Test-driving low-abv versions of classic cocktails

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

02 September 2019

Gone are the days when boozier was better. With customers increasingly looking for lighter options on cocktail lists, Clinton Cawood joins a team of bartenders as they work out how best to create lower-abv versions of the classics


With a few notable exceptions, the canon of classic cocktails is generally a boozy one, with 50ml of spirits often combined with other alcoholic ingredients in punchy, stirred-down drinks. And if there’s any justice in the world, there will always be a place for these bold classics.

How it works

As more of a workshop than a straight tasting, we ran this differently than usual. More free-form, more improv, more make-it-up-as-you-go-along, frankly. We grabbed a load of lower-alcohol (or zero-alcohol) products, headed to a bar and mixed the bejesus out of a few unsuspecting classics. The end.

But there’s an ever-greater demand for lower-alcohol serves, whether that’s driven by flavour trends or health concerns. There have never been more lower-alcohol options, with spritzes on every list.

Might there be something to be learnt from the tried and true classics, however? Could these be used as a framework to create something more approachable – something like the spurious accident said to have created the Sbagliato out of the Negroni, but for Daiquiris and Manhattans?

Panel

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Julie Hecquet, Trade; Steve Lawson, consultant; Colm O’Neill, Homeboy

We gathered a few of the new low- and no-alcohol products, called in a panel of bartenders, and gave them free rein to use whatever they needed to create lower-abv versions of some of the classics. Spoiler: Some well-established cocktail classics may have been harmed in the making of these drinks.

Martini

With suggestions leaning towards vermouth-heavy ratios, and maybe even sherry, Lawson is reminded of one classic cocktail that’s been low-abv all along.

‘That sounds like an Adonis, which is delicious,’ he says. ‘Actually, vermouth was always an important part of the Martini’s recipe, but people changed that over the years.’

‘It all depends on the vermouth,’ says O’Neill. ‘I do make a wet Martini, but if I do I use Lillet.’

Which is what he reaches for as he steps behind the bar, along with a bottle of low-abv spirit Willow. The result certainly looks like a Martini, and the panel has praise for its flavours, but it’s not perfect.

‘It’s good, but it’s missing that punch. It feels just that bit too diluted,’ says Hecquet.

As Lawson wonders if it might be better to keep these ingredients in the fridge and pour them directly without any dilution, O’Neill has other ideas, adding a barspoon of Laphroaig to the drink.

It’s an improvement: ‘It hasn’t made it really smoky. It just has an edge to it now,’ he says.

Lawson decides to try the classic Reverse Martini, going with a two-to-one ratio of vermouth to gin, with a couple of dashes of orange bitters too. While it’s still too dilute, this is far more Martini-like, although the panel is of a mind
to experiment further.

‘What if you used something like a navy-strength gin, but in lower volumes?’ wonders O’Neill. ‘For the sake of 10% abv, you’d still get a lower-abv drink, but with more bite.’

Hecquet agrees: ‘I think I’d use a strongly flavoured gin, like Monkey 47 or Sipsmith VJOP.’

Behind the bar, Hecquet mixes equal parts of vermouth, Sipsmith VJOP and Willow, as well as four dashes of orange bitters, creating the drink with the most Martini character of the three.

Tips: Consider using full-flavoured gin in smaller quantities. Dilution is a consideration when reducing or omitting spirits.

Best low-abv Martini

25ml Sipsmith VJOP Gin
25ml Willow
25ml Dolin Blanc Vermouth
4 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters

Verdict: Merely inverting the classic Martini spec results in an excellent drink, but there are ways to ensure that the result more closely resembles a Martini.

Martinez

The panel predicts that the classic Martinez might be even more amenable than the Martini to having its ratios inverted, so that’s what Hecquet makes first.

‘I used Broker’s Gin as it’s dry, but isn’t going to overpower the drink,’ she explains. ‘For the vermouth, I thought that something like Antica Formula would be too sweet, so I’ve gone with Punt e Mes.’

The result is, in O’Neill’s words, ‘pretty perfect’. It’s balanced, and lacking nothing from the lower spirit content.

‘That would be a good aperitif, if you were planning to have wine with your meal and didn’t want something strong beforehand,’ says Hecquet.

In the interests of further experimentation, Lawson replaces the vermouth with new non-alcoholic aperitif Everleaf, otherwise keeping the spec the same. The result, even if it’s strayed somewhat from the Martinez, is a hit with the panel.

‘It could make an interesting spritz too,’ says O’Neill, while topping up the glass with a non-alcoholic sparkling wine.

