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Lowering the Bar

Posted on  | January 19, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Ever try a Tiki cocktail with not a drop of rum? Hard to imagine but there it is: the Mauser (Fino, Amontillado and Moscatel Sherries, lime, grapefruit, ginger, grenadine and two types of bitters) on the menu at Donostia, a Basque-style pintxos restaurant in Manhattan.

Getting attention for a drink menu today isn’t easy, as a thousand bars seem to bloom every month. But as cocktail culture continues to evolve, those aperitif, lower alcohol drinks like the Mauser that are neither excessively boozy nor overpoweringly complex are attracting curious attention. Tending to offer a more subtle, appetizing experience, and based frequently on Sherry, Port, amari, vermouth or other fortified or aromatized wines, these drinks provide a different sort of savory beverage experience. The trend is welcoming to both seasoned and neophyte palates, even serving as a bridge cocktail for those who tend to prefer wine.

Lower-alcohol drinks also provide some operational values—an operator can charge almost as much for something like the Bamboo (dry Sherry, vermouth and bitters) as it can for one made with full proof spirit. But four Bamboos will leave most guests compos mentis, while that many Manhattans can set the room aswirl.

This isn’t a quirk in cocktail culture, but a step in awareness that not all consumers have iron palates and constitutions. It’s easy to make an impression when ingredients include a 100-proof spirit—what’s harder is the merging of more subtle spirits.

Take the menu at the renowned NoMad Hotel in Manhattan, where head bartender Leo Robitschek and staff host numerous spirit and cocktail events. Even non-alcohol is well thought out here (basil-fennel house soda, anyone?) here, as well as aperitif cocktails like the Shuttlecock (Cabernet Franc, Moscatel Sherry, maraschino liqueur, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, blackberries mint and orange) and the Sippy Cup (Averna, Vermouth di Torino, ginger and lime).

“Lower proof drinks have been part of the cocktail scene since the first cocktails,” says Dinah Sanders, author of The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level. She cites the Sherry Cobbler as an early version of the quaffable lower-proof drink once commonly served and now making a return to menus.

A drink like the Sophia Loren (two ounces Aperol, 1 ounce lemon juice and ½ ounce bourbon, with rhubarb bitters), created by bartender Kim Roselle, provides a great example of a recipe that inverts the traditional main/complementary spirit proportion, providing the drink with body and depth as well as brightness, she points out.

Lighter Drinks Yield Dividends

Richard Woods, head of spirit and cocktail development for SushiSamba parent company Samba Brands, soon to launch Duck & Waffle in the U.S., lists a number of beer–, wine– and Champagne– based drinks on his aggressively culinary menu (the Marmite Black Velvet mixes a reduction of Marmite and Guinness with Champagne, for instance). He says in the UK, there’s a growing bartender trend to develop drinks with flavor and potency profile lower than the punchy stirred drinks so popular today. “It’s a good intro into alcohol for those who are not too familiar or those who find it too astringent,” says Woods. “There is a large number of people who don’t appreciate alcohol, and there are merits in adding drinks with low alcohol to bridge them from non-alcohol to a full-on alcohol drink.”

At the fine dining outpost Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA, drinks that fall into the lower-alcohol camp have always been a feature, says Beverage Director Jared Sadoian. Sanders’ book helped inspire a separate section of lower alcohol Sherry– and vermouth-led drinks. “We’re very much a food focused operation and structure our beverage program to highlight the food. One really great way to do that is to feature drinks and ingredients that aren’t as boozy and palate crushing as many cocktails can be,” says Sadoian. He commonly hears from servers that guests served strong cocktails are less apt to have a second bottle of wine at the table; offering lower alcohol options has helped nudge up wine and cocktail sales.

