Why Low-Alcohol Cocktails, Wine and Beer Are on the Rise
Chalk it up to the wellness boom: When it comes to alcohol, many drinkers find themselves less under the influence.
By Fiorella Valdesolo
May 11, 2022
“What’s your driest white wine?” used to be a common bar request among my female fortysomething friends on a night out. Lately, it’s been something different: “What’s your lightest cocktail?” For many people, the desire to drink remains, yet the approach to alcohol has shifted to something more moderate.
As with so many other things, such as skin-care routines and wardrobes, the pandemic has had an effect. Early on, reports like one published in a September 2020 issue of JAMA found that the increased isolation and anxiety led to a surge in drinking. “Alcohol felt not only like a buffer, but also the act of drinking at the end of the day provided an at-home activity for those who were just looking for something to do,” says Lily Geiger, founder of Figlia, a zero-proof aperitivo.
But this overconsumption soon met with an opposing wave of sobriety. On social media, terms like “mindful drinking” and “sober curious” (after Ruby Warrington’s 2018 book of the same title) started to pop up with more frequency. “Up until Covid, it was socially hard to opt out of drinking,” says Melanie Masarin, founder and CEO of Ghia, a popular spirit-free aperitif brand. “With the social pressure nonexistent, it allowed people to rethink their drinking habits.” Masarin points to the move toward moderation particularly among Gen-Z and millennials (according to a 2019 NielsenIQ report, 66 percent of millennials want to reduce their alcohol consumption), adding that 80 percent of Ghia’s customers identify as drinkers who are seeking to temper their drinking. Where we’ve landed now is somewhere in the middle, with drinks touting their lower ABV (alcohol by volume) as a selling point.
Drinks with no ABV have zero alcohol, but there is no governing standard for what qualifies as low ABV. With wines, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust defines low as under 11 percent, but for beer and spirits, it’s subjective. “Low-ABV drinks can be in the range of .05 percent up to even 30 percent,” says Apryl Electra Storms, owner of Minus Moonshine, a low- and no-ABV store in Brooklyn. For bartenders, what registers as low ABV is based on a personal gauge, says Julia Momosé, a Chicago-based bartender, cookbook author and partner at the bar Kumiko. “In general it means that there is little to no base spirit over 40 percent in the cocktail and it incorporates ingredients with a starting ABV of 20 percent or lower, such as nihonshu, sherry and vermouth,” she says.
At Tokyo Record Bar and Special Club, both in New York City, the menus are entirely low ABV. And on the menus at NoHo Hospitality’s various establishments the number of low- and no-ABV drinks has grown: For example, at the Evening Bar in Detroit’s Shinola Hotel, five of 20 cocktails qualify as low or no alcohol, while at Westlight in New York the summer menu will have four low- or no-ABV drinks, says NoHo Hospitality beverage director Josh Nolan. “By putting more of them on the menu [versus having the bartender whip up different bespoke versions] we make sure our guests are getting something consistently delicious,” he says.
Harrison Ginsberg, bar director at Crown Shy in New York’s financial district, says this shift toward lower ABV has been brewing in the professional bar scene for years. Ginsberg credits the increasing accessibility in the U.S. to vermouths (around 16 percent ABV) and fortified wines (around 18 percent ABV) and the rise of Italian aperitivo culture. “The Aperol spritz [which blends prosecco, Aperol and a splash of club soda] is really the pioneering low-ABV cocktail,” he adds. “People gravitate towards spritzes because they’re delicious and sessionable.” A term that has origins in the beer community, sessionable refers to a beverage that you can drink in a large quantity in one session. Ginsberg says that at Crown Shy many of the sessionable cocktails mix in a smaller-than-normal amount of a spirit that people generally recognize, like vodka. The Vodka Crown, for example, has sherry, tarragon and stone fruit liqueurs, vermouth and only an ounce of vodka; by comparison, there are usually three ounces of vodka in a martini. “People will drink more of them because they’re lighter,” Ginsberg says.
Low-ABV drinks are the conceit of a new cocktail book called Drink Lightly (Clarkson Potter) by Natasha David, who co-owned the Manhattan bar Nitecap until it closed in 2020. “What always drew me to low-ABV drinking, or as it’s commonly known, the aperitif, is the social aspect of it,” David writes in the introduction to the book. “The alcohol content is low, so you get a lovely little buzz but can remember everything the morning after.”
In beer, while O’Douls once was the main low-ABV option, now there are a number of brands claiming lower ABVs, both mainstream (see Sam Adams’s Wicked Easy at 4.7 percent ABV) and independent (like Athletic Brewing). At Brooklyn’s Wild East Brewing Co., the beer list is full of lower-ABV offerings like Temperance, a dark and toasty English ale (3.5 percent ABV) and Little Patience, a Czech-style Pilsner (3.8 percent ABV). “Breweries used to compete to see who could make the highest-alcohol beer, and now you’re starting to see the opposite,” says Wild East Brewing Co. co-founder Tyler March. “Low-ABV beers have to be high quality because the beer can’t hide behind an overdose of hops or sugary adjuncts.”
Wines also have a lighter equivalent. Piquettes, a byproduct of winemaking that involves mixing grape pomace (leftover skins and other residue) with water, have only four to nine percent alcohol. Willamette Valley winemaker The Marigny’s piquette (the label calls it a “winelike beverage”) is a staff pick at New York’s Astor Wines, where it’s described as “perfectly suited to a weeknight beverage.” One of the bestsellers at Brooklyn’s Smith & Vine store is Sol Real’s white vinho verde, a $10 bottle that clocks in at 9.5 percent ABV. And Jus Jus, a collaboration between cookbook author Julia Sherman and natural winemaker Martha Stoumen, is a frequently sold-out effervescent verjus, made in the style of a pétillant-naturel sparkling wine and offered in two varieties: Jus Jus Day (3.4 percent ABV) and Jus Jus Night (6.5 percent ABV).
“People are coming to us because they want to be thoughtful about what they are consuming,” says Nick Bodkins, co-founder and CEO of Boisson, a growing chain of alcohol-free shops. “A common thread we see with a number of our customers is definitely wellness.” While chronic excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to serious issues like heart failure, liver disease and cognitive impairments, even moderate drinking can throw our bodies out of balance, says Jaclyn Tolentino, a family physician at primary care practice Parsley Health. Alcohol can be disruptive to blood sugar, mood, skin health and sleep. While alcohol has an initially sedating effect, as it’s metabolized through the night, it can cause repeated waking, restlessness and fragmented sleep; exacerbate insomnia; and disrupt the production of melatonin, says Tolentino. She cautions to watch out for sugar content, even in low- and no-ABV drinks. Masarin was careful about eliminating sugar in formulating Ghia-both alcohol and sugar are triggers for digestive issues (which she herself suffers from), so her product has neither.
While the push towards drinking low is part of the wellness movement, it’s also a reaction to increased options, says Momosé. Or perhaps, after so much time apart, we just want to linger longer together over our drinks, and lower-ABV choices allow for that.