A stiff cocktail is great for enhancing a meal or unwinding from a rough day. Good ones also go down easy, leaving alcohol to creep up on even the most responsible imbibers. Moderation becomes key to staying in the game.
“Summer days of drinking literally have more hours, so drinking is a marathon [and] not a sprint,” says Sam Nellis, bar director at All-Purpose’s Shaw and Capitol Riverfront locations.
It’s not uncommon for a cocktail to contain two or three ounces of high-proof liquor, distilled at around 40 percent alcohol by volume or higher. A low alcohol cocktail aims for around half that potency through lighter spirits and ingredients that add punch without the extra booze. Forget weak and boring – these drinks can still be complex and flavorful.
“For us, it’s about making sure that the drink isn’t coming off as something that’s watered down,” says Drew Nannis, general manager and wine director at Rare Steakhouse in downtowan DC. “It’s got to have depth.”
Ingredients Delivering a Punch
Fresh herbs and fruit are common places to start layering tastes. Ginger, pepper and citrus zest are useful for recreating some of the heat and zip of a stiff whiskey or vodka, says Estadio Bar Director Adam Bernbach.
“They have a similar effect in that they give a bite,” he says.
Something as simple as a lemon wedge livens up Rare’s Suntory Toki whisky highballs, which are dispensed cold and carbonated from a special machine at a 4:1 ratio of soda to spirit.
Tea is also a popular spirit-free mixer that can round out a standard cocktail profile. Service Bar cofounder Glendon Hartley suggests pairing dark spirits like rum and whiskey with bold teas like English breakfast or Darjeeling, while light teas like jasmine or mint herbal varieties can accentuate gins and vodkas.
Leaning into Sherry Liquers & Aperitifs
Low alcohol doesn’t mean no alcohol, though. There are a few common categories to look out for when browsing menus for less potent sippers, especially aperitifs and fortified wines.
“There are amazing aperitif liqueurs out there that have bold flavors and low alcohol that can withstand mixing with other ingredients without losing their pop,” Nellis says.
He leans into All-Purpose’s Italian influences, using herbal, bitter and full-bodied liqueurs in many cocktails – especially Aperol and Cappelletti. Both appear as variations of spritzes on the happy hour menu at the Shaw and Capitol Riverfront locations. Sherry and vermouth, two types of fortified wines, are other good categories to get familiar with.
“I think we’re becoming much less afraid of sherry, and it’s a great go-to as something that packs a flavor punch and can mimic even some whiskey flavors – or accentuate them – without having the same ABV as a whiskey,” says Nick Farrell, spirits director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group (Hazel, Iron Gate, Birch & Barley, and more).
A sherry-based daiquiri is among several low-alcohol drinks Hartley has on his menu at Service Bar. And a sherry old fashioned fits right in with the Spanish cocktail menu at Estadio.
Benefits Beyond Less Booze
Given what can sometimes be out-of-the-box ingredients, communication between guest and server is the best way to find a cocktail that works for the moment – whether it’s something strong or light. At his forthcoming No Hands bar on Capitol Hill, Farrell says he also plans to include ABV and total volume on his drink menu.
“When you’re drinking a beer, you know the alcohol content and size every single time,” he says. “It should be the same for cocktails.”
Along with its health and wellness benefits, using less alcohol can also better complement food and avoid masking bold or subtle flavors.
“You wouldn’t have coffee with a salad,” Bernbach adds. “High-proof alcohol is going to overwhelm your palate.”
That’s especially valuable for anyone planning a longer meal and looking to start with something to wake up the appetite gradually. And while summer’s longer days and outdoor patio weather often call for lighter-drinking booze, it’s likely to be a trend that transcends season.
“These drinks aren’t limited to a time of year,” Hartley says. “It’s just human nature to want to enjoy a good thing for a little longer.”
Check out low-ABV libations at the spots below.
All-Purpose: 1250 9th St. NW, DC and 79 Potomac Ave. SE, DC; www.allpurposedc.com
Estadio: 1520 14th St. NW, DC; www.estadio-dc.com
Rare Steakhouse: 1595 I St. NW, DC; www.raresteaks.com
Service Bar: 926 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com
Service Bar’s The Fino Bianca
Three scoops lemon sorbet
Carpano Bianco vermouth
Top with soda
Rare Steak’s RARE-I-Tea
Earl Grey-infused vodka
Service Bar’s Sherry’s Daiquiri
Lustau Amontillado sherry