Low alcohol cocktails are enjoying a moment

By / Wine + Drinks / October 26th, 2017 / 5

The 21st century cocktail reboot was kick-started by drinks brown, stiff and stirred. In the past decade, straight, pre-prohibition era cocktails like the Sazerac and Old Fashioned (and other all-booze contemporaries) came to define sophisticated drinking.

But while a three-ounce Manhattan mixed with bonded rye is delicious, it’s anything but sustainable. After three in a row, all trimmings of class are out the window along with the powers of recollection and a capacity for intelligent conversation; the black out looms.

Now, to the applause of a million livers and lovers of lucid encounters, bars are offering guests tamer options that don’t skimp on flavour in the vein of, say, a light beer. Long drinks like the Aperol Spritz and Fino tonic, as well as stirred drinks based on aromatized and fortified wines are becoming fixtures on cocktail lists and go-to’s in the mixological arsenal of any bartender worth their chops.

Though moderate cocktails, recently coined “shims” or “suppressors,” are enjoying a moment, they’re more than a passing fad.

Simon Ogden, bar manager at Veneto Tapa Lounge in Victoria, BC, has been offering softer options for as long as he can recall; it’s just another way of committing to the profession and “one more way to show your guests you love them,” he says.

“I think the re-commitment to executing professional bar programs has made doing bartender homework a necessity in a lot of bars and with that comes healthy curiosity, and experimentation with the whole pantry full of product, not to mention studying and building drinks from the craft’s canon,” Ogden explains. “Low proof drinks have been around as long as the cocktail’s recorded history, the Sherry Cobbler was one of the top sellers in its day and it’s listed in the oldest cocktail guide we have (Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide, 1862).”

Besides the Sherry Cobbler, (the low octane poster child) the Pimm’s Cup, Kir Royale and Champagne Cocktail, the Chrysanthemum, Bamboo — and dare we add, the White Wine Spritzer — have always played a supporting role (sometimes literally) in cocktail culture.

During her research, Dinah Sanders, author of The Art of the Shim: Low Proof Drinks to Keep You Level (Sanders & Gratz) was surprised to find that there was no categorical term for low proof drinks that had been so popular throughout history. Sanders extends the term “shim,” meaning a small, levelling wedge in carpentry, to less-boozy beverages. Fittingly, she notes, shim is also restaurant-speak for the wedges used to balance out wobbly tables.

Besides being an enjoyable way to drink without getting drunk, the great charm of shims (like all cocktails) lies in the mining and re-appropriation of history and tradition.

“I see shims partly as a reaction balancing out over-proof drinks and partly as the natural continuation of our recovery from the impact of Prohibition. While we regain lost ingredients and an appreciation for traditional techniques, so too are we rediscovering the full spectrum of drinking enjoyed by our ancestors,” she says. “As we recover from years of an immature approach to drinking — in which it was something naughty to be indulged in out of the public eye quickly and to excess — and return cocktails to their rightful place and size, it’s natural that we also revive those drinks which are comparable to a glass of wine in strength.”

Speaking of wine, moderation is built in to the very foundation of the European approach to drinking, which is primarily a social experience. The French, Italians and Spaniards partake daily (and in some cases, all day), but what they keep in their cups makes all the difference; aperitifs, amari and sherry are sipped alongside meals and during intermittent lulls in boisterous conversation.

In North America, Europe and beyond, the pinnacle of a really great bar has less to do with what you’re drinking than who you’re drinking with; conviviality is central to the drinking experience and it’s far easier to stay socially present if you’re sipping shims instead of pounding Martinis.

“I began seeking out serious low proof drinks as a way to still enjoy the pleasure of the cocktail experience without knocking myself out too early,” explains Sanders. “Lower proof is a great method of enjoying more social time.”

Mike Webster, co-owner and barman at Toronto’s Bar Raval, agrees: “People are at their best when they’re on their first and second drink,” he said. “You miss a lot of beautiful moments because the haze of alcohol is setting in. Low octane drinks allow you to have a greater reverence for your experience.”

Opened early this year, Spanish-influenced Raval focuses on aromatized and fortified wines and offers a daily aperitivo hour from 11 am onwards.

“Sherry and vermouth have so much more going on than most spirits,” says Raval co-owner and barman Robin Goodfellow. “They’re weaker but more complex and they definitely pack more flavour and value.”

Most of the offerings on Raval’s alto vaso (tall drinks) menu are two ounces, $10 or under and less than 40 per cent abv, simplifying good drinking without negative repercussions.

Responsible drinking has given heightened visibility to more temperate tipples. Suppressors (both the term and the concept) were pushed by Atlanta bartenders in order to safely cater to a predominantly wheeled clientele. Well mixed drinks based on a spicy vermouth or a nutty amontillado rather than a feisty whiskey are the ideal compromise for cocktail enthusiasts who have small children and early morning meetings to consider.

“What is creating a broad appeal in contemporary drinking culture for rediscovering these classics and creating new low proof drinks is the long-overdue relinquishment of the silly notion that people only drink to get drunk,” Sanders notes. “That’s no more true than the idea that people eat to get over-stuffed. As we see with food culture today, we are stimulated by flavour, history, creativity and presentation. That stimulation, people have also rediscovered, does not march in lockstep with the percentage of alcohol in a drink. Just as chefs have re-awoken people’s palates with fresher, local ingredients, so too are bartenders with things like fresh vermouth and sherry, and with the classic host’s aim in how to give their guests a great evening no matter the proof they are drinking.”

Now that shims and suppressors are being taken seriously again, it’s widely understood that masterfully mixed, interesting cocktails don’t have to pack a sucker punch. Waking up clearheaded and free of regrets after an evening of delicious drinks presents a whole new world to cocktail lovers — one where a little less alcohol is way more fun.

rose fizz

Courtesy of Robin Goodfellow and Michael Webster, co-owners of Bar Raval, Toronto, Ontario.

2 oz croft pale cream sherry
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 bar spoon rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water)
1 egg white

Dry shake, shake again with ice and fine strain up into 8 oz Collins glass. Top with rosé cava and garnish with Peychauds’ bitters.

john cameron mitchell

Recipe courtesy of Andrew Bohrer via Dinah Sanders. “This is my favourite recipe which I have discovered since writing the book,” says Dinah Sanders, author of The Art of the Shim of West Coast bartender Andrew Bohrer’s recipe. “It’s got the complex satisfaction of a traditional gentlemen’s club whisky drink, while still being a shim. Even better, it’s easy to make.”

2 oz Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
1/4 oz Ardbeg 10-year single malt scotch
1 dash Regan’s orange bitters

Build over a large ice cube in a chilled Old Fashioned glass. Stir, sit back, sip and enjoy.

the joker

Courtesy of Simon Ogden, bar manager at Veneto Tapa Bar, Victoria, BC.

2 oz Martini Bianco vermouth
1/2 oz apricot liqueur like Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
3/4 oz egg whites

Shake all ingredients vigorously without ice to froth the egg whites. Add ice and shake again to chill and aerate. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with a splash of sparkling wine like Prosecco.


Sarah Parniak is a freelance writer, bartender and consultant with a (healthy) spirits obsession that she channels into a weekly drinks column for Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She’s represented Canada in international bartending competitions and currently works behind the stick at People’s Eatery in Chinatown on weekends. When she’s not working in bars, she’s usually drinking in them. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @s_parns.

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