Spirits

The Rise of Session Cocktails

Fueled by consumers’ thirst for experimentation and mindful consumption, bars are serving up more low-ABV drinks

Cocktails
Cocktails from left to right: Basilinia, Kitty Highball, and Vatican City. Photo by Lizzie Munro.

Low-ABV cocktails are nothing new. But their popularity at restaurants and bars appears to be growing. Piggybacking on the immense growth of sessionable beers, and combined with consumers’ thirst for experimentation and more mindful consumption, this category of cocktails is showing measurable results, making up as much as 25 percent of cocktail sales at some venues.

The lower-proof cocktail trend is reflective of a cultural evolution that has seen consumers shift to drinking less but better, according to Eric Schmidt, the director of alcohol research for Beverage Marketing Corporation, a consulting, research, and advisory firm for the beverage industry. “We see it as a significant change,” Schmidt says. “It has a lot to do with younger consumers being more mindful of what they drink.” Health is a key element, but so is the desire to stay in control. Says Schmidt, “Low-ABV cocktails give consumers the ability to have a few flavorful cocktails and remain sober in a relaxed, casual environment.”

Although there’s no industry-wide definition for what a low-ABV cocktail is, Drew Lazor, the author with the editors of PUNCH of the newly released Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion (Ten Speed Press), defines the term as a cocktail with no more than three-fourths of an ounce of a strong spirit. The remainder of the recipe is filled with lower-proof vermouth, sherry, liqueurs, amari, and nonalcoholic ingredients. “The portion-control aspect of building a session cocktail is really the secret,” Lazor says. “You’re still chasing big flavor, just at a lower proof.”

A Growing Thirst for Sessionable Experiences

Appealing to customers’ desire to try new drinks while imbibing responsibly is a new impetus propelling experimentation in the bar space. At Acorn, a contemporary American restaurant in Denver, “Low Booze” cocktails have their own section on the menu. The lower-proof cocktails are priced at $10, about $1 to $2 lower than their higher-proof alternatives, and include selections like the Age of Exploration, a refreshing tropical cocktail made from Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Alvada Madeira, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, hibiscus water, lime, and mint. “It’s about giving guests the control and freedom to create their own experiences,” says Bryan Dayton, who is the co-owner and beverage director at Acorn and three other restaurants. “All we need to do is make it enjoyable and delicious.” Lower-proof cocktails account for about 15 percent of total monthly liquor sales at Acorn.

First Tuesday in November cocktail
First Tuesday in November cocktail. Photo courtesy of Acorn.

Lower-ABV cocktails lead guests at some bars to stay longer, ordering more rounds and increasing their check averages. “There are folks who are looking for something a little lighter in alcohol after they’ve had a big, boozy cocktail or two, and still want something very flavorful,” says Houston Eaves, the beverage director for Downstairs at Esquire, Esquire Tavern, and El Mirador in San Antonio. “There’s also a good number of open-minded people who are ordering these cocktails to try something they haven’t had before, and who have only heard of these obscure ingredients such as sherry, madeira, and vermouth.” A low-ABV riff on the Old Fashioned is popular at Esquire Tavern—it features two ounces of Equipo Navazos Fino en Rama Sherry, a quarter ounce of Tempus Fugit Crème de Banane, and a few dashes of Angostura Bitters, served on the rocks. Drinks like this, in the low-ABV category, says Eaves, make up 15 to 20 percent of the bar’s total cocktail sales.

Neal Bodenheimer, the owner of Cure in New Orleans, updated the cocktail bar’s menu in 2016 to include several low-proof cocktails. “They are the best for day drinking, especially in the New Orleans heat,” he says. “We had so many brown and stirred classics that we quickly realized that only a small portion of our guests were built to handle those kinds of drinks. Some guests can usually only consume one or two full-proof cocktails, but with low-proof drinks, they could realistically have two to four.” The low-ABV best-seller on Cure’s seasonal cocktail list, accounting for 14 percent of sales, is a sparkling shrub cocktail. The current offering is a passionfruit-and-cayenne shrub mixed with Cava. “It’s about responsibility,” Bodenheimer says, “and catering to guests’ desires.”

