clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everything You Need to Know About the Low-Alcohol 'Session' Cocktail Trend

When cocktail meets mocktail, the "session" drink is born.

The Up & Up's Jimmy Cup.
The Up & Up's Jimmy Cup.
The Up & Up

While a high-proof cocktail is the popular prescription to dull the pain of a broken heart or blur out a terrible week at work, outside of straight beer or wine bars haven't offered many options for imbibers looking to stay firmly on their barstool. But recently bartenders across the country have embraced low-alcohol libations. They're named shims, low-proofs, suppressors, sessions, or they're not called out as anything at all. They're just great cocktails.

As their myriad of monikers suggest, these low-alcohol sippers include a variety of drinks, some familiar and some not. Take, for example, the long-established wine spritzer versus a drink called Jimm’s Cup, on offer at new New York drinkery The Up & Up. For the cocktail bar's take on the Pimm's Cup, owner Matt Piacentini wanted "to keep it low proof, but beef up the profile a bit," so he chose to use just a splash of mezcal to build "a smoky undertone."

Most bartenders define low-alcohol cocktails as drinks made with mostly low-proof liquor (under 20 percent ABV), and/or drinks that involve a full-proof spirit rinse, a bar technique in which less than an ounce of a strong ingredient (not always booze) is used to coat or "rinse" the inside of a glass to add extra flavor. After a bartender glosses the glass, he/she pours out the excess liquid.

OAK's Quagmeyer, courtesy of OAK.

"In some ways it’s a brand new trend, and in some ways it’s not," said Dinah Sanders, the author of The Art of the Shim. Sanders coined the term "shim" for low-alcohol cocktails back in 2008 on her cocktail blog, Bibulo.

Sanders contends that "... the main driving force behind [the new-found popularity of shims] has been twofold: the revival of great ingredients and the knowledge of how to take care of those ingredient." Plus, she also cites the importance of bartenders looking back at the history of older drinks. "As soon as you go back to the old cocktail books you realize [low-alcohol cocktails] are about a third" of the recipes.

Shims "keep things level and keep them from getting wobbly, just like a low-alcohol drink." Shim is a carpenter reference for that small piece of material with a tapered edge that fits in-between two objects to keep them level. At a restaurant a waiter might slide a shim under a wobbly table. Shims "keep things level and keep them from getting wobbly, just like a low-alcohol drink," explains Sanders.

The term has proved popular on the West Coast and in England, said Sanders. The Shed in Healdsburg, California focuses its drink program around shrub shims, drinking vinegars made from muddled fruit juice and aromatics, mixed with low-proof booze, like vermouth. Also popular is their less boozy Windfall, a cider cocktail flavored with ginger and turmeric. 

In Atlanta, the term "suppressor" is taking off. Restaurateur Greg Best, recently of Holeman & Finch and currently working on a new concept at the Krog Street Market, was part of the crew that coined the term around 2010.

Suppressors were, in part, a reaction to the growing number of strong, high-proof cocktails served in Atlanta and the lack of great public transportation in the city.

Suppressors were, in part, a reaction to the growing number of strong, high-proof cocktails served in Atlanta and the lack of great public transportation in the city. "At the time there was no Uber to the rescue, and people were getting really fired up about cocktails here in town," said Best. "But the reality is, most folks weren't used to drinking four or five cocktails and heading home. We felt it was our responsibility to offer a way to enjoy cocktail culture and technique without sending a bunch of inebriated drivers back into the wild every night."

Best appreciates that suppressors encourage bartenders to get creative with underappreciated liquors, like Pineau de Charentes, a French aperitif made with slightly fermented grape must and Cognac. He likes to drink it in a Collins-style cocktail with a bit of lemon juice, honey syrup and lemon bitters, topped with club soda.

Bryan Dayton, owner and beverage director of Colorado's OAK at fourteenth in Boulder and Acorn in Denver, dedicates sizable menu real estate to a section of cocktails labeled low-booze and low-alcohol. And these drinks are perfect for a champion high altitude runner such as Dayton. It isn't easy to wake up at the crack of dawn to run with a hangover. But Dayton sees low-booze drinks as the way society is going, and that's a good thing, he said. "The days of the three martini-lunch are gone." He also cites Europe, specifically Italy, as a source of inspiration.

"In Italy you have the Aperol spritzes, your wine, and amaro after dinner," he says. "There’s this lower-alcohol feel all the way through all the booze."

Salt Air's High Ball, courtesy of Salt Air.

Although aperitifs and sherries and other low-alcohol liquors are featured on Dayton's menus, they also call for high-alcohol booze, just as they do at The Up & Up. OAK's Quagmeyer is a blend of Benedictine, Combier, Meyer lemon and a quarter once of George Dickel Rye. Even that small amount of rye can bring "spice notes, the caramel notes, charred notes that come from the whiskey," he explains.

These cocktails do "take a little more explanation with the guests. They’re like, wait a second, this says low-alcohol, but this has whiskey in it or gin," said Dayton. "We only use a quarter ounce just to get the nuances."

Congress in Austin is also serving low-alcohol drinks with a high-proof spirit splash. One of barman Jason Stevens' best sellers is the Polynesian Julep, a Tiki-style cocktail that uses port as the base, with a half ounce of dark rum for "seasoning."

Those looking to stick to less boozy drinks might want to hunt out spots with limited liquor licenses. Scoring a full liquor license in big cities can be a struggle. Martha, a seasonal eatery in Brooklyn with an Asian bent, only has a beer and wine license, which pushes head bartender Liz Wolferman to be creative with mixed beer and wine drinks dubbed "session cocktails."

The term "session cocktails" is adapted from session beers, said Wolferman, who worked at Chicago beer mecca The Grafton before heading up Martha's beverage program. Session beers usually refer to beers with an ABV of four percent or less.

The beer and wine limitation "helps open things up and forces you to expand," says Wolferman.  At Martha, she's developed a menu of cocktails that highlight the interesting ingredients the kitchen is using while paying homage to classic drinks. The New Fashioned is a frequent choice here, but it took a bit of experimentation. Wolferman wanted to channel the earthy, woody flavor that whiskey adds to an Old Fashioned. So, she made a wood-infused vermouth ("it turned out horrible") before settling on a red wine float to finish the Americano-based cocktail.

Venice, California’s bohemian stretch of Abbot Kinney Boulevard is one of the city’s most coveted plots of land and consequently a challenging spot to nab a liquor license. Which is why Salt Air, only licensed to serve beer and wine, had to go liquor-less when it opened two summers ago. Though the bar was initially helmed by pro Brian Butler, beverage director Dan McClary is now running the show, taking the same balanced approach to low-alcohol wine and beer cocktails as he would for a spirit-driven menu. For McClary, the liquor restrictions "became a fun challenge, and pushed the bounds of our creativity."

"The current spirits industry is abundant with low proof, non-distilled liqueurs, amari, and vermouth," said McClary. One of the more unusual ingredients on his menu is Cardamaro, an amaro infused with cardoon made in Italy's Piedmont. It's in the High Ball cocktail, a take on the Moscow Mule.

Even at fully licensed bars, McClary says he's still keen on low-proof cocktails: "If a barman puts a delicious low-proof cocktail in front of me, I'll be inclined to have couple, and not feel guilty ... Plus, there are so many different cocktails to try, why have just one?"

Martha’s New Fashioned courtsey of Martha.