Taking it easy
Low-proof and no-proof options for the sober and semi-sober curious

Taking it easy
Lucas Hess - 04/06/2023

Social gatherings and drinking culture seem to go hand-in-hand. If a person is not partaking in alcohol, whether on a certain day or altogether, he or she can expect that most others will be. The decision if or when to drink is a personal choice, but abstaining can be even more difficult when seemingly everyone around you has a cocktail, beer or wine in their hand.  

In addition, if you ask the server for a soft drink or non-alcoholic beverage, it could potentially tip off friends and add to the dreaded peer pressure. Having an alcohol-free night can be hard enough without questions, unwanted attention and feeling the need to explain oneself – especially for those who may want an alcoholic drink as much as the next human.  

Fortunately, a simple drink order does not have to induce anxiety in a non-drinker or someone who is simply pacing their alcohol consumption. These days, there are plenty of N/A or low-proof cocktail options you can try when out on the town or at home. They can be bubbly, fruity or tart – packing in a lot of flavor but not a big punch. And, best of all, no one but you will be the wiser.

Low proof

Low-alcohol cocktails include alcohol, but at a much lower percentage than their cocktail menu counterparts. Low alcohol drinks may be a great fit for a situation that would be best handled with a bit more clarity. These drinks often contain ingredients such as bitters, liqueurs or aromatized wines, like vermouth, to impart flavor without as much alcohol as high-proof spirits. They are commonly combined with soda water, juices or herbs to create a product that looks the same as a high-octane cocktail. Some great low-proof sippers follow:

• Spritz - Aperitivo cocktails like the spritz are great precursors to dinner and are intended to prepare your stomach for the meal to come. Aperitivo liqueur or amaro, which have a taste of slight bitterness that helps stimulate an appetite, are often used. Bitter aperitivo liqueurs are not necessary though for a spritz cocktail, which obviously can be made by simply diluting your favorite wine with soda water. Whether using an aperitivo, amaro or wine, a slice of orange delivers a great citrus note and makes a splendid garnish for your drink. 

3 oz. sparkling wine

2 oz. aperitivo/amaro (optional)

1 oz. soda water

1 slice of orange

• Sherry Cobbler is a classic cocktail that first appeared in the 1887 reprint of “Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide.” This cocktail has been quenching thirsts on sunny days for more than 130 years.  

.25 oz. simple syrup

1 orange slice

2.5 oz. Amontillado Sherry

2 small pieces of pineapple

Shake with crushed ice, pour mixture in a “tall” Collins glass.

•Bamboo allows a fortified wine called dry sherry and bianco vermouth to take center stage instead of more booze-forward alternatives such as gin, vodka, tequila or whiskey. Once this drink is assembled, it will look and taste like a cocktail but with a lower alcohol percentage compared to most cocktails. Its history dates to the 1800s, when it was poured at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan.

1.5 oz. dry sherry, fino

1.5 oz. bianco vermouth

1 dash of Angostura bitters

1 orange twist, garnish

Combine all ingredients and stir with ice until chilled and diluted. Strain the mixture from the ice and into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel. 

No proof

It used to be non-alcoholic drinks were thought of as children’s drinks, a sugar rush from concoctions like Shirley Temples or Roy Rogers. Those drinks still have their place, but now those options have expanded beyond the kids table. No-proof cocktails have flourished in popularity in recent years by combining the balanced and flavorful concepts behind mixology to the non-alcoholic space. This includes using non-alcoholic bitters and even non-alcoholic spirits to create mocktails that are excellent to be sipped and savored. Products and ingredients worth pursuing for a mixed non-alcoholic mocktail include botanical waters, alcohol-free bitters.

However, be forewarned that fancy and bountiful options for no-proof mocktails may only be available at select establishments. With this in mind, here are a few simple tricks that could help expedite your order, offer a familiar comfort by giving your hand something to do and keep your cover:

• It’s all about the glass: “Soda water, short with a lime, please.” Asking for soda water in a short glass with a garnish is a great incognito way to look like you are drinking something like a vodka soda. Another easy and tasty option is to order a lemonade and soda in a “tall” glass, which will look almost indistinguishable from a Tom Collins.

• The beauty of the bottle: “I’ll take a Heineken zero-zero, please.” The romanticism of drinking out of a glass bottle might be just the fit for someone trying to have a drinking experience without the alcohol. While the label may tip off your friends, therein lies an opportunity to show off your favorite koozie. 

Drinking from a glass bottle is not limited to only beer, though, as there are now bottled non-alcoholic cocktails such as the Phony Negroni from St. Agrestis and a number of booze-free cocktails from Curious Elixirs. 

According to Nielsen IQ, from August 2021 - August 2022, nonalcoholic sales grew 20.6% in the United States, bringing in $395 million in sales. While the reasons behind this growth are varied, it is becoming clear that more people are exploring non-alcoholic options. 

So pay no mind to what everyone else is consuming, unless you are leading with curiosity and genuine interest. Who knows? You may end up trying a low-proof cocktail and enjoying it or pacing yourself with a non-alcoholic beverage, and your body will thank you later. But whatever you end up imbibing, please drink responsibly.

Lucas Hess is a bartender at El Moro and does beverage and event consulting for his day job. ?