Bartender’s Choice: “Low-Proof and Stirred”

In "Bartender's Choice," we challenge some of our favorite bartenders with a drink order, and see what they come up with. This round: Natasha David, Caitlin Laman and Shannon Ponche take on something "low-proof and stirred."

bartenders choice low proof and stirred

With the onset of more frequent cold and gray days, the bar cart starts to look ever more appealing with its offer of instant fortification against the gloom. And nothing, it seems, warms the heart and belly quite like a boozy, stirred drink. But a whole season of them? With increasing frequency we find ourselves on the hunt for the same savory flavors and complexity that the classic stirred drinks—the Old-Fashioned, Negroni, Manhattan—can offer, just in a lower-impact package. 

Low-proof cocktails are nothing new, but they’ve been seeing something of a renaissance of late as drinkers seek out alternatives to the how-much-booze-can-you-fit-in-a-glass mentality that once informed many drink menus. Bartenders, too, are looking at lower-ABV drinks with renewed interest—not least of all because so many of these cocktails allow them to play with less-known fortified and aromatized wines and herbal liqueurs like amari, which often supply the foundation for these drinks.

And, of course, there’s the other, more rudimentary reason: You can drink more of them.

“Low-proof is the way to go,” say Shannon Ponche, of Brooklyn’s Clover Club and Leyenda. “Drinking for me is more of a marathon, not a sprint. Low-ABV is the only way I can stay out with friends all night and be able to wake up in the morning without a terrible hangover.” When asked to mix one up for someone else, she turns to her riff on the Negroni Sbagliato, named after the Ford model—the Edsel—that was only in production for two years in the 1950s (a different sort of “mistake,” if you will). In The Edsel, she stirs together savory, nutty oloroso with traditional Campari and sweet vermouth, then adds in spicy Ancho Reyes chile liqueur for some kick and tops it off with sparkling wine for a fall-spiced riff on the classic.

In San Francisco, Trick Dog’s Caitlin Laman’s low-proof go-to is a drink she’s been making for years. “My manager at a not-to-be-named restaurant I worked at four years ago asked for something Negroni-like that wouldn’t knock him on his ass—something he could continue to drink all shift long,” she says. She took her then-newfound love of sherry, added in the layered bitterness of Gran Classico and balanced out the richness of the two with dry vermouth in her the Natoma St., a “refreshing, herbal, bitter, sherry-driven cocktail that you can drink all night long.”

In the cold weather, though, most people crave drinks that are also “comforting and warming,” says Nitecap‘s Natasha David. She goes further off-piste with her answer to the “low-proof and stirred” request, mixing together red wine (gamay, specifically) chai-infused sherry, cinnamon syrup and sparkling wine in the Treasure Chest, which drinks like a cross between lambrusco and mulled wine.

“In the wintertime when it’s dark and cold, engaging with others is super important,” David says. “Drinking low-ABV cocktails enables you to be more social.” True that.