Retro Ingredients Step Up

It’s been some time since Americans commonly drank Sherry and vermouth, but Craigie on Main’s reputation for taking culinary chances means repeat customers are willing to sample unusual suggestions, he says. As a result, one of their most popular drinks is Sherry-based. Called the Grand Tour, the drink is essentially a Margarita with most of the tequila replaced with dry Amontillado Sherry, and has proven successful enough to make its way onto the standard menu. Other lower-proof drinks include the Flying Horseman (Chardonnay, Dolin blanc vermouth, Benedictine, lemon), the classic Chrysanthemum (Dolin dry vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, orange oil) and the Bitter Giuseppe (Cynar, Carpano Antica formula sweet vermouth, citrus bitters).

Like with Craigie’s unexpected success with the Grand Tour, when the lower-alcohol Sherry- and vermouth-based drinks served at Dirty Habit in San Francisco took off, bar manager Brian Means was gratified:  “I love Sherry and I wanted to make cocktails that are interesting using them, but I was really surprised when people really responded so well to the Black Flip [bianco vermouth, green Chartreuse, lime and ginger] and to the more savory Dirty Decision [chanterelle mushroom-infused Amontillado, Noilly Pratt Ambre vermouth, black garlic tincture and orange bitters]. For people who are looking more toward savory cocktails and lower proof, these work great.”

As is the case at other restaurants with a strong wine program, guests don’t necessarily want powerful cocktails before dining at Dirty Habit. With more than 30 Sherries served, however, getting customers to try drinks employing them has gotten a bit easier. “It’s cool to me as a bartender to see people get excited about Sherry and Sherry cocktails,” Means says.

Spanning Seasonal to Savory

On their seasonal drink menu, beer- and wine-based drinks have rotated in and out as well, one recently combining bourbon with a saison beer and eucalyptus, another mixing red wine with velvet falernum, lime juice and 12-year-old rum.

In St. Louis, Taste by Niche lead mixologist Kyle Mathis twice annually creates a new cocktail menu; recent lower-alcohol drinks include the Heart of Ruby (Cynar, Fruitlab Jasmine liqueur, absinthe, grapefruit, lime, grapefruit soda and Peychaud’s bitters). His favorite new cocktail is the Benelli, mixing Lambrusco with simple syrup, orange oil and thyme tincture.

“The Benelli has a crisp, aromatic quality and is really a take on a Champagne cocktail. We tend toward more savory drinks, and one way we’re making cocktails slightly lower and keeping bright profiles is cutting down base spirits, say, from instead of one and a half or two ounces to just one ounce and increasing the amounts of vermouth or aromatized wines,” he says.

While culinary minded operations are leading the way with lower alcohol drinks, other operations do so by concept or due to license limitations.

While a full liquor license is possible at Donostia in NYC, with more than 35 Sherries and eight vermouths by the glass the original concept was to build from low alcohol and stay mainly Spanish. “I definitely have put drinks on menus before that were more aperitif-style, but this is the first time I have had to really think about it and base an entire menu on low alcohol,” says drink creator and bartender Will Peet. As befits a Basque style restaurant, he eschews French aperitifs and Italian amari, employing only wines, beers and ciders from Spain.

Lower alcohol drinks are also a logical fit for operations positioned as healthier options; at SunCafé in Studio City, CA, cocktails include the Elderflower Bellini (St.-Germain, Peychaud’s bitters, peach purée and Prosecco) and a Michelada (tomato juice, peppers, lime and spices with pale ale) and the Carosello Cooler (Cynar, sour Belgian beer, mint and lemon.)

Bartender Michael Barret developed two sangrias that highlight the eatery’s organic fresh-squeezed juices: the Rosa Grenada Sangria (Languedoc red, seasonal pomegranate and rosemary) and the Sidra Blanca Sangria (Sonoma apple cider, apples, Languedoc white blend, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice).

Says Nevin Kumar, SunCafé’s beverage director, the drinks fit well with the lighter fare served, and even with a full liquor license, most of the SunCafé customers want fresh, organic and only light alcohol when dining there. But they also want creative and interesting: “We had a lot of fun playing with beer and wine, with the template already set up for organic and vegan. It was a challenge, but with lower alcohol, the fresh flavors of our ingredients come through.” 


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