When I feel like a drink, I usually order a cocktail. The problem is, sometimes I crave a cocktail but I’m facing an early morning or have some other reason I shouldn’t be drinking, or drinking much. .
That used to mean resigning myself to tonic with a splash of gin or a virgin cocktail so syrupy it swapped the alcoholic buzz for a sugar one.
Happily, times have changed. Kansas City’s bartenders now readily offer complex and creative low-alcohol and non-alcoholic options.
“We make drinks to help people enjoy good times and relax from bad times,” said Jacob Bowyer, head bartender at Gram & Dun on the Country Club Plaza. “If they don’t drink, or drink much, there’s no reason they can’t have something that’s crafted and balanced with great flavors.”
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That local trend is spot-on nationally. We’ll all be drinking more low-alcohol cocktails in 2018, particularly aperitifs and those featuring amaro, fortified wines like sherry, vermouths and other aromatized wines, sparkling wines and unique liqueurs, according to industry forecasts.
Not that there’s anything wrong with big, boozy standards. Those are still delicious. But as author Dinah Sanders put it in her “The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level,” “Mankind does not live by Martinis and Manhattans alone.”
Sanders coined the term “shim” to describe well-proportioned drinks made with lower proof components, ideally containing less alcohol than an average 6-ounce glass of wine.
These “provide a gentler pace between or instead of strong drinks, yet still bring the vivid sensory pleasures of a complex adult beverage,” she wrote.
Giving guests such options is important, said Bowyer, whose Snow Globe hits the shim mark. The Champagne cocktail riff begins with a sugar cube in the bottom of a flute. That’s splashed with a bit of St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and Clear Creek Cranberry Liqueur and topped with prosecco.
Fizz also figures into the spritz, an Italian aperitivo that’s now firmly back in the cocktail canon. There’s more to making one than splashing club soda into your wine glass (although if that makes you happy, go for it), as “Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail” shows.
The idea is to combine some form of wine with something bubbly (sparkling wine, soda or fizzy water) and something bitter.
Classic spritzes like the Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, sweet vermouth and prosecco) showcase familiar flavors, while modern versions like the SpritzZ (Pellegrino Aranciata soda, prosecco and Zwack, an herbal liqueur from Hungary) explore the depth of the bitters category.
Although tradition relegates spritzes to pre-dinner sipping, bartenders love serving them and their equally food-friendly low-alcohol cohorts with meals.
Voltaire makes a drink called Mornings at Monticello (Barbadillo Fino Sherry, thyme syrup, grapefruit juice, sparkling wine and egg white) that is a perfect case in point, said head bartender Katy Wade. The thyme complements roast chicken or cassoulet, while the drink’s acidity cuts through the richness of such dishes without overwhelming your palate.
Just how boozy a drink is isn’t always obvious, though. If you know the ingredients and proportions, you can run them through a cocktail calculator like Rethinking Drinking.
If you don’t know, drink styles serve as something of a guide: carbonated and blended cocktails are lower in overall alcohol because they’re more diluted, according to “Liquid Intelligence.” Those are followed by shaken drinks (these contain juice, egg whites and other ingredients), and then stirred cocktails (ice melts and adds water to the drink). Spirituous cocktails built in the glass, like the Old Fashioned, have the least dilution and so are the strongest.
Still, it can be hard to tell. Jim Meehan, the author of “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” and one of the country’s best regarded bartenders (and, coincidentally, creator of the SpritzZ), said brighter drinks like the Margarita are sometimes perceived as lighter than a brown, stirred cocktail, even though they might actually contain more alcohol.
The fact that “you’ll sip and savor that Manhattan, whereas you’ll crush that Margarita” exacerbates the problem, Meehan said. “That is something the bartender should know and be able to communicate.”
Not that the alcohol in those drinks is in itself bad. Meehan has made a career out of finding tasty ways for us to consume it. Rather, it’s about understanding our relationship with alcohol and finding ways to enjoy it as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“Cocktails are not bad. Alcohol is not bad. What is bad is overconsumption and intoxication,” said Meehan, who prefers ongoing mindfulness over fads like Dry January, where people abstain from alcohol for one month and then return to their normal habits. “We need to start celebrating moderation.”
That’s why the best way to find out what kind of kick a drink packs is to simply ask the bartender. She can point out lower proof options and make suggestions. If what you’re hankering for isn’t on the list, she can make something to suit.
