Once the backup plan for restaurants limited by beer and wine licenses, session cocktails—or low-proof libations—have broken out as a trend all their own. Perhaps thanks in part to the spread of amaro, vermouth, and sherry, low-alcohol drinks are hitting bar menus across the country, serving as the middle ground between mocktail and cocktail. Below, 22 mildly spirited cocktails on offer, now!
Location: 500A Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA
Bartender: Jared Sadoian
Cocktail: Sherry Cobbler, Winter #3 ($13) with Lustau 'Los Arcos' Dry Amontillado Sherry, Senior Clear Curaçao, Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse Rose, and grapefruit.
The Hawthorne makes a sherry cobbler every season and for winter it's showcasing grapefruit. "Just enough sweetness to balance the dry sherry, with a big grapefruit oil aroma, mingled with a hint of mint when you bring the drink near your nose to drink," says drink creator Jared Sadoian.
Location: 701 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL
Bartender: Brad Bolt
Cocktail: Handsome Pete ($10) with Carpano Antica Formula, Vander Mill Ginger Peach Cider, lemon, and Angostura bitters.
Since vermouth pairs nicely with cider, according to bartender Brad Bolt, he made this long cocktail with the two, adding just a touch of sugar to enhance the vermouth's sweetness.
Location: 806 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL
Bartender: Stephen Cole
Cocktail: Hot Wine Bling ($12) with hot mulled red wine, Cognac, and baking spices.
This is the perfect hot cocktail to sip on cold nights thanks to its warm flavors of cinnamon, clove, and star anise. And with just a nip of Cognac, it's got a kick, but is still low proof to allow for seconds.
Location: 1534 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA
Bartender: Tyler Ott
Cocktail: The Clawfoot ($11) with Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, Lillet Blanc orange blossom flower water mist, and orange zest.
Inspired by a moonshine-spiked "Bathtub Punch" cocktail that beverage director Tyler Ott sometimes makes, The Clawfoot calls for Lillet Blanc, which adds light citrus and floral notes to balance Carpano Antica's strong aromatics. "This drink is named The Clawfoot because it’s a nicer version of bathtub punch, and a clawfoot is a nicer version of a bathtub," says Ott.
Location: 214 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA
Bartender: Tobin Shea
Cocktail: Winter Spritz ($12) with Sauvignon Blanc, Dimmi Liquore di Milano, Pamplemousse, and clarified lemon.
"The newest spritz tastes as if Sauvignon Blanc and Fresca had a baby: super refreshing. There is something about grapefruit and Sauvignon Blanc that sing together," says bar manager Tobin Shea. For an extra bubbly spritz, Shea created a large batch and force carbonated it. It's easy drinking, with the same proof as a glass of vermouth.
Location: 620 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica, CA
Bartender: Cody Summers
Cocktail: Vincenzo's Vest ($10) with mulled vermouth blend (Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Chinato, Punt e Mes), Old Tom gin, Crème de Noyaux, blood orange, vanilla, and soda.
Barman Cody Summers wanted to create a transition drink for guests moving from cocktail to wine during dinner at chef Andrew Kirschner's Santa Monica restaurant. Summers' mulled vermouth cocktail serves to prep the palate, with just a touch of Old Tom gin to provide some backbone. "Blood orange gives it a touch of seasonal, floral acidity. A drop of bourbon vanilla rounds it out, and crisp bubbly water brings effervescence to the party," he says.
New York City
Location: 41 West 57th Street, New York, NY
Bartender: Eamon Rockey
Cocktail: Grand Cru Cobbler ($20) with Grand Cru Champagne, housemade crème de menthe, a splash of gin (just to reinforce the juniper background), and wintergreen oil.
Eamon Rockey's Grand Cru Cobbler emulates "the first breaths of fridgid air you take in when you're outside in the winter surrounded by evergreen trees," he explains. To make it, Grand Cru Champagne is reduced by half, cooking off the alcohol and creating a tart base which Rockey then mixes with housemade crème de menthe, a bit of gin, and wintergreen oil. It's a refreshing low-proof answer to all those hearty winter cocktails.
