4 reasons to consider ordering a low-ABV cocktail

It may seem odd to be talking about low-ABV (alcohol-by-volume) cocktails during the world’s largest booze conference. This year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans has crowned the martini its king and seminar subjects include everything from umami flavor in drinks to rare vintage spirits to 400 years of drinking on the high seas. But building a better low-ABV cocktail or session cocktail is on the minds of many of the nearly 15,000 bartenders who’ve converged on the Crescent City for the annual industry conference.

During the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival this past June, three of the city’s master bartenders, Greg Best, Kellie Thorn and Miles Macquarrie, took the stage to discuss this growing cocktail trend and what these drinks mean for both guests and bar menus around town. Session moderator and editor of online drinks site Punch, Talia Baiocchi,  told the audience, “There’s a very good chance these days you’ll see an aperitif section on the drinks menu.”

The low-ABV cocktail is nothing new. Best points out, “as it is with cocktails, we’re relearning what they already knew 100 years ago.” Countries like Italy, France and Spain also continue to foster their lengthy love affair with cafe cocktails like the spritz or aperitifs made with vermouth, amari, sherry or port as the base spirit.

Best, the "godfather" of Atlanta’s cocktail movement and a co-owner of Krog Street Market’s Ticonderoga Club, labeled these low-proof imbibes “suppressors” some years back. He says his passion for these drinks was born out of a dilemma many bartenders face--guest safety. 

“Atlanta is a driving town,” he says. “It’s a conundrum for bartenders. That drink could be the next wreck.”

He’s quick to point out, however, that while people want to drink with more mindfulness, they still want a damn good cocktail. Best enjoys a refreshing spritz drink but believes bartenders need to look beyond the bubbles and find ways to get creative when concocting low-ABV cocktails in order to give them broader appeal.

Here are three of the city’s finest examples of the suppressor cocktail and a New Orleans bonus for those long weekends indulging in the Crescent City.

The Pan Piper at Empire State South. Courtesy of Empire State South

What Cheer at Ticonderoga Club

The suppressor allows guests to drink a flavorful cocktail or two without worrying about becoming overserved. Best often uses sherry, Italian vermouths and local sweeteners like honey or sorghum to achieve the same complexity in his low-ABV cocktails as that of their much boozier brethren.

White port and tonic cocktails are popping up on menus around the country and Best and his team have created their own version that really pops. The tiki-esque aperitif What Cheer contains white port, lime, pineapple juice, sorghum and Spanish cider which takes the place of the tonic and lends weight to the drink.

Krog Street Market, 99 Krog St. NE, Atlanta. 404-458-4534, ticonderogaclub.com.

Pan Piper at Empire State South

Beverage director Kellie Thorn says low-ABV cocktails are a perfect fit for the South because they’re “refreshing and beautiful” on a hot day--and you can drink more than one. Thorn isn’t opposed to using at proof spirits (spirits above 80 proof) like gin or whiskey in her suppressors but in lower proportions.

The Pan Piper is a perfectly balanced stirred cocktail containing gin, aromatized wine, vanilla liqueur and bitters with a soft herbaceous quality.

Pan Piper

  • 1.5 oz Capertif
  • .75 oz St. George Terroir gin
  • .25 oz Giffard Vanilla Liqueur
  • 5 drops of Bittermens Orange Citrate Bitters

Stir. Strain over fresh ice in a double Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with an expressed grapefruit peel.

999 Peachtree St. NE #140, Atlanta. 404-541-1105, empirestatesouth.com.

The 4905 Boulevardier riff from Cure in New Orleans. Credit: Beth McKibben

Morning Side Daiquiri at Kimball House

Miles Macquarrie, like Best, often uses sherry and vermouth to create suppressor cocktails for the menu at Kimball House. He prefers dry Fino sherry as it holds its own against sweeter ingredients without allowing them to overpower the drink. However, as with Thorn’s Pan Piper, he and his team can still achieve a low-ABV cocktail using at proof spirits like rum as they’ve done with their brunch cocktail the Morning Side Daiquiri. Taking the proportions down on the white rum and adding Aperol, Cocchi Americano and lemon provides the cocktail with daiquiri-like qualities with a bit of bittersweetness.

303 East Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-378-3502, kimball-house.com.

4905 at Cure New Orleans

Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Freret Street’s popular cocktail lounge Cure in New Orleans, says the bar offers guests several low-ABV options including a smoky version of the classic sherry cobbler and a clever Boulevardier riff. The 4905 forms its base using the aperitif wine kina and red vermouth which lend both the color and a subtle richness to the drink. Gran Classico and cognac bring hints of spice, bitterness and body to round out this low proof version of the Boulevardier.

4905 Freret St., New Orleans. 504-302-2357, curenola.com.

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