Lower-Alcohol Cocktails Catch On

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


The Goat Town cocktail at Goat Town in New York contains no hard alcohol, just Cardamaro, Carpano Antica, lemon, Muscadet, and red wine [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Most of the time when I'm talking or writing about cocktails, I'm focusing on the flavor, the complexity, the nuances and balance to be found in a drink, along with things that put this mix of ingredients into a larger context, such as a drink's history or its cultural character. One topic I don't usually talk about (except as an occasional caution statement) is an aspect of a drink that is an undeniable part of its appeal: a cocktail's relative level of booziness.

While you can make creative, delicious drinks that don't have a drop of alcohol in them, alcohol gives drinks more than just a buzzy boost for the drinker; it helps capture and convey flavors in ways that water simply can't. But as Kevin Sintumuang wrote in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, there's increasingly an option available for those who desire a cocktail but aren't looking for the boozy blitz of a martini: low-alcohol cocktails.

Often made with a base of vermouth or another aperitif wine such as Bonal Gentiane-Quina, and sometimes laced with the flavorful punch of a spirit such as calvados or whiskey (but in quantities that keep the drink's potency low), low-octane cocktails are popping up in a handful of bars and restaurants around the country. These drinks have a long history—the Vermouth Cocktail first appeared in bartender's guides around the 1880s—but until recently, they've been all but absent from most bars.

Lower-alcohol cocktails have some strong points in their favor. Most fortified wines have an alcohol volume of 20 percent or less, and even if a small amount of higher-proof spirit or liqueur is added, dilution from the shaking or stirring process helps keep the alcohol level in these drinks not too far off that found in a glass of wine. Plus, aromatized wines such as vermouth and quinquinas have an elaborate complexity of flavor, so a cocktail based on these wines can have a robust character without the alcoholic firepower to knock you off your barstool. Creative concoctions that include nothing stronger than aperitifs are a great way for restaurants that lack a full liquor license to expand the flavor spectrum of their drinks.

While lower-alcohol cocktails seem like a good idea to those who want to have a drink or two without feeling a blast of booze, not everyone is a fan. When Camper English covered the topic several months ago for the San Francisco Chronicle, commenters on the newspaper's website weighed in with accusations that these cocktails are simply a way for bars and restaurants to gouge customers by watering down their drinks, and that customers who aren't out to get wasted should simply stick with soda or water rather than wading into the namby-pamby land of low-alcohol cocktails.

I'm a big fan of the big-flavored, boozy drinks that still overwhelmingly dominate bar menus, but these drinks aren't for every occasion. There are times when I'm looking for something with more flavorful vavoom than a beer or a glass of wine, but for whatever reason I don't want the full-bore blast of a spirit-forward cocktail; for these times, lower-alcohol drinks fit the bill perfectly.

What about you? What do you reach for or order when you want something with more pizzazz than a glass of Pinot or Chardonnay, but a martini would be overkill?