Low Abv Cocktails

by Naren Young

You have to admire the way Italians drink alcohol. Never to get wasted (although of course that happens, like it does everywhere), respect for liquor and the rituals in which it is served is commonly observed. Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on Italy’s many wonderful libations, although I could drink them on a daily basis and I’ve had the fortune of visiting that country on many occasions. It’s a beautiful thing to walk through any of the country’s famed piazzas and see a veritable sea of red and orange, those colors of course representing Campari and Aperol respectively.

Not only are these two of the most complex and delicious elixirs ever created but also their low alcohol content makes them wonderful session drinks. Which brings me to a point of why so many bartenders these days continue to create and offer drinks that are so potent in flavor and alcohol. It’s not uncommon to see drinks stirred with bonded Applejack, green Chartreuse and barrel strength bourbon, perhaps a few drops of bitters and strained into a glass rinsed with Laphroaig Scotch.

I’m sure (some of) the cocktail geeks among us would lap this up like a bulldog eating custard. But perhaps we should focus more on creating drinks for the general population, not as a badge of honor so our bartending brethren can lay praise on each other. Great bartenders also have a great understanding of not only how the palate works but when and why they should recommend certain drinks. Our job should not entail creating drinks that get people wasted or ruin their palate (especially before a meal) but rather ones that are light, refreshing, stimulating and that encourage our guests to order another. And another. All day drinking comes to mind, for sure.

The mark of a great cocktail should beg the question: 'Would I have another?' I know I’m not in the minority in that I too struggle to get through these overly alcoholic and unnecessarily complex modern cocktails. That’s why I love seeing some bartenders who have embraced the alternate route: low abv cocktails. Those that are based on table wines, shrub, vermouth, sherry, Lillet, sodas, amari and liqueurs.

One of those enamored by this is Joaquin Simo; the extremely talented and jovial chap from New York’s Death & Co.

"Fermented beverages tend to be cheaper than distilled ones so wines, both fortified/aromatized and not, and beers can be a great way to save some cash, a not-to-be-forgotten consideration for many homes and businesses. But more than anything else, this category of drinks is important because of the vast array of startlingly good vermouths, quinquinas, ciders, beers, sherries, montillas, etc. which exist nearly completely out of the purview of the average consumer. This is a tremendous untapped resource for fascinating new ways to bring brightness, effervescence, acidity, and some truly unique flavors into your repertoire and into your guests' awareness". 

Castle of Córdoba
2 oz Alvear Festival Pale Cream sherry
3/4 oz Busnel Calvados VSOP
1/2 oz Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac
2 dashes Peychaud's or Bitter Truth Creole bitters
Stir & strain into a frozen coupe
Garnish with an apple slice
Created by Joaquín Simo, Death & Co

"It's a drink template that essentially turns a heavy, brown & stirred cocktail into something far lighter & more bracing, without sacrificing the seasonal flavors or complexity of a higher-proof base. (I am quite curious about trying the new PF 1840 bottling in this cocktail, as that could undoubtedly punch up some flavors even more.) The orchard fruit notes are quite lively, nicely complimented by the almond & anise accents. The texture is silky and clean, not velvety and rich."

"What does this mean? It means you can (& should) eat some food with this drink and others in its ilk. Warm marinated olives would be stupidly good with this, to say nothing of cheeses galore and all manner of nuts and cured meats/fish. You know, the kind of food that even a tiny kitchen (both home or professional) can dispatch with relative ease and modulated expense when guests are hoping to not consume all their nightly calories in liquid form. It encourages and rewards responsible repeat consumption (a good thing for hosts as well as guests), as opposed to a 5- or 7-course tasting menu with full-sized paired cocktails that leaves most guests wasted or nauseous (or quite randy) by dessert".

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