Lower Proof is Through the Roof

Lower Alcohol Cocktails

One of the smartest and suddenly trendy ways to boost cocktail sales is the low alcohol route.

Not all your guests can manage cocktails built on multiple, strong spirits. But they also may not favor long drinks in which strength is managed by mixers. Instead, why not consider drinks led by Sherry, vermouth, Port, beer, wine or other lower alcohol ingredients?

“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.

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 menu (the Marmite Black Velvet mixes a reduction of Marmite and Guinness with Champagne). In the UK, there’s a growing trend to develop drinks with flavor that are less potent 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 Craigie on Main, Cambridge, MA, drinks that fall into the lower-alcohol camp have always been a feature, says beverage director Jared Sadoian. “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,” he says. Servers tell him that guests served strong cocktails are less likely to order a second bottle of wine at the table; offering lower alcohol options has helped nudge up wine and cocktail sales.

Craigie on Main’s reputation means repeat customers are willing to sample unusual suggestions, he says. As a result, one of their most popular drinks is Sherry-based; the Grand Tour, 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).

Lower-alcohol Sherry- and vermouth-based drinks served at Dirty Habit in San Francisco took off, gratifying bar manager Brian Means. “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.”

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