By David Hammond
In January, we begin the slow, doomed annual trudge toward self-improvement, resolving to lay off rich meats and cheeses, and, of course, the booze we’ve enjoyed during the holidays.
To improve the chances of making good on resolutions to stay on the wagon, you might need to customize the wagon. Instead of going cold turkey and swearing off the bottle forever (which means three weeks, max), consider sticking with cocktails with a low-ABV (alcohol by volume). Then you can make a resolution more likely to be kept, and you might even enjoy drinks, dinner and life a little more.
In November, I ran into Josh Fossitt at Bad Hunter, where he bartends. Fossitt tells me that for the vegetable-forward menu at the restaurant, he makes tasty, appetite-provoking cocktails that contain less alcohol than many traditional cocktails. As Fossitt explains, this is not a new thing. “If you look back at the beginning of cocktails, punch is basically where it all started. It’s the original low-ABV cocktail, made in a way in which it could be enjoyed for hours on end: low acidity, low alcohol content and low sweetness,” he explains. “These are essentially the same things modern guests are asking for today, even if they aren’t exactly saying those words. Although “not too sweet” has become a favorite tattoo of the cocktail bartender due to its ubiquity! It’s a good idea because none of our livers are getting younger, and we could afford to be a little kinder to them. Also, many people are using cocktails as a time-killer while waiting for a seat at a busy restaurant, the start of a sporting or theatrical event or the start of a long, lazy day with friends on the weekend. If you find a delicious and balanced cocktail that has two or two-and-a-half ounces of base spirit that’s at least forty percent alcohol [eighty proof], you may be able to sling back two or three inside of forty-five minutes. Even if you’re an experienced drinker, that can be a lot of alcohol that will hit roughly twenty minutes later, and most likely will not be your only set of drinks for the night. However, if those first two or three cocktails are roughly fifty to sixty percent less alcoholic, it disproportionately increases your chances of not only remembering your night, event, meal, experience, conversations, but also your chances of feeling better in the morning and extending the possible length of your evening out.”
Amit Gilad at Green River concurs that there are good reasons for starting a meal with a low-ABV cocktail: “First, it will help getting you to the end of the meal without being too intoxicated, and will pair with starters and snacks that are usually served at the beginning of a meal. A light-bodied, low-ABV cocktail will also help cleanse your palate between bites and between dishes. Plus, if you’re not a big drinker, a low-ABV cocktail is a great way to drink something interesting and fun without resorting to a standard soft drink.”
“Low-ABV cocktails are great before and during dinner,” says Liz Mendez at 2018 Michelin-starred Entente, saying, “They get the palate ready to enjoy food, without overpowering any of the dishes. “
Bars are places where romance (or something like it) can begin, and Michelle Szot, general manager and cocktailian at Split-Rail, tells us that “Low ABV cocktails are awesome because you can have quite a few and stay sexy. Drinking low proof allows you to try more cocktails and keep your wits about you than if you’re strictly drinking full-blown booze!”
How to Go Low
So what are some ways to lower the ABV of cocktails? The obvious way, says Gilad, is to “use a low-ABV base, like fortified and aperitif wines and liqueurs. Stretching the drink even more and serving it as a highball with the addition of ice and soda or juice will dilute the base and make it even easier to drink.”
At Cindy’s, Nandini Khaund suggests a low-ABV aperitif such as Campari and Aperol that will “stimulate your appetite and prepare you for the intake of deliciousness.” As a bartender, or “spirit guide” (her official title), Khaund is always happy when making cocktails, to “get creative by using lesser-known amaros and vermouths as well, and there are many opportunities for great pairings when using fortified wines.”
At recently opened The Delta, Adam Kamin likes to use “low-ABV modifier spirits like Gran Classico and Aperol along with wine-based spirits. Pedro Ximénez sherry and Quinta do Noval port are the best way to lower the ABV in your cocktails. Not every cocktail needs to have a two-ounce base-spirit pour of a 100-proof bourbon. We’re not all John Wayne—nor should we try to be… For everyone’s sake.”