‘That would definitely sell a lot if you put it on a menu in the summer,’ agrees Hecquet.

Tips: The choice of vermouth is important here, as it has a greater effect on the balance of the final drink than in the original Martinez.

Best low-abv Martinez

40ml Punt e Mes
20ml Broker’s Gin
5ml Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
1 dash Angostura Orange Bitters

Verdict: The Reverse Martinez is the way to go here, creating a drink that’s arguably on par with the original.

Daiquiri

Given what a bartender favourite the Daiquiri is, it’s unsurprising that there’s some debate about it, beginning with Hecquet’s assertion that the predominant rum flavour is essential.

‘But if you make a Daiquiri with light rum, it doesn’t necessarily punch through that much,’ says O’Neill. ‘If I get a Daiquiri I want a punchy rum in it, but for your average guest that wants a low-abv version, they just want the taste of sugar and lime.’

The signs are already there that this is going to be a tricky one, as he shakes a non-alcoholic version, replacing the rum with 50ml of no-abv Three Spirit. The panel were positive about Three Spirit when tasting it neat earlier, seeing a lot of potential for it, but it just doesn’t work here, at least not in these ratios.

‘We’ve ruined the Daiquiri,’ says Hecquet, before suggesting that the drink might be improved by reinstating a dark rum to replace 25ml of the Three Spirit.

Lawson has other ideas though, enlisting the help of rhum agricole Trois Rivières, in proportions that keep the 50% abv spirit somewhat in check. The result isn’t bad, but the panel isn’t satisfied.

‘The abv is a bit lower, but are you maybe better off just drinking a Daiquiri instead?’ asks O’Neill.

‘It’s pretty interesting that we struggled less making the Martini than we did with the Daiquiri,’ says Hecquet.

All’s not lost though. Inspired by previous spritz experiments, O’Neill introduces a hibiscus tonic by Lamb & Watt, and the drink is transformed. It’s even further from a conventional Daiquiri, but it’s pretty good.

‘I’m chuffed with that,’ he says.

Tips: There are ways to somewhat reduce the abv of a Daiquiri, and it’s worth experimenting with different rums, but it does seem that other classics may be better suited to low-abv adaptations.

Best low-abv Daiquiri

25ml Trois Rivières Rhum Agricole
40ml lime juice
20ml sugar

Verdict: Maybe leave the classic Daiquiri alone, unless you’re actually after a lighter, spritz-style twist on the classic.

Margarita

‘The Margarita is probably easier to flip than a Daiquiri, as agave spirits tend to be a bit bolder, and there’s more scope to play with,’ begins a hopeful O’Neill, suggesting that halving the tequila, using one-to-one diluted agave and possibly a bit more Cointreau, might do the trick.

But when he gets behind the bar he takes a more inventive approach, combining half the original’s tequila with Luxardo Limoncello and Luxardo Aperitivo, along with lime juice and agave.

The panel is impressed. It’s an excellent low-abv Margarita, with good agave flavour from the base spirit coming through, and good balance.

Lawson has another idea, also halving the tequila, but making use of a generous amount of Lillet Blanc instead of the liqueurs.

‘That tastes just like a normal Tommy’s Margarita. You can’t even taste the Lillet,’ says an impressed Hecquet. ‘Tapatio is really flavourful though. With a less-flavourful tequila you could lose that.’

‘I think lower-abv drinks like these really come into their own in the summer, when people are drinking all day in the sunshine, and you want that longevity, and freshness – as opposed to winter when you want more boozy, bold drinks,’ says O’Neill.

Tips: This is a lot more forgiving than the Daiquiri, where various liqueurs, or even vermouth, can step in to make up for the reduced amount of tequila – provided the base spirit is characterful enough.

Best low-abv Margarita

25ml Tapatio Blanco Tequila
35ml Lillet Blanc
25ml lime juice
15ml agave
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters

Verdict: With the right tequila and a few well-considered additions, there’s lots of potential for lower-abv Margaritas.

Manhattan

‘This is all about the whisky and the vermouth you use,’ says Lawson as the Manhattan comes under the spotlight.

‘Maybe a Perfect Manhattan would be best here. I don’t think that you can reverse a Sweet Manhattan, but maybe you can.’
O’Neill tests the theory, combining two parts of Cocchi Torino with one part Woodford Reserve, as well as some bitters. It’s a great result, that doesn’t necessarily feel lacking in anything, although it’s slightly on the sweet side.

‘The bourbon should give a bit more mouthfeel, but rye might have been better,’ he says. Instead he mixes the same drink with Great King Street Glasgow Blend.

