As the weather cools and al fresco spritzes are traded in for fireside Old-Fashioneds, there’s an indisputable trend toward the boozy end of the cocktail spectrum. The Manhattan, the Boulevardier and the Rob Roy proudly assume their roles as winter drinking mascots, emblematic of the season’s unofficial slogan: “strong and stirred.” But the rich, cozy quality we’ve come to expect from the season’s offerings can just as easily be achieved at a lower octane, too. After all, aren’t two drinks by the fire better than one? These “soft and stirred” drinks offer all of the warmth, with less of the proof.
Sometimes, the simplest path to winter-ready, low-proof drinks is to take a classic, like the Manhattan or Martini, and turn it upside down. That is, reverse the proportions so that the spirit becomes the supporting player. Take the Astoria, for instance. Named after the New York hotel where it was created, this vermouth-heavy Martini variation tilts the 50/50 template even further in favor of the fortified wine. (Where some early versions call for Old Tom gin, London dry provides a dryer take—all the better for cold-weather drinking.) The Session Manhattan, meanwhile, reads like an inverse Manhattan, with rye and sweet vermouth trading places, while small measures of amontillado sherry and dry vermouth keep the drink in balance.
Other low-proof stirred recipes eschew spirits altogether. The Sharon, for example, borrows inspiration from the Negroni, but takes it down a notch by replacing gin with manzanilla sherry and dialing back the Campari for a slightly saline, subtly bitter take on the iconic aperitivo cocktail. In a similar vein, the Kobra uses the low-proof Bamboo as a starting point, swapping white port into the formula, spiced up with a quarter-ounce of falernum and a half-ounce of quinquina wine.
Of course, low-proof stirred drinks are hardly new. In Jamie Boudreau’s take on the early 20th-century Chrysanthemum, a small splash of lemon juice is added to lend brightness to a recipe that can sometimes read as flat. Lesser known, but no less delicious, is the Old Hickory, adapted from Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1937 Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, in which a base of sweet vermouth is complemented by a measure of dry vermouth and a few dashes of bitters. It’s a drink that has all the richness and complexity of an Old-Fashioned with a fraction of the bite.