner afterwards. Plus there is historical evidence that drinks were smaller before the age of super-sizing. “If you look at old pictures, cocktails were about two-thirds or half the size they are today,” says Redner.
The bubbly path
Other low-alcohol libations breathe new life into champagne cocktails and wine spritzers. Take the Sophia Loren at Booth One, a bubbly, tangy affair that starts with a sorbet of grapefruit and Italian bitter aperitif shaken with fresh grapefruit and topped with Prosecco sparkling wine. At Split-Rail, Rhodium Nights mixes California Viognier wine, German pear liqueur, lemon and soda. Washow likens the sensation to “biting into a ripe green pear” with the round, viscous mouthfeel of Viognier.
Romancing the aperitivo
Il Porcellino in Chicago, also in the LEYE group, takes inspiration from Italian aperitivo culture — the practice of relaxing with a low-ABV sipper. “Aperitivi have been going strong in Italy for over a hundred years,” says head bartender CJ Catalano. “We’re just catching up now.”
The Negroni Sblagliato is an Il Porcellino hit. Translated from Italian as “wrong Negroni,” the name is a joking reference to replacing the customary gin of the Negroni with Prosecco.
Classic Manhattans, Martinis and Sazeracs are not likely to fade away anytime soon. But considering the sea change in consumer drinking habits, it is prudent for operators to offer some flavorful and stylish low-proof alternatives.
“It’s really important to consider the needs of all of your guests when you create your cocktail menu,” says Washow. “That’s where you have to start.”