4 Delicious Low-Proof Cocktails: Why Less (Alcohol) Is Actually More
Is the high-proof, high-concept cocktail on its way out? Bartenders—and with them their patrons—are turning to lower-proof, lighter offerings in the form of aperitifs or so-called session cocktails or shims. These lower-ABV (alcohol by volume) sips won’t overpower the flavors of your supper, and you can have a couple, even on a weeknight.
“I’ve been seeing an increased interest in lower-proof drinks over the past year or so, probably as a reaction to the spirit-forward—that is to say, all-booze!—drinks that were very popular a few years back,” says Brother Cleve, the cocktail consultant behind Boston bars like Empire and Red Lantern. He likes to flag his lower-proof offerings as “light and refreshing” on cocktail menus, and for home mixologists, he suggests chilled red or white Lillet, maybe with a spritz of seltzer or lemon slice. “One sip and you’ll think you’re on the beach at St. Barth’s,” he says.
Pamela Wiznitzer of Seamstress on New York’s Upper East Side, a “Campari-and-soda girl,” agrees there’s been a shift: “There’s a huge movement toward a more healthy lifestyle and going out even if you don’t feel like drinking heavily. Many of the top cocktail bars are offering lighter-style drinks that guests enjoy just as much as full-proof cocktails.” She’s partial to an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water) or an Aperol spritz (Aperol, prosecco, and soda water).
Of course, the Tinder-fication of the dating scene might have something to do with the trend, too. “Bar Pleiades sees a lot of first and blind dates, and understandably, there’s a bit of nervousness that comes along with that,” says Darryl Chan, head bartender of Café Boulud’s Upper East Side cocktail lounge, who suggests a Bamboo (with sherry, vermouth, and orange and Angostura bitters). “People are constantly sipping and killing a drink quickly. If your drink is a Manhattan, the date will get real interesting, real fast!”
At first popular with in-the-know service-industry types, session drinks—often made with fortified wines like sherry and vermouth, bitter liqueurs like amaro, and even beer and sake—are finding their way into shakers across the country. Acorn and Brider in Denver both dedicate menu space to “low-booze” selections for those who want something less potent—or who are still getting used to the altitude; Cambridge’s Harvest begins its drink menu with a lighter, appetite-stimulating section called Amuse. In San Francisco, just-opened Leo’s Oyster Bar features a selection of low-proof drinks meant to pair with lingering dinners at the bar.
Even in New Orleans—perhaps the city most associated with boozy excess—bars are adding lower-proof offerings. Cure, where tipples are inspired by the history of cocktails as herbal remedies, offers a champagne cocktail and a sherry-based bramble, and sister bar Bellocq mixes a selection of cobblers. “Low-alcohol cocktails are my specialty. Ever since I learned that my idol, Julia Child, preferred her martinis inverted [with the proportions of vermouth and gin reversed], I became obsessed with using less alcohol so you can drink more cocktails,” says Abigail Gullo of Compère Lapin in the city’s Warehouse District. Michael Neff of New York City’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge prefers a 50/50 Martini (with Brooklyn Gin, Maurin Dry Vermouth, and an orange twist) or an Amaro Montenegro neat: “I can sip on it for a while, and it has half the ABV as other drams I might enjoy.”
Whether you’re tapering off “Drynuary” or looking for a lighter cocktail option, here are four session drinks you can try at home.
by Jane Danger of Mother of Pearl in New York City
Shots don’t have to knock your socks off. Lower-proof offerings keep the ritual of a shooter.
0.75 oz. Jägermeister
0.25 oz. Poire Williams
Layer in a shot glass.