Other venues use lower-ABV cocktails to give bartenders a broader palette for showcasing favored ingredients. “We are passionate about aromatized wines and amari, so low ABV is a big part of our program,” says Tara Heffernon, the founder and bar manager of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, California. Two of Duke’s 17 regular cocktails are low ABV. The Pimm’s Cup #66 features Glasshouse Shiso Brandy, shiitake mushroom tea, house-made ginger beer, and yuzu syrup made from essential oils; The Bitter Root, which uses both Leopold Bros. and Cocchi Rosa aperitifs, sparkling wine, and Duke’s own blood orange bitters.  Additionally, at least two of five daily seasonal specials are low-ABV cocktails, typically a featured sangria and a spritz, and they tend to be top sellers. Overall, these sessionable cocktails represent about 15 percent of Duke’s alcohol sales. “Our regulars are all hooked,” Heffernon says, “and we convert out-of-towners every day.”

In the event space, low-ABV cocktail sales may be seasonally driven. Scott Beattie, the beverage director for estate events at Meadowood Resort in Napa, California, says that lower-ABV cocktails tend to make up 25 to 30 percent of overall spirits sales at many events, but that sales of lower-proof cocktails can increase threefold when the weather heats up. “It can get really hot here,” he says. “For weddings and other events, we encourage low-alcohol cocktails such as our Pimm’s Cup, and tall, refreshing drinks mixed with Aperol, Lillet, or vermouth, which are all lighter and more hydrating. For example, at the recent Napa Valley Wine Auction we made 1,000 white-wine spritzers to serve guests in the 90°F heat. People kept coming back for more.”

Pimms Cup.
Coastal Pimm’s Cup. Photo courtesy of Meadowood.

An Emerging Sales Driver

A well-thought-out sessionable cocktail menu can be good for the bottom line, since customers are likely to order more than one. Natalie Grindstaff, the director of beverage programs for Crafted Hospitality, which runs several bars and restaurants, including Craft and Temple Court at The Beekman Hotel in New York City, emphasizes, though, that reducing ABV is not about cutting corners on ingredients. “Many well products can be the less expensive offering on the menu but may also have more alcohol than a Campari or Cardamaro, for example,” she says. “Alcohol level does not necessarily correlate with the price of ingredients.”

Instead, Grindstaff says, the focus is on appealing to taste and the pleasurable experience of socializing over great drinks. She notes, “Where you see an increase is in selling more delightful lower-ABV cocktails because people can have more than two or three and still enjoy themselves without falling out of their chair.”

At Temple Court’s The Bar Room, the cocktail menu created by bar manager and lead mixologist Charlotte Mirzoeff includes the perennially popular Negroni Sbagliato, first introduced when the bar opened in October 2016. The mix of Campari, sweet vermouth, Prosecco, and an orange slice accounts for 4 percent of all the bar’s cocktail sales.

Building on the popularity of lower-proof sparkling libations, Mirzoeff recently introduced a “spritz section” to the menu, which is expected to be especially popular during New York’s summer heat. The drinks will be light and quenching, focused on liqueurs, vermouths, and sparkling wines. All cocktails are priced at $18.

But not every sector is seeing consumers embrace lower-ABV cocktails. In Houston, Michael Neff, the proprietor and bar manager of The Cottonmouth Club, has yet to see a shift. Among his clientele, “many people think paying full price for something with a lower ABV is a bit of a rip-off—all the buck with none of the bang,” he says. “Low-ABV cocktails are still hand-sell items at the joints I’ve run, so who’s drinking them depends more on who’s selling them.”

Acorn’s Dayton agrees that the low-alcohol concept can take getting used to for customers who equate cocktail prices with alcoholic strength, but “having an educated staff makes all the difference.”

But bars and restaurants that haven’t yet offered low-ABV cocktails may need to reconsider, as these drinks demonstrate increasing sales and profit potential. As consumers seek out flavorful lower-proof cocktails, venues that rise to meet that challenge may be big winners in this latest shift in the drinking landscape.

Melanie Young is cohost of The Connected Table Live (iHeart.com), a weekly national radio show featuring conversations with leaders in wine, food, spirits, and hospitality around the world.  A freelance writer and author based in New York, she has contributed articles on wine, spirits, food, and wellness to Santé Magazine, Beverage Enthusiast, Gourmet Business, Wine4Food, and publications covering healthy living. She formerly ran an eponymous culinary-events agency and served as director of the James Beard Foundation Awards, which she helped create.  

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