Fossitt believes that when reducing the alcohol level of a cocktail, there are easy-to-use additives like “tea, verjus, fortified wine, traditional wine, beer, cider, milks of all kinds (dairy, coconut, oat, almond) and fruit and herb infusions in water. We’re actively seeking ways to make this happen without relying on a single category of beverage, as historically is how bars tend to do it. We are utilizing every low-ABV tool available. Having said that, we often use higher proof spirits in small quantities for flavor, body or structure. Just because the cocktail is lower in alcohol doesn’t mean it can’t have eighty proof (or higher) spirit in it.”
Go Traditional or Get Creative
There are perception issues when making a classic cocktail with less intense spirits. Kamin explains that “When people order classic cocktails, they are go-to cocktails for them. They know what they’re supposed to taste like. So, it’s much harder to make, say, a Manhattan as a low-ABV cocktail that will still taste like a true Manhattan. Going for an original cocktail and having it built to be low-ABV is the best way to go.”
Szot concurs that “If a guest is used to drinking stiff classics, like martinis or an Old Fashioned, they’ll definitely notice there’s less alcohol. However, it’s possible to make a stirred and completely alcoholic cocktail that’s still lower in proof; our Romance in Durango is primarily Cocchi Rosa, with Dolin dry vermouth and a little bit of Prairie vodka. All the components are alcoholic, but lower in alcohol than, say, a bonded bourbon.”
“Using a classic cocktail can be a good way to introduce guests to low-ABV cocktails,” says Mendez,” but I like to create new cocktails to get guests excited about creativity with lower ABV.”
Here are some low-ABV cocktail recipes that follow Mendez’s interest in being low in alcohol, high in creativity.
Low-ABV Cocktail Recipes
Spicy Carrot Cooler
Joshua Fossitt, Bad Hunter
1 dash Bitter End Jamaican Jerk Bitters
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz pineapple juice
.75 oz carrot juice
.5 oz Giffard Banane du Brésil
.5 oz Blanco Tequila
1 oz La Troussepinette Blanc
Shake, strain into a port glass, no garnish.
Joshua Fossitt, Bad Hunter
.25 oz tonic syrup
.25 oz Acqua di Cedro
1 oz rhubarb-infused Tanqueray No. Ten
1.5 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
Stir, pour over 2-inch ice block, no garnish.
Amit Gilad, Green River
1 oz pear and cinnamon syrup (pears poached in a cinnamon and allspice-infused simple syrup)
1 tsp Creme de Peche
1 oz Salers Aperitif Labounoux Gentiane Liqueur
In a wine glass, combine ingredients over a few ice cubes; add sparkling wine to taste and stir well before serving; garnish with a slice of poached pear.
Flor de Fino
Liz Mendez, Entente
2 oz Fino Sherry
1 oz lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 egg white
Build all ingredients in a shaker tin and dry shake; add ice to shaker and shake, strain into a chilled coupe, garnish with sea salt, and three drops bitters
Nandini Khaund, Cindy’s
1 oz Amaro Meletti
1 oz La Colombe Pure Black Cold Brew
.25 oz Campari
.75 oz pineapple juice
.75 oz lime juice
.25 oz demerara syrup
Pinch of Maldon sea salt
Shake all ingredients and pour over crushed ice. Garnish with freshly-grated cinnamon and a cinnamon stick.
The Other Woman
Adam Kamin, The Delta
1 oz Aperol
1 oz Giffard Vanille de Madagascar
.75 oz fresh lemon juice
.5 oz demerara syrup
Three dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Seven mint leaves
Muddle mint in serving glass. To shaker tin, add all the other ingredients, add ice, shake for ten seconds, strain and pour into serving glass that has the muddled mint in it. Fill serving glass with smashed ice. Garnish with mint sprig.
Freedom from Want
Michelle Szot, Split-Rail
1 oz St. Elder elderflower liqueur
.5 oz Salers gentiane liqueur
1.5 oz fresh grapefruit juice
2 dashes cinnamon tincture
Shake, strain, serve in a rocks glass on ice, garnish with rosemary sprig.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org