In all his years running bar programs at places like The Drawing Room and The Aviary in Chicago, Charles Joly can’t recall anyone requesting a low-alcohol drink. If they wanted a lighter cocktail, they chose something like a gin fizz, he says; if they wanted more booze, they ordered a Manhattan.
“I would question how in touch the average imbiber is with the actual abv [alcohol by volume] of what they’re drinking,” says Joly, cofounder of Crafthouse Cocktails.