Location: 27 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY
Bartender: Jeremy Oertel
Cocktail: Make the Road by Walking ($13) with Bodegas Williams & Humbert Dry Sack 15-Year Old Oloroso Sherry, Lustau Brandy de Jerez, Clear Creek Cranberry Liqueur, lime juice, pineapple juice, simple syrup, Bitter End Moroccan Bitters, and seltzer.
Head bartender Jeremy Oertel likes to offer at least one low-ABV cocktail to give his guests options. Even though this drink is low in alcohol, it's still rich and complex. "The dryness of the cranberry plays well with the dark fruit and raisiny flavors of the brandy and sherry" he says, adding "The pineapple juice is mostly there to fatten the drink up and gives it a full, velvety mouthfeel."
Location: 22 Orchard St, New York, NY
Bartender: Fung Tu bar team
Cocktail: Money Tree ($12) with fino and amontillado sherry, Cynar, and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, a scotch rinse, and lemon oil.
Most low-proof cocktails get a bad rep for being delicate and light in flavor, but the Money Tree tastes salty, nutty, and bitter, with a bit of smokiness courtesy of the scotch rinse.
Location: 109 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY
Bartender: Lucinda Sterling
Cocktail: Fool for Love ($14) with Domaine de Canton, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, and fresh lemon juice.
Managing partner/bartender Lucinda Sterling wanted to create a lower alcohol cocktail that guests could enjoy throughout the evening. Her festive wintertime sipper, Fool for Love, allows patrons to indulge without going overboard.
Location: 120 Rivington St, New York, NY
Bartender: Natasha David
Cocktail: Mermaid Parade ($14) with Aperol, Pasquet Marie-Framboise, grapefruit and lemon juices, egg whites, and, of course, glitter.
"Think: Grown-up Grapefruity Egg Cream—slightly bitter from the Aperol, slightly tart from the lemon and grapefruit juices, slightly sweet from the Marie-Framboise, and light and frothy," says partner and general manager Natasha David. Her Mermaid Parade is a favorite during the bar's daily aperitif hour.
Location: 121 W 10th St, New York, NY
Bartender: Jim Kearns
Cocktail: North by Northwest ($22) with Pommeau, absinthe, lemon, cane syrup, Clear Creek's Douglas Fir, Ransom Old Tom gin, and fennel frond garnish.
This light, refreshing drink celebrates the terroir and climate of Oregon, using the Northwest-based spirits Clear Creek Distillery Douglas Fir and Ransom Old Tom gin. "The idea was to create an apertif cocktail utilizing ingredients unique to their places of origin," says the drink's creator Jim Kearns. The fennel and absinthe play off the gin and pine liqueur's woodsy notes, tying everything together.
Location: 109 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY
Bartender: Amir Nathan
Cocktail: Mediterranean Reviver with housemade juniper syrup, Cocchi Americano, Dolin dry vermouth, lemon, and housemade star anise syrup.
Beverage director Amir Nathan wanted to create a Corpse Reviver #2 that possessed a Mediterranean profile. "So instead of gin I made a juniper syrup, and instead of absinthe, I used a star anise syrup," he explains. "Also, I substituted Cocchi Americano for the Lillet Blanc. Dolin dry vermouth rounds the whole thing out and lets all the flavors come together."
Location: 2039 NE Alberta, Portland, OR
Bartender: Daniel Osborne
Cocktail: Great Gambler ($10) with Lustau East India Sherry, Aperol, soda, and orange.
For fans of the Americano, there's the Great Gambler, which trades out Campari for Aperol and sweet vermouth for Lustau East India Sherry. "It is a perfect blend of bitter sweet, nutty, effervescence, that pairs very well with the spicy richness of Bollywood Theater’s food menu," explains partner and bartender Daniel Osborne.
Location: 4057 N Mississippi Avenue, Portland, OR
Bartender: Jeffrey Seymour
Cocktail: Italian Diplomat ($9) Punt e Mes, Carpano Bianco vermouth, Luxardo maraschino, and Regan’s Orange Bitters.