“Any bartender worth their salt in this city can make something up,” Wade said. “People feel scared by not knowing what they want, but that’s what we’re here for.”
And if someone doesn’t want to consume alcohol at all? Bartenders are increasingly embracing that challenge as well.
Manifesto has a nonalcoholic section on its cocktail menu. Corvino Supper Club and Tasting Room does, too, and its bartenders are happy to pair nonalcoholic drinks with the tasting room’s multi-course menu in the same way they do wines.
Tom’s Town Distilling Co.’s Tasting Room serves a sweet-tart spiced pear shrub, the Westside Local offers a rotating selection of house-made sodas and Hogshead Kansas City has two kombuchas on tap.
At Gram & Dun, the best nonalcoholic seller is the Wild Cider, made with fresh blackberries, lemon juice, vanilla syrup and Louisburg Apple Cider.
That said, my favorite is the Strawberry Blonde. Bowyer shakes his house-made strawberry shrub with lemon juice and Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters, then strains it into an ice-filled Collins glass and tops it with ginger beer for an ombre-hued refresher. Feeling Tiki-ish? Then try the Beach House, with pistachio orgeat, lemon and pineapple juices, cream and grenadine.
Making mocktails at home is possible, too, thanks to books like “Clean Cocktails.” The authors have nothing against alcohol. Bourbon, gin, tequila and vodka appear alongside juices, coconut water, tea, herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables and other healthful ingredients, but some cocktails contain just an ounce or an ounce and a half; nine contain none.
These and the drinks you’ll see in local bars are as beautiful as “real” drinks, too, with the same pretty glassware and enticing garnishes. It’s about creating an inclusive experience, not about the alcohol, Wade said.
“Don’t apologize for being responsible,” said Wade, whose current favorite Feverless Fizz mocktail is sweet from honey syrup, tart from grapefruit and lemon juices, textured by egg white and fizzy from tonic water.
“If you want to have another round with your friends, we’ll make you something that lets you feel like you’re enjoying your night out with friends.”
Jim Meehan, the author of “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” and one of the country’s best regarded bartenders, created what “Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo” calls a mix of Italian and Hungarian ingredients. You don’t have to go to either of those countries to enjoy this one at home.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces Pellegrino Aranciata (available at grocery stores)
1-1/2 ounces Zwack Amaro
2 ounces prosecco
Orange half wheel, for garnish
Build ingredients over ice in a rocks glass and add the garnish.
Quality is always important when mixing cocktails, but paying a bit more for good products is absolutely essential when it comes to drinks with lower alcohol like this one from “The Art of the Shim.” Be sure to refrigerate your bottles of vermouth after opening.
Makes 1 drink
1-1/2 ounces Dolin dry vermouth
1/2 ounce Cocchi Rosso Vermouth di Torino or other powerful sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
2 dashes aromatic bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish
Chill an Old Fashioned glass. Place a large ice cube in the glass. Combine vermouths and liqueur with ice; stir until chilled. Strain into prepared glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
This ombre-hued mocktail from Jacob Bowyer, head bartender at Gram & Dun, is as pretty as it is refreshing. As a bonus, the Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters are also alcohol-free.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce strawberry shrub (see instructions below)
3/4 ounce lemon juice
2 dashes Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters
4 ounces Gosling’s Ginger beer
Lemon wedge, for garnish
Combine shrub, lemon juice and bitters with ice in a shaker. Shake, and then strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with lemon wedge.
Note: To make strawberry shrub: slice 1 quart strawberries and combine with 2 cups sugar. Stir, then allow to sit at room temperature for about four hours or until the berries have released most of their juice. Strain, reserving juice and berries separately. For every cup of strawberry juice, add 1/8 ounce ginger juice (either make your own or look for bottled brands like Ginger People) and 1/4 ounce red wine vinegar. Refrigerate for up to one month. Reserved berries can be used to top ice cream or oatmeal, or eat them straight from the bowl.
Mocktails don’t have to be boring, especially when they pair as deliciously with food as this creation from Voltaire bar manager Katy Wade.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce honey syrup (see note)
1 ounce freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 egg white
3 ounces Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water
Edible flowers, for garnish (optional)
Combine honey syrup, grapefruit juice, lemon juice and egg white in an ice-filled shaker tin. Shake until cold, strain into a Collins glass. Allow the drink to settle for a couple minutes, and then top with tonic water. Garnish with flowers.
Note: For honey syrup: combine 3 parts honey with 1 part water, stir to combine.