It seems that the day when you choose a drink at a bar based on how “healthy” it is has arrived. “Healthy” might not be the perfect word, but it’s close enough to the truth when used to describe the reason for the existence of Low Alcohol abv (alcohol by volume) Drinks, a trend fast-growing in American bars, and spreading seeds to others around the world.
So why might someone want to go out for a night of drinking, but not actually drink (that much)? First of all, let’s clarify: we are not talking about mocktails. Those are alcohol-free mixtures of juices, sodas, flavored syrups and sometimes “non-alcoholic spirits.” So while your mocktail might have a splash of non-alcoholic whiskey or rum, it won’t ever tip you toward tipsy. No, we’re talking about a whole new class of cocktails, drinks that contain at most 20% abv when a Dry Martini contains 38/40%. And we are talking as well about a different kind of consumer. “If we want to think about reasons for this trend, I think health and well being are the most important ones, but also a different drink approach,” says Italian bartender Diego Ferrari, author of Low alcohol cocktails, new frontiers in mixology, who started mixing in this genre in 2014.
People who are looking for drinks that aren’t strong or sugary have become a challenge for bartenders. They have been tasked with creating best combinations out of a wide variety of products, but without the base spirits, they are accustomed to working with (gin, vodka, rum, etc.). Bartenders conscious of this trend are now, more than ever, reaching for those bottles that normally collect dust at the back of the bar: liquours, beers, bitters, amaros, fortified wines, ciders.
Photo Pasquale Formisano from “Cocktail Low Alcohol - New Frontiers in Mixology” by Diego Ferrari published by Bibliotheca Culinaria
“Consciousness” may be a better word to describe this new way of drinking. At least that’s the word bartender Vijay Mudaliar uses. He’s the founder of Native bar in Singapore, #4 of the Asia's 50 Best Bars 2019 list. “More than a trend I think this is a response of people being more conscious about drinking, people want to have the same amount of drinks but be able to function. And also it is important to understand that now people are more aware of flavors and cocktails, they want to experience different flavors and are looking for more balanced cocktails instead of spirit-forward ones,” says Vijay, known for his commitment to sustainability, and for his effort to utilize all native ingredients from that region of Asia in his bar.
Most of the elements on Native’s menu are natural, homemade, and fresh, and some of its cocktails are low in alcohol, and very rich in flavor. That is the primary challenge for cocktail bars choosing to take on this trend: it’s not about the amount of alcohol, but of the experience of texture and taste, and creating exciting combinations of the two. A homemade ginger beer, a natural syrup, or an infused soda with some seasonal fruits or spices can make all the difference. Even a small amount of a spirit like mezcal, that draws its distinctive flavor from the earth it was made in, can energize the mixture.
Outside of the bars, low alcohol cocktails can be a perfect pairing for good food. “With low alcohol drinks, you have so many flavour combinations that work really well, especially in the first courses if one thinks of cocktails as flavour bridges to mimick a dish with bright herbal and citrus profiles. These kind of drinks also are great to assist in palate-cleansing between courses, high acidity and hints of flavors from the upcoming dish keeping the alcohol low is best, as to never overwhelm a dish with spirits,” says Tim Butler, chef of Eat Me in Bangkok, where he makes a great team with bartender Pop Direkrittikul.
While this kind of pairing might not be a top choice for many chefs, there are many who take the risk and get surprising results. It’s like making a custom suit; these creations are born to interact with one specific body, or menu. Without too much alcohol in the middle.
Photo Native bar
Welcome back, aperitifs!
This is all good news for people who love classic cocktails because it’s very easy to fit this trend to classics like an Americano, or to swap out a regular Negroni for a Sbagliato (a “messed up” Negroni, which employs sparkling wine in place of gin). Many classic cocktails feature aperitifs, flavor-forward low alcohol all-stars. Aperitifs are a great way to mix up your drinking routine. Ask Argentinians, who are true adepts of the aperitif. Nowadays, you can find those spirits gracing many a cocktail in the great bars of Buenos Aires like Floreria Atlantino, currently number three in the Worlds Best Bars list. They serve a handful of low alcohol cocktails, none of which bear the name of the trend. They are simply interpretations of the amaro loving cocktail culture the country inherited from Italy.
Drinking is always a matter of mood and timing, almost everyone will switch up their preferences when a sunny day turns into night. With the rise of this trend, we’re sure to see many new versions of the Spritz during the day, and vermouth at all hours.