The best thing about the Italian Diplomat draft cocktail, according to its creator bar manager Jeffrey Seymour, is that even though it's low proof, "it drinks like a substanstial, complex sipper." This variation on the Diplomat combines Carpano Bianco and Punt e Mes for more body and a great mouthfeel.
Location: 1630 S St, Sacramento, CA
Bartender: Chris Tucker
Cocktail: Pipe Stretcher ($9) with Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, orange juice, and mango Jarritos.
Barman Chris Tucker likes to keep a few lower ABV cocktails on the menu as food pairing options, alternatives for wine and beer drinkers, or pre-dinner offerings. In his Pipe Stretcher, "the spicy raisin and subtle heat from the Ancho Reyes plays nicely with the tropical fruit flavors coming from the Mango Jarritos, the acid from the fresh OJ brightens and lifts the flavors, and sugars give a more quaffable balance to the cocktail."
Location: 2000 Capitol Ave, Sacramento, CA
Bartender: Josh Hunt
Cocktail: Sweet Potato Flip ($11) with Corbin Cash Sweet Potato Liqueur, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, maple syrup, and whole egg.
The Sweet Potato Flip is similar to a nog without the heaviness of high-proof booze. "This is a wonderful drink, similar to a Nog and yes it uses a whole egg, yolk and all. It must be shaken dry, and then with ice to achieve the proper consistency. It really tastes delicious!" exclaims bartender Josh Hunt.
Location: 1300 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA
Bartender: Ken Furusawa
Cocktail: Madeira Cobbler ($11) with madeira, demerara sugar, oranges, and lemon.
Bar manager Ken Furusawa wanted to create a Madeira cocktail to complement the restaurant's low country food menu, and it just happened to be low ABV. "Our Madeira tastes a little sweet and nutty, and to enhance those flavors we add a dash of orange juice and lemon. It’s full of nutty, citrusy flavor," he says.
Location: 1355 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Bartender: Eric Quilty
Cocktail: La Grand Illusion ($12) with apricot-infused oloroso sherry, Alessio Vermouth, Cognac, and bitters.
Bar manager Eric Quilty loves using sherry and vermouth in low-proof cocktails. "I am constantly impressed by sherry's ability to accentuate the inherent characteristics of any spirit category," he states. "It balances cocktails with its nervy acidity, while remaining delicate and austere." In his La Grande Illusion, the dry and rich-bodied apricot-infused oloroso sherry and bittersweet vermouth balance each other, while the hit of Cognac provides backbone.
Location: 300 Precita Avenue, San Francisco, CA
Bartenders: Austin Ferrari, Tony Ferrari, and Jonathan Sutton
Cocktail: Mr. Gomez ($14) with Alvear Solera Cream Sherry, cold brew coffee, smoked syrup, and lemon juice.
Since it doesn't have a full liquor license, Hillside Supper Club makes a point to offer creative low-proof cocktails that go above and beyond beer and wine. In the Mr. Gomez, coffee give the sherry cocktail a punch of flavor, which is then cut with lemon.
Location: 2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA
Bartender: Stephen Swicher
Cocktail: Persephone’s on Fire ($10) with pomegranate, agave wine, Cocchi Americano, lime, jalapeño, and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur.
Since Myriad Gastropub has a limited liquor license, lead bartender Stephen Swicher worked with chef/owner Trish Tracey to create sessionable cocktails. His Persephone's on Fire is a quaffable combination of sweet and hot. Per Swicher, "The acidity of the lime cuts through the agave and pomegranate, while the jalapeño gives the finish a bit of a kick!"
Location: 2121 P St NW, Washington, D.C.
Bartender: Andrea Tateosian
Cocktail: Fallen Leaf ($10) with Punt e Mes, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, and Jack’s Hard Cider.
The Fallen Leaf cocktail possesses winter's favorite flavors: clove and orange peel from Punt e Mes, a rich, aromatic spiciness from the walnut liqueur, and apple cider. According to Tateosian, the Punt e Mes "straddles the line between vermouth and quinquina," while the walnut liqueur adds a bit of astringency.