Cocktail 101: Five Essential Low-Alcohol Drinks
Last week, we looked at summer coolers—5 essential cocktails that take the edge off summer's heat. This week, we'll continue in the same vein, but lower the proof a little...or a lot. We'll look at drinks that are low in alcohol or even lack it altogether. These drinks stimulate the appetite without swamping your stomach. They're excellent for parties, because they buzz your guests without totally inebriating them; they cool you down and perk you up without making you feel heavy. And some of them, for good reason, have been around almost as long as carbonation.
Vermouth and Soda
Vermouth and soda is a classic low-alcohol drink, enjoyed throughout much of Europe. It's past time we Americans cottoned on, especially now that delicious, complex-tasting vermouths such as Dolin are available here.
When I speak of vermouth, I speak also of other aperitif wines, as well. (I covered this topic thoroughly several months ago.) Vermouths and other aperitif wines are herbal and bittersweet, taking their flavors from aromatic herbs and roots. Ingredients can include quinine, cardamom, coriander, citrus peel, juniper, and other herbs.
Vermouth is fortified with additional alcohol (usually grape brandy), meaning they're higher proof than most wines, but nevertheless they are still moderately low-proof, about 15–18% alcohol by volume. Stir them over ice and top them with soda, and your drink clocks in at about 8 or 10% alcohol.
Don't limit yourself to sweet and dry vermouth, either. Lillet is great in the summer, and this year, the brand has introduced a third variety, Lillet Rosé. I've yet to try it, but I'll bet it's superb with soda.
Remember: Vermouth is wine, and you should treat it as such. Once you've opened it, if you're not going to finish it right away, you should refrigerate it. Otherwise, like any other wine, it will oxidize and spoil. If you think you hate vermouth, it's entirely possible you've had spoiled vermouth. You might like it when it's fresh.
Bitters and Soda
On a similar note, try bitters mixed with soda. In this case, I don't mean cocktail bitters, but bitter liqueurs such as Campari. These liqueurs draw their flavors from a variety of herbal sources, but generally, the bitterness comes from such ingredients as quinine, gentian, and similar herbs. Italy and other European countries offer literally dozens of bitter liqueurs, many of which are not imported into the United States.
But for all the products Americans never see, there are still a surprising number of bitter liqueurs available here. Campari is probably the most famous, and the easiest to find. Campari and soda is such a popular drink in Europe, in fact, that you can buy it as a bottled beverage.
Campari's not for everyone, though. Lighter, somewhat less bitter liqueurs include Aperol, Cynar, Gran Classico, Cardamaro, Averna, and Ramazzotti.
Ah, the wine spritzer, hallmark of the Seventies and Eighties, like wide lapels, fern bars, and Matt Houston. If you think the wine spritzer is necessarily a joke, however, you should reconsider. First off, although the traditional spritzer is wine, club soda, and a hit of citrus juice, there's no need to limit yourself to that, yummy though it may be.
Consider the Aperol Spritz, a mix of Aperol bitter liqueur, fizzy Prosecco, and club soda. Here's the recipe.
Aperitif cocktails bridge the gap between wine- or vermouth-based drinks and boozy cocktails like the Martini. Usually a little bitter and light on the booze, aperitif cocktails are perfect appetite enhancers.
For inspiration, try some of these recipes from the Modern, in New York City.
Go Colonial! I wrote about shrubs here last summer, but let's briefly revisit. Shrubs are a way to preserve produce, similar to making jams, jellies, and preserves. In the case of shrubs, though, the preservation agents include not just sugar but vinegar, as well.
The main idea is simple: you start with fresh fruit, and it doesn't have to be pretty. The boxes of seconds (bruised or otherwise damaged fruit) that some farm stands sell are perfect. Crush the fruit, add sugar and vinegar, and let it work. You can make a syrup on the stove using sugar and fruit, and then add vinegar to that once it cools. Or you can use a so-called cold process, mixing sugar with crushed fruit and letting stand in the fridge to macerate, so that the sugar draws the juices out of the fruit and slowly makes its own syrup.
I've outlined each method, its pluses and drawbacks, and details of each process in the here.
Or, if you happen to be in NYC, stop off at Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side and get a bottle of their Beet and Lemon Shrub, which is far tastier than even I expected it to be.
So, you've got your shrub. Then what do you do? Shrubs are delicious just on their own, over ice. Or you can top them with soda water. Either way, you get a fruity-tart thirst quencher that also happens to be non-alcoholic.
Or you can mix your shrub with booze. Shrub and vermouth is delicious. Shrub and a bitter liqueur? Hm, haven't tried that. Worth a shot. Shrub and rum? Early American colonists were fans, and those folks knew their boozing. Gin, vodka, and even whiskey wouldn't be out of bounds either. Try them and see what you like.
How about you? What drinks are keeping you cool this summer?
About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and adorable young son. You can follow him on twitter at @dietsch.