Low ABV Cocktails are Here to Stay

If macaroni & cheese is a comfort food, and quinoa is a super food then what are low ABV cocktails? According to sherry-swilling, spritzer-making, good-times-with-friends- loving bartenders, they are the unsung heroes of the cocktail menu.

Under the moniker of aperitifs, low ABV, or ‘soft’ cocktails, these lower proof drinks have a power unlike any other; they get the party started and keep it going all night long, without as many ugly repercussions later as you might have when really boozing it up. The ‘less pain, more gain’ theory means good food and good company are enjoyed and remembered. Today’s bartenders are embracing these drinks while guests are rapidly waking up to the beauty of what has been long forgotten as an integral part of the dining, or drinking experience.

To experience a beautifully balanced libation of this kind is an eye-opening look at life. And sometimes art. As Carol Donovan notes,

“I have two low-octane cocktails on an upcoming list, both because they’re delicious and because this will be a playhouse where we need the guests to remain awake for the show.”

While a sherry cobbler may be appealing once a guest asks a few questions and starts exploring new options in the low ABV realm, you can count on drinks like an Aperol Spritz or Campari and Soda being on the tip of many guests’ tongues when it comes to ordering a cocktail at the beginning of an evening out.

Certainly some of that can be chalked up to the familiarity of Campari’s ubiquitous presence on every bar, but it’s also because ingredients like Campari simply taste good. And play well with other things. Jacques Bezuidenhout of Kimpton Hotels says about Campari,

“It really opens itself up to many styles of cocktails. Campari sits at 24% ABV but really has a lot of flavor and complexity that carries through in a cocktail. So flavor- wise, it tastes like you are having a normal cocktail. It also carries some bittersweet qualities that make for great Aperitivo styles drinks.”

Fizz, added by the introduction of Champagne, Prosecco, or Club Soda in the case of a beloved drink like the Americano, seem to be a binding thread for guests when they imagine what their aperitif might be on any given evening (or day, as low ABV cocktails are ideal for day drinking.)

Karen Fu, of Happiest Hour, Mayahuel, and a contributing editor to Food & Wine’s 2015 Cocktails, comments,

“When people think of aperitifs, they think of spritzers and an Americano right away, but they are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The mental path the guest takes when they talk about bubbles and aperitifs is that they equate the notion that something with bubbles is fun. Which is true.”

What Fu also discovered was true when developing her recipes for the book was that low ABV spirits were easy to pair with something fruity or from the greenmarket, thereby making the ingredients more accessible to someone making these drinks at home.

Learning to drink these things at home was certainly the experience of Audrey Fort, Portfolio Director for EuroWineGate, the company which is about to launch La Quintinye Vermouth Royal, crafted from red or white Pineau des Charentes (a sweet fortified wine, blending grape juice and Cognac from the same estate, then aged in French oak barrels for at least one year), selected wines from Southern France and between 18 to 28 botanicals here in the US shortly.

As a French woman whose first experience with vermouth began when she started drinking wine at a young age (as the French do), she is thrilled to see its resurgence in the market. Fort recalls,

“Vermouth used to be regarded as an old-fashioned, obscure kind of wine that only Grandmas would drink after 6pm in France. And refrigerating vermouth was not a well-spread habit, which made it even harder to enjoy it properly. At that time, I really liked having white vermouth over ice or with some club soda with slices of fruit during summer; I didn’t know I was enjoying my first low ABV cocktail! As I am more and more careful about balance and moderation in both food and alcohol, vermouth becomes my go-to when it comes to low alcohol cocktails.”

Logan Ronkainen

Logan Ronkainen

Photo by Francine Cohen

Logan Ronkainen, Head Bartender at Trattoria Il Mulino, is a big fan of Europe’s other ubiquitous low proof offering, amaro. When not enjoying his favorite Cocchi Americano with soda and an orange peel he is working amaro into as many drinks as he can on his menu. Ronkainen loves the versatility that the varied flavors of amaro provide, ranging from the brightness of Braulio to the lushly balanced Lucano and everything else in between; each brand with its proprietary herbal recipe providing a different tool for his cocktail creation and making the Trattoria Il Mulino dining experience even more enticing.

Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano

Ronkainen especially appreciates a low ABV option for its long range play. He explains,

“An aperitif whets your appetite; it’s not too much on empty stomach, but it guides you in. Where I really appreciate low ABV drinks is when I am at events all day. It is perfect if you want to keep going but don’t want to get trashed.”

Aside from the delicious nature of low ABV cocktails and spirits and their ability to help you remain even keeled, there’s a good business reason to include these drinks on your menu. David Roth, who is behind the bar at Cask, adds,

“Why love low ABV drinks? Because they taste delicious, can be priced accordingly, encourage guests to have another round and use previously common and now uncommon ingredients.”

Taking things from the familiar, like in Fort’s grandmother’s day, to the unfamiliar, and back again is the track that these drinks and spirits are on. Jack McGarry, co-founder of The Dead Rabbit concludes,

“Regarding low alcohol drinks, I think it’s definitely something we are going to see a lot more of, and I wholeheartedly embrace it. It’s a sign of the cocktail culture developing. I actually have noticed myself moving that direction because I don’t want the latest riff on the Old-Fashioned or Manhattan, I want something I can have 3,4 or maybe even 5 of. We had a local vermouth and tonic in a bar in Hamburg and it was delicious. Low proof and refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the liquor-heavy drinks are going anywhere but I think low alcohol drinks are very much a step in the right direction. It adds longevity to your night, something bitter and boozy cocktails can’t. Cocktails are like first dates. Low Alcohol, Mocktails or Shims are like a lasting relationship.”

Cedar-cocktail_courtesy-EWG-Spirits

Cedar

Photos courtesy of EWG Spirits

Cedar

by Alex Kratena, The Langham London

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/5 oz. Fino Sherry
  • 1 1/5 oz. La Qunitinye Vermouth Blanc
  • 1/2 oz. Krucefix Pine
  • 1/6 oz. Cedarwood Syrup
  • 1 dash Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Grapefruit Zest

Preparation: Place all ingredients in a mixing lass and stir until chilled. Strain into a decorative bowl that can be sipped from. Garnish with grapefruit zest.


La Quintinye Royal Vermouth Blanc

La Quintinye Royal Vermouth Blanc

Photos courtesy of EWG Spirits

Royal Premier

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Blanc
  • 8 oz. Club Soda (or Premium Tonic)
  • Nashi Pear Slice, for Garnish
  • Mint Sprig, for Garnish

Preparation: Served in high ball glass. Garnish with a Nashi pear slice and sprig of mint.


Rhuby Collins

Rhuby Collins

Photos courtesy of Rhuby

Rhuby Collins

By Jolene Cadwell Global Ambassador, Rhuby

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz. Rhuby (rhubarb liqueur)
  • 3/4 oz. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
  • Dash Orange Bitters

Preparation: Build ingredients in ice filled Collins glass and top with soda. Garnish with seasonal fruit.


Rhuby Basil Martini

Rhuby Basil Martini

Photos courtesy of Rhuby

Rhuby Basil Martini

By Jolene Cadwell Global Ambassador, Rhuby

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Rhuby
  • 5-6 Basil Leaves, plus One for Garnish

Preparation: Add Rhuby and basil to Boston shaker, fill with ice. Give quick hard shake.Fine strain into coupette or martini glass and garnish with basil leaf.