Low-ABV Cocktails

Savvy Sips

San Diego’s bar scene is crafting up cocktails that are low on booze, not flavor

Posted on November 15, 2018

When it comes to drink trends, bartenders are constantly reinventing the wheel to stay on top of the game. One offshoot of the craft cocktail movement that both bartenders and consumers find themselves confronting is a “more is more” mentality, where creativity sometimes leans on adding more and different liquors to achieve taste diversity.

Low-ABV Cocktails

Clara’s Rambler’s Daughter

While many of us — myself included — love a punchy high-proof cocktail, there exists an easier drinking middle ground. Bartenders are increasingly exploring what they’re calling “low-ABV” cocktails, which refers to a lower alcohol by volume, owing to swapping out high-ABV spirits for less alcoholic base drinks like sake, beer, wine, liqueurs, and brandies, to name a few examples.

“Because we all come in different shapes and sizes, it’s important to note our bodies react to alcohol in different ways,” says Seth Marquez, the bar manager who recently developed the cocktail program for just-opened Carlsbad restaurant Clara. “Low-ABV cocktails can be easier to drink and enjoy for those who maybe feel they get a buzz after drinking one Manhattan,” he adds.

Stephen Kurpinsky, newly installed as the beverage director at Hillcrest’s Hundred Proof, digs into the thought process behind low-ABV cocktails. “Countless times in my career, I’ve seen guests at my bar struggle with that decision, ‘Should I have one more?’ More times than not, I would suggest if you have to ask that question, you should ask for the check,” he explains.

“But there are many instances where a half of a cocktail or half of a beer would be perfect. Half beers are very easy to pour, but half cocktails are wasteful, as the other half gets thrown out. That’s what inspired me to create a daiquiri with all the flavor of a full strength cocktail, but only half the ABV,” Kurpinsky continues. For three-fourths of the ‘spirit’ portion, Kurpinsky swaps in sherry. Since the lack of alcohol tends to pose a problem for taste and body, what he refers to as “mouthfeel viscosity,” he adds gum acacia to the spirit component, which in his low-ABV daiquiri is a gomme syrup infused with essential oils from pineapple skin.

Low-ABV Cocktails

Clara’s Iron Maiden

Though low-ABV drinks are historically less popular in the United States, the style is anything but new. In various European countries, such tipples are often used as a midday pick-me-up, an appetite awakener, or a meal closer. Cucina Enoteca beverage manager Koire Rogers explains that “it’s the European model of spritzers and low-ABV cocktails that started in conjunction with consumers not wanting to get over intoxicated while socializing.” He adds that he particularly enjoys drinks made with white vermouth, like the French brand Dolin, or Bordiga from Italy.

Up at Clara, Marquez is enjoying the challenge that comes with mixing low-ABV drinks. “I get to experiment with base ingredients I never really played with before,” he says. “Rather than grab for my favorite overproof Jamaican rum, I’ll reach for Cocchi Rosa and Manzanilla sherry, instead.” Flavor combinations he keeps coming back to include cucumber and mint; ginger and peach; strawberry and cinnamon; and pineapple, lime, and ginger. Marquez instructs to add fresh citrus and a preferred aromatized wine or sherry for what he calls the perfect “patio pounder.”

Low-ABV Cocktails

Clara’s Spots & Stripes

Rob McShea, beverage director for Grind & Prosper Hospitality Group, which includes Carlsbad’s Park 101, also relishes the creative challenge. “Initially, I think I viewed it as creatively restrictive, and incomplete in terms of overall programming,” he admits. “After actually using low-ABV spirits, wine, and fortified wines, I realized it was a more subtle, petite, and new avenue of creating cocktails.”

So, if you’re seeking a way to imbibe but not overindulge, your time has come. Interested in trying a low-ABV cocktail but don’t see one on your favorite menu? Just ask. Christian Siglin, bar manager at recently opened Fernside in South Park, says, “I don’t call them low-ABV drinks on the menu, but that’s exactly what they are.” With so many spots embracing the low-ABV movement, chances are your perfect beverage is already waiting for you.   Jackie Bryant

Rambler’s Daughter + Spots & Stripes: Photography by Sergey Kolivayko     Iron Maiden: photo by Seth Marquez