The Skinny on "Skinny"

Can a craft cocktail be “skinny”? Put aside for a moment the advice that anyone trying to lose weight should more reasonably be advised to follow (i.e., get on the wagon for a while). Just as Americans order dry but drink sweet, we as a people prefer the easy way of solving our weight problems.

Not only women drinkers have been seduced by the low-cal option; light and ultra-light beers built their business on male drinkers, picking up women as a rewarding afterthought. But the “skinny” cocktail craze — in the news because of controversy surrounding the ingredients and the pay-out for the best known brand, Skinnygirl — has the potential to eventually be just as popular among customers in many craft cocktail bars. Ignore trends like this at your peril, though there’s no reason to dash off and make any wholesale changes.

Two cocktail tweaks have come out of body-conscious Southern California recently. At the US Grant Hotel in San Diego, Jeff Josenhans uses Stevia grown in the hotel’s rooftop garden in some of his drinks, to good effect during my tasting. [Although sweeter than what my palate likes, the drinks are a function of what the market wants; San Diego patrons like drinks on the sweet side, in my experience.] And now, at the freshly opened Saltbox gastro-lounge, transplanted New Yorker Erin Williams has included in her long and historically honorable opening cocktail list a set of “Low Cal” drinks. Her Aperol Spritz, Blushing Fizz and Blood Orange Vino-jito are all highball-style, and employ no faddish flavors — just spirits, juices and wines in combinations that allow for an adult drink without excess calories or potency.

Drinks like these, under the guise of “skinny,” do something else sensible: They allow customers to have that extra drink without being pounded by alcohol. I hear you snickering, but for those with a low tolerance, intending to drive or who simply want the bright and bitter refreshment of alcohol without getting buzzed, low-impact alcohols are an important component of any list. Otherwise, your customers might just revert to that light beer, which, as easy as it is to serve, leaves profit on the table.

Speaking of low impact, Saltbox’s menu also includes a trio of zero proof drinks meant for adults — again, highball style but made without alcohol, instead focusing on fresh fruit, herbs and flavored syrups. For a long time, operators have been encouraged for all the right reasons to carry some kind of non-alcohol product — sparkling cider, high-end sodas, quality iced herbal teas — that customers who don’t like soft drinks from the gun could order, enjoy and not feel left out of the party.

I recently led a tasting during which a restaurant operator and spirit brand owner couldn’t ingest any alcohol because of a temporary medical condition. He and the many people like him who for various reasons can’t or shouldn’t drink alcohol at that particular moment deserve the same special treatment as every other one of your guests. Leave them, or the skinny seekers, out of your bar calculations and you risk a slow leak of customers, no matter how busy you are. So as personally repelled as you might be by “skinny” cocktails, and as uninterested as you probably are about zero proof drinks, it’s time to consider them. Great chefs are routinely asked to resolve customers’ dietary issues and respond to the challenge with fine dishes; is there any reason a quality craft bartender shouldn’t do the same?

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