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How Low Can You Go? Lower-Proof and Lower-Calorie Beverages Gain Traction

Posted on  | January 3, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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While it seems a new cask-strength whisky or high-octane tequila is launched each week, there is an opposing—if not equal—trend featuring beverage alcohol designed to not blast your socks off.

“There is definitely a trend toward including non-alcoholic and lower-alcohol cocktails on bar menus around the U.S. and beyond,” says Natalie Bovis, cocktail consultant and author of the mocktail bible Preggatinis. “While we all enjoy a good, strong classic cocktail, there are moments when driving home, health or fitness take priority.”

Bovis is working with a hotel group to create low-alcohol options for its restaurants and bars. Her client is not alone: Steakhouse chains like Morton’s and Fleming’s each offer low-cal/low-proof options. At Saltbox, a new bar and gastropub in San Diego, “Zero Proof” and “Low Cal” categories are listed alongside full-strength original and
classic cocktails.

“There is a growing cocktail culture in San Diego,” says Erin-Elizabeth Williams of Hush Cocktails, which created the Saltbox cocktail menu. “But San Diego is also a driving city. The designated driver shouldn’t miss out on all the flavor, so we added the Zero Proof menu.”

Calorie Counting

Of course, step one in assessing the “skinny” trend in beverage alcohol is to remember that alcohol contributes calories; the simplest way to make a low-calorie drink is to lower the percentage of alcohol. At the same time, low-proof and low-cal don’t necessarily equate: An 80-proof shot of tequila is lower in calories than the same amount of a 30-proof Irish cream liqueur. But the target audience may be the same: young drinkers, particularly women, concerned with fitness.
Bethenny Frankel’s pre-mixed Skinnygirl cocktail drinks (now owned by Beam Inc.) have spawned an entire subculture around low-cal drinks that tend to be lower in alcohol content (Skinnygirl White Cranberry Cosmo, the latest flavor in the portfolio, clocks in at about 10% ABV).

“Skinnygirl is definitely a lifestyle brand,” says Senior Brand Manager Melanie Hellenga. “It’s all about balancing everything in her life.” Most “skinny” cocktails run under 100 calories, 200 to 300 less than their traditional counterparts. “We don’t really focus on the ABV for the brand,” notes Hellenga, “But the ready-to-sell segment is definitely low proof.”
While Skinnygirl may have kick-started the low-cal cocktail movement, it’s hardly alone. One of the most buzzed-about seminars at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail involved “H2O cocktails” from Liquid Kitchen’s Kathy Casey—essentially water freshly infused with fruit and herbs and blended with vodka, creating refreshing, 80-calorie low-proof cocktails. Opting for ingredients like fresh fruit over prepared mixers instantly cuts the calorie count, as do low-proof base ingredients, like wine, saké or soju.
“Soju is distilled, but also has the koji [mold] presence in saké,” says Tara Fougner, director of marketing for Ty Ku Spirits, whose soju comes in at 24% ABV. “So it has more flavor than vodka, without the strength.” Saké and soju are also often available to venues holding a beer/wine license “so they can bring a cocktail culture in.”

When it comes to spirits, to some degree a distiller’s hands are tied: Most distilled spirits, like bourbon and vodka, have a minimum legal ABV of 40%. The workaround may be changing your spirit’s category. “There’s nothing magic about the 80 proof cutoff,” says Adam Kamenstein, CEO of Voli Spirits, which positions even its core product, Voli Lyte, as a “flavored” vodka (featuring a touch of citrus and electrolytes). Flavored vodkas are permitted to come in at 60 proof. “At that level, it gives you what you want out of alcohol, along with the viscosity and mouth feel,” he says. “It also allowed us to put in less of the flavorings, saving calories, because we didn’t have to worry about overcoming the burn of 80 proof vodka.”

Like Voli, Veev Açai (officially a liqueur) runs at 30%, and touts its low-calorie health benefits (Açai berries are high in antioxidants). On the Veev website, a menu of Skinny Cocktails top out at 125 calories for the Skinny Açai Cosmo and the Skinny Superfruit Margarita (which includes an ounce of Veev and ½ oz. of blanco tequila). Health-consciousness is also a key selling point for PAMA liqueur; this pomegranate-based liqueur is buoyed not only by its antioxidants, but also its lower alcohol content (17% ABV, 34 proof alcohol).

Another surefire route to lower-calorie cocktails is to focus on the mixer rather than the spirit itself. American Beverage Marketers’ Master of Mixes Lite line features three flavors—Margarita, Strawberry and Sweet N’ Sour—made from real fruit juice and featuring 20 calories or less per serving. A proprietary blend of ingredients (but no sugar) helps the Master of Mixes Lite mixers deliver mouthfeel and flavor that can hold their own in cocktails.

Variations on Established Themes

Even “normal” distilled spirits are touting low-cal benefits. Partida Tequila promotes its on-premise Partida Margarita as lower in both alcohol and sugar content, in part by ditching the Triple Sec and
adding water.

Courvoisier recently released a new lower ABV (18% instead of 40%) iteration called Courvoisier Rosé, a blend of Cognac and red wine. According to Jay Matthew, general manager, “The lighter, lower-proof liquid enables easy drinking for any occasion. It’s also a smooth alternative to the traditional flavor profile
of Cognac.”

In December, ArKay Beverages, a new company, began selling ArKay, an alcohol-free whisky flavored drink designed to target those who can’t drink alcohol for health or religious reasons. The low-proof trend may also be stronger in the U.K., where low- and no-alcohol wine sales are the rise, perhaps in the face of stringent anti-abuse ad campaigns, according to Nielsen data.
Many American winemakers and marketers have also reported an increased interest in wines in the 11-12% range, as opposed to 15-16%, in part because of their ability to pair better with meals. Lou Capitao, managing partner at Touchstone Wines, which produces Ricossa Moscato d’Asti, credits alcohol content in part for the incredible recent popularity of Moscato: “When we held focus groups, we found that everyone knew Moscato d’Asti has a lower alcohol content [about 5.5%], and many knew the rough percentages. And I’ve heard that often people will drink Moscato at the end of the evening, because they don’t want a strong drink.”

When it comes to menu options, determining calorie count or total proof requires some thought, says Hush Cocktails’ Williams: “It’s our job, not the customer’s, to sort out what works and what doesn’t by taking the time to look at the proofs, how many calories are in each ounce, and balancing these elements.”


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