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Skinny cocktails fatten up restaurant menus

Fueled by consumer interest in better-for-you products, research and development in advance of menu labeling, and the ongoing craft bar trend, a number of restaurant chains are promoting “skinny” cocktails this summer that are high in flavor but low in calories.

An example is the Agave Skinny Margarita offered at 68 McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurants. It combines tequila, agave nectar and hand-squeezed lime and orange juices for 136 calories. It is priced at $8.95.

“Skinny cocktails appeal to consumers who prefer cocktails over beer, yet often choose light beer for fear of the high calorie counts found in traditional cocktails,” said Kathryn Henderson, senior regional manager for the Portland, Ore.-based chain, in an e-mail. “The skinny version provides an alternative to the traditional that still tastes great without the added calories.”

It is difficult to generalize the calorie counts of conventional cocktails. But it would not be difficult for a drink made with high-proof distilled spirits, sweet liqueurs and sugary bar mixes and syrups to top 400 calories, beverage experts said.

At Morton’s the Steakhouse, the Lean and Green is one of five new under-200-calorie Spa-Tinis. Served in a champagne flute, it is made with soju — a 48-proof, barley-based distilled spirit from Japan with about half the calories of a typical vodka — agave nectar, lime juice, soda water and mint, and garnished with a cucumber wheel. It is priced at $14.

“It’s a really well-balanced drink that tastes like the spa waters they serve at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, with a little sake flavor from the soju,” said Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for the 77-unit, Chicago-based chain.

Such cocktails are partly an outgrowth of the calorie cutting many chains have done with food to prepare for impending menu labeling regulations, noted David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting in Lewisville, Texas.

“We know that the measure that was passed doesn’t require calories to be posted on drinks, but you can see the trend,” Commer said. “That train is down the tracks. I think it is important for everybody to have some lower-calorie offerings.”

At Z’Tejas, an 11-unit chain of Southwestern restaurants based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Antioxidant Martini is one of a line of drinks under 250 calories. It boasts dragon berry flavored rum, lemon juice, agave nectar, blackberries and blueberries crowned with a fruit-infused whipped topping. It is priced at $8.50.

“When skinnys first came out years ago, they were about rum and diet cola, which is not that exciting,” said Deborah Topcik, director of marketing for Z’Tejas. “But this is an enjoyable and relaxing drink.”

Also influencing some skinny drinks is the craft cocktail trend, with its insistence on fresh, high-quality ingredients and proper technique. McCormick & Schmick’s, for one, hand-squeezes lemon, lime and orange juices and hand presses mint for its light libations.

“As a scratch bar, we have all the fresh ingredients it takes to create custom cocktails, so it is easy for us to implement a skinny drink program that matches our overall focus on offering healthy dining options,” Henderson said.

At Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, low-cal tipplers are treated to fresh ingredients and premium spirits in the Mojita Bonita, a 99-calorie drink which contains vanilla vodka, pineapple juice, sugar-free vanilla syrup, lime juice, mint leaves and club soda.

“Guests are happy to have a healthy option that they truly crave,” said Maeve Pesquera, director of wine for the 64-unit chain, based in Newport Beach, Calif.

Testing 10 skinny libations in 46 hotels this summer is Columbia Sussex Corporation, based in Crestview Hills, Ky. The drinks are low-cal takeoffs on familiar favorites like the Top Shelf Margarita, made with añejo tequila, orange liqueur and light Margarita mix, with 183 calories, and the Skinny Lemon Drop, with vodka, orange liqueur and light sour mix, with 197 calories.

“The number of people who consume low-calorie products has nearly doubled during the past decade,” said Henry Michaud, vice president of food and beverage, in an email.

Because calories rise along with alcohol content, creators of skinny drinks may reduce the pour or switch to lower-proof spirits. Field from Morton’s noted that there are 70-proof and even 40-proof flavored vodkas that deliver considerable flavor with fewer calories than 80-proof vodka.

“In the next four or five years, guests of a restaurant will know exactly how many calories are in what they are drinking,” Field said. “This is a matter of giving them options.”

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