In all his years running bar programs at places like The Drawing Room and The Aviary in Chicago, Charles Joly can’t recall anyone requesting a low-alcohol drink. If they wanted a lighter cocktail, they chose something like a gin fizz, he says; if they wanted more booze, they ordered a Manhattan.
“I would question how in touch the average imbiber is with the actual abv [alcohol by volume] of what they’re drinking,” says Joly, cofounder of Crafthouse Cocktails.
Similarly, bartenders at the Mustards Grill in San Francisco International Airport report that “make mine a double” is still part of their day-to-day vernacular. Of course, those patrons might be drinking to calm their nerves before boarding a plane, or to help them sleep on a long flight.
However, there are other occasions, such as weddings, corporate events and casual evenings at home, where U.S. drinkers are keen to sip low-abv libations. Whether you call it mindful drinking or conscious consumption, according to industry analysts at the IWSR, the low- and no-alcohol category is expected to grow by 31% worldwide by 2024, as more people adopt organics and a healthier lifestyle.
“This way of drinking is not about getting wasted,” says Helena Price Hambrecht, cofounder of Haus, a line of lower-proof aperitifs created in Sonoma County. “It’s about having drinks with fine ingredients, having intellectual conversation and maybe getting tipsy.”
What is Low-Alcohol Wine, Beer and Cocktails?
What exactly do we mean when we say low-alcohol, though? It depends on the drink and, in some cases, the drinker.
For wine, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) defines low as under 11%, medium from 11–14% and high as over 14% abv. But there’s no set standard for what constitutes “low” in spirits, cocktails or beer.
Session beers are lighter beers that have a quality U.K. drinkers call “moreish,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery. For him, session beers have 2.5–4.5% abv compared to the 5% in average mass-market American lagers.
“At 4.5%, you can have full beer flavor, but avoid moving things along too quickly,” says Oliver. A stout is a traditional session; it tastes substantial, but only has about 3.8% abv. “Fifteen years ago, the average craft beer fan wasn’t interested in session beers; they seemed to offer ‘less bang for the buck,’ just like kabinett Rieslings at 8% in the wine world,” he says.
In cocktails, there are no official regulations around abv. Many popular cocktails, like Gin & Tonics and Moscow Mules, are close to 10% abv, says Joly, since they’re mostly mixer with just one shot of alcohol. His canned Paloma, a mix of grapefruit soda and tequila, is 10.6% abv. He notes that the Scotch highball, a popular Japanese cocktail currently making the rounds at hip U.S. bars, also tends to clock in around 10 or 11% abv.
An “upside down” drink is another way bartenders lower the proof in a classic cocktail. Instead of building a Manhattan with two parts rye and one part sweet vermouth, Joly says that some flip the proportions and use two parts vermouth. It’s the same idea behind the 50-50 martini, made with equal parts gin, white vermouth and orange bitters. Because most gins have circa 80 to 94% abv, and vermouths clock in at 15 to 18% abv, this lowers the overall alcohol level of the drink.
“You see a lot of industry people ordering their martinis that way,” says Joly. “It’s delicious when you have a great vermouth and a great gin.”
Even the meaning of the word “spirit” is in flux. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists 14 meanings for the noun spirit, including distilled alcohol. And those meanings have expanded in the past few years, as more and more non-alcoholic distilled spirits like Seedlip have come onto the market.
“What defines a spirit?” says Geyan Surendran, head of research for Three Spirit, a line of zero-proof functional aperitifs. “In Europe, the E.U. legislates that a spirit is anything over 15% alcohol derived by distillation.” But, in Russia and the U.K., a spirit is typically 37.5% alcohol. And in the U.S., a spirit is at least 40% abv.
While Three Spirit doesn’t include a drop of alcohol, it’s classified as a spirit by the International Wine and Spirit Competition. The functional drink still offers a head change thanks to a range of botanicals including schisandra berry, rhodiola rosea and tulsi. Others in the space, like Aplos and Artet, use CBD.
The Culture of Low-Alcohol and No-Alcohol Drinks
While Geyan says that “a lot of people drink because they want some type of altered state,” others might simply want to feel social at a party and still be sharp the next day. That’s how Stephanie Rice, founder of Better Bar SF, built her business, which supplies low- and no-alcohol drinks to events like company mixers, weddings and a young woman’s going-away party focused on conversation and connection.
One of Rice’s slogans is “get lit without the hit.” Corporate event organizers planning afternoon events are a big market. “There are very few 2–5 p.m. events where they want people to get really lit,” says Rice. “It’s the ritual of holding a conversation and socializing with friends.”
Education is a big part of her sales pitch.
“I have fun bridging that gap with low-abv cocktails that are familiar,” says Rice. “Instead of a French 75, it’s a French 37.5. They laugh, they get it, and it’s that aha moment.”
She also uses zero- and low-proof aperitifs, including Kin Euphorics, Ghia and Haus to make cocktails with little or no booze.
The popularity of aperitifs worldwide was part of what gave Haus founder Price Hambrecht confidence to launch her company. She and her cofounder, Woody Hambrecht, who grows grapes in Healdsburg, began working on a line of spirits in 2018. When they learned that U.S. law allows grape-based aperitifs under 24% alcohol to be sold directly to consumers, it seemed like kismet.
“What are the odds that the exact kind of alcohol we knew how to make is the one kind you can sell directly on the Internet?” Hambrecht says. “We could go around those old-school gatekeepers.”
In 2019, they launched their line of 18–20% abv aperitifs in seasonal flavors like lemon lavender, grapefruit jalapeño and pomegranate rosemary. They’re also less bitter and lower in sugar than many traditional aperitifs, like Aperol and Campari. She expects to see more of these types of spirits hitting the market.
“I wanted to convert people to low abv,” says Price Hambrecht. “It’s showing people they do have options.”
Last Updated: September 28, 2022