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The Low-ABV Cocktail Movement

How bartenders and consumers are approaching the low-proof cocktail wave.

Now drunk the world over, the aperitif has become a source of professional inspiration for today’s bartenders, who relish the opportunity to play with subtler and more versatile flavors. Never too sweet, strong or heavy, and built around the refreshing traits of effervescence and palate-priming subtlety, it is a style of drink that is as broad as it is versatile. And now, it’s grown beyond the French tradition of a late afternoon or early evening pick-me-up into something ripe for riffing.

“On a creative level, aperitifs and low-alcohol cocktails present a new format for us to play with,” says LA-based bar owner Alex Day. “You can strip away the strong personality of a high-proof spirit and begin exploring flavors in different ways. It’s a whole new avenue for creating cocktails.”

In many ways, the modern low-ABV movement mirrors comparable trends in the craft beer and wine spheres, which have begun steering away from over-the-top, shock-and-awe experimentation in favor of nuance.

How did we get here? Newfound access to previously unavailable ingredients, an overdue embrace of more moderate drinking habits and macro shifts in American craft cocktail culture at large all have something to do with it.

But really, it all started with what bottles were available in the bartender’s arsenal. Over the last decade, high-quality vermouths and liqueurs have reentered the market en masse, thanks to curious bartenders and importers eager to bridge the gap between America and Europe, the aperitif’s ancestral home. As a result, we’re currently amid an ever-evolving renaissance of once-forgotten ingredients (such as the French liqueurs New York’s Will Elliott incorporates into his classically bitter aperitif, The Shining Path.)

Such growth has not only manifested itself in a full spectrum of lo-fi creative cocktails but in well-informed bar guests. “The consumer base is just far more up-to-date, far more savvy,” says Atlanta-based Greg Best, who pours a variety of compelling low-ABV cocktails at his Ticonderoga Club.

Peruse any cocktail menu written by a session-minded bartender, and it’s easy to see that low-ABV creativity comes in all sorts of sizes, shapes and formats. The obvious place for these drink-makers to start is with historic drinks that fit the category. But they’re not limiting their experimentation to any parameters, beyond the use of subtler ingredients. Today, the low-ABV cocktail is stirred, shaken, swizzled and frozen.

“More than anything else, [an aperitif] just needs to have a good amount of complexity,” says Best. His A Scented Stretch is one such drink: Built on a base of white rum, it gets its sweetness from honey syrup and St-Germain, and its acidity from lemon juice and a shot of crisp white wine, while a splash of soda water and an aromatic sprig of Thai basil lengthen the cocktail without sacrificing flavor.

On a wider scale, attitudes toward consuming alcohol are changing, too. Quite simply, consumers want to drink differently, and have discovered the benefits of cocktails that offer both flavor and “sessionability”—that is, the ability to enjoy a few, over an extended period of time. After all, the low-ABV drink is as much about the ingredients as it is about the culture and sociability it inspires.

These hallmarks of the aperitif are the driving forces behind the Lysette, a three-ingredient cocktail as relevant for the home bartender as it is for the pro. “After all,” explains Brooklyn bartender Franky Marshall, “the less time you spend making drinks, the more time you have to enjoy good company.”

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