Low ABV options beat the heat
Before we can talk about low-ABV summer sippers, we should probably define the term. ABV, or alcohol-by-volume is a standard measure of how much alcohol (ethanol) is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic beverage. Some great examples of low ABV spirits are sherry, vermouth or fortified/aromatized wines, amari, and aperitifs/aperitivo/potable bitters.
But what if you are not a big spirit drinker? Before I became a cocktail bartender, my life revolved around beer. Many years ago when I was a student at the University of Rochester, the only option for something with lower alcohol content was a light beer. Thanks to the American craft beer movement, this category has grown immensely and you no longer are forced to drink watered-down beer if you want to pace yourself or are counting calories. Popular styles of beer like sours and session IPAs (India Pale Ale) have been revived and created for the day drinker or those who don’t want the latest over-the-top seven-hopped, both wet and dry, quadruple IPA. Most ciders, particularly sweeter ciders, will fall under 5% ABV as well, which, for the sake of measurement, could be considered one standard drink.
While beer still holds a fond place in my heart (and tummy) if I am being completely transparent, I am still an IPA drinker, but my summer drinking leans much more toward something I consider more refreshing. I crave cold, bubbly, fruity, and often bitter, and when it comes to this style of drink, fortified wines, amari, and aperitifs/bitters are my best friends. But, best friends need a strong bond, and in the cocktail world, that strong bond is sparkling wine. It can be champagne, prosecco, cava, sparkling rosé, sparkling muscato, whatever your liking may be. I personally prefer something dry, as most of the alcohol in this category lean sweet and I want to build a balanced drink. This style of drink is called a spritz, but it is not the kind your mama drinks (most likely, unless she is Italian.) I am not talking white wine and soda water with a handful of ice. Campari or Aperol spritzs are a 3-2-1 build of prosecco, Aperol/Campari (both brands are owned by the same company, incidentally), and a splash of soda water. Aperol is the less bitter of the two and an excellent starting point for a first spritz, with deep notes of orange and strawberry. Choose Campari if you enjoy something a bit more complex and don’t mind bitter. If you are selecting a dry sparkling wine, you can also omit the soda water, as its role is simply to balance the light sweetness of the prosecco. While Aperol and Campari are classics, the possibilities are endless—I never stop experimenting.
Another popular low-ABV spirit worth mentioning is…Pimm’s! Originally brought to market as “Pimm’s No. 1 Cup,” as there were at one time as many as six similar beverages on offer, Pimm’s is a gin-based spirit distilled with herbs and spices. This dark liqueur, created by a farmer in Kent, England, is also the key component to the creatively named Pimm’s Cup cocktail. While both New Orleans and the United Kingdom lay claim to inventing the cocktail, both versions consist of some combination of lightly muddled lemon, mint, orange, strawberry, cucumber, and lemonade and Pimm’s, and often other fruit. While we can leave the topic of what “lemonade” is to debate another day, in the U.K. it would contain bubbles (think “Sprite”), the largest difference from the U.S. version.
The possibilities for low-ABV don’t end with what we have touched on so far. The next time you are out and want to try something fun and light, order a “fifty-fifty” or reverse (1:2) martini. By changing the ration of vermouth to spirit, you may be surprised to find you end up with a more pleasing drink. Both vermouth and gin are dry, but by increasing the sugar and acid ever so slightly (by raising the vermouth in the ratio) the end result is a more balanced drink. Try switching out the hard stuff in your next negroni, or ask your bartender for a vermouth daiquiri or sherry cocktail next time you stop in. Rules are meant to be broken.
Dara Stern is a bartender at Cure and Radio Social and the event coordinator for the Rochester chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG).