Bars and palates across the U.S. have embraced cocktails with lower alcohol content. Often made with aromatized, fortified or still wine, these drinks favor nuance and flavor over a brisk alcohol burn, which makes them ultra food-friendly. Here, industry pros give the lowdown on low-alcohol cocktails for wine lovers, plus offer insight on how to pair them.
Start with Brunch
Victoria Canty, the Los Angeles brand ambassador for Lo-Fi Aperitifs, recommends testing the viability of a low-alcohol cocktail at brunch. “Brunch is a mix of all of the things: chilaquiles next to pancakes, next to pizza with egg, next to kale salad, next to banana bread, next to the best hash ever [and so on].”
This eccentric collection of flavors offers room for creativity and experimentation.
“Think in terms of balance,” she says. “If I’m having something really creamy, fatty and indulgent, [a cocktail with] acid or bitterness to cut that would allow both the drink and the food to shine.”
The best part? “Low-ABV [alcohol by volume] options at brunch will keep you on your toes all day without sending you into oblivion,” she says.
Look to Familiar Territory
“When pairing with food, think about what kind of wine or beer you’d want to drink with your food,” says Marlo Gamora, a bartender at Dante in New York City. “[From there], you can decide on what cocktail will pair well, depending on the flavor profile and experience.
“If your dish is a salad, fatty fish or poultry, you can go with anything dry, acidic, herbal, floral and/or effervescent,” he says. “If it’s beef, pork or game, I’d go with a Sherry Cobbler or a nutty, robust cocktail like the Adonis.”
Skip the Sugar
According to Natalie Bovis, a spirits author, educator and entrepreneur based in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, added sweetness like a cocktail made with simple syrup can make your food taste bitter. “When pairing low-ABV cocktails with a meal, I lean on Sherries, amari and so forth, as they don’t typically need extra sugar and mix nicely with a little complementing spirit.”
Justin Noel, national trade advocacy ambassador for The London Essence Company, says the same approach should be applied to sodas. “Use delicate mixers around these items that don’t have a lot of sugar, so you don’t hide the spirit.”
Take a Cue from Wine
If you normally drink wine with a meal, look for cocktail ingredients that mimic your usual pour, suggests Franky Marshall, a New York City-based veteran bartender and Cognac educator.
“Choose ingredients that will provide similar effects and sensations found in wine,” she says. “Teas will provide a wide range of flavors and tannins. Verjus and shrubs give acidity. Play with textures and consider how they will match each dish.”
Spritzes and Highballs Are Your Friends
“I live and die by the rule of beginning a meal with an apéritif or aperitivo,” says Chicago-based Chiyo Takemoto, the owner/CEO of Coquetel Spirits Co., a consulting, developing and training business. “My go-to cocktail is a vermouth and tonic, which is a perfect pairing for [any] first course.”
An added bonus: Takemoto, says that botanicals in vermouth are “attributed to releasing the salivary glands, which help to prep your body for digesting the rest of the meal.”
“A spritz is about the easiest cocktail to make with any course, the base of the drink being the apéritif spirit alongside complementary bubbles and soda,” says Canty. “Add a piece of fruit that works with the mix, and you have yourself a delicious and complex drink that sits easy on the palate, allowing it to open.”
Create a Crescendo
Earlecia Richelle, North American brand ambassador for St-Germain, stresses the importance of how the cocktails flow over the course of the meal. “Pairings come down to harmony, progression and playing with secondary notes, in my opinion.”
“I would start with a simple spritz to awaken the palate,” says Richelle. “As the meal progresses, your cocktail’s depth should as well. Think about pairing a couple lower-ABV spirits together, using each like a flavor ingredient. This is how you can create complexity within your cocktail, yet keep your ABV down.”