‘I didn’t realise it would be quite so peaty, but it’s actually worked really well,’ he says.

‘They’re two different drinks,’ says Hecquet. ‘With Woodford it’s more of a dessert drink, while the Great King Street makes more of an aperitif. It would also be interesting to play with different vermouths. I think the vermouth is key.’

For something more left-field, and lower-abv too, Lawson attempts pairing Woodford with Everleaf, along with a touch of Luxardo Bitter.

The resulting cocktail is an excellent one, although decidedly further from a Manhattan than the two drinks before it.

Tips: This two-to-one ratio of vermouth to whisky works particularly well, and there’s no shortage of potential when experimenting with both of the components.

Best low-abv Manhattan

40ml Cocchi Torino Vermouth
20ml Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend Scotch
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
1 dash Angostura Bitters

Verdict: These two whiskeys yielded very different, but equally capable drinks. Judging by the resulting cocktails, there’s nothing wrong with a Reverse Manhattan, it seems.

Espresso Martini

Unlike some of the previous drinks, the base spirit is arguably less important when it comes to the Espresso Martini, potentially making the panel’s job easier here.

‘People like Espresso Martinis and Pornstar Martinis because they can’t feel the flavour of the alcohol in them,’ says Lawson. ‘That’s why they are two of the best-selling cocktails.’

Hecquet elects to nevertheless include some vodka in her cocktail, and adding not only some Kahlúa, but Montenegro Amaro too – and some espresso too, of course.

‘I used the amaro instead of sugar, and to bring some bitterness too, and reduced the amount of Kahlúa,’ she explains. ‘I also used the most bitter coffee we have.’

The Montenegro works beautifully with the coffee, creating a drink that’s not quite a classic Espresso Martini, but a very capable twist nevertheless. Emboldened, Hecquet makes another, this time without vodka, but with Amer Picon for even more of that bitterness.

The result has its proponents, but Hecquet isn’t convinced by the lack of base spirit. ‘I like the flavours, but if you tried it after the first one, it does seem quite weak in comparison.’

O’Neill sees its uses though. ‘If you had someone looking for a lower-abv Espresso Martini, they’d probably prefer the second one, as there isn’t that spikiness you get from the alcohol in the first. And as an after-dinner Espresso Martini, it’s delicious. And exceptionally Italian,’ he says.

Tips: Replacing some or all of the vodka with another ingredient, like an amaro, works well. The coffee itself potentially plays a greater role here than in the original drink.

Best low-abv Espresso Martini

25ml Victory London Vodka
15ml Montenegro Amaro
15ml Kahlúa Liqueur
40ml espresso

Verdict: While not entirely true to the original, the addition of an amaro not only reduces the alcohol, but brings some interesting complementary flavours to this classic.

Panel comments

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
Ingredients like vermouth, with lots of flavour but relatively low alcohol, go a long way when reducing or omitting the base spirit. Some of the reversed classics here would happily stand on their own as cocktails in their own right.

Julie Hecquet, Trade
I’ve definitely had people ask me for zero-abv Margaritas before! Usually, if people ask me for a lower-abv drink I probably wouldn’t use any spirits, using something like vermouth as a base, but with some of these you’re missing that kick when you omit the spirit. It helps to use really flavourful spirits in small amounts.

Steve Lawson, consultant
When I started bartending it was all about the Long Island Iced Tea, but that same generation now cares more about the flavour of a drink, and is aware of its abv. Today showed that you can flip most classics, but you do have to be a lot more careful when it comes to both texture and dilution.

Colm O’Neill, Homeboy
This is about people wanting some alcohol in their drink, but not wanting to get drunk, so it’s not necessarily about getting the alcohol as low as possible, but rather about making the drink less boozy while retaining some of the spirit’s flavour. You can use bitters to get some of that punchiness.

Conclusions

  • Some classics are more amenable to having their ratios flipped or ingredients switched than others. Drinks with sweet vermouth can better tolerate having their ratios inverted, and classics already incorporating ingredients like liqueurs can be more easily modified to reduce their abv.
  • It might seem counterintuitive, but using a more flavourful, higher-strength spirit but in smaller quantities can actually yield good results.
  • Over-dilution is a risk when reducing the volume of spirits in these classics. And if you dilute less in order to compensate, the overall volume of ingredients probably needs to be increased.
  • Texture is an important consideration too – it’s easy to underestimate the influence of alcohol on a cocktail’s mouthfeel. Adding carbonated ingredients can help to compensate for this.

Thanks to the team at Trade for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day. Thanks also to those who provided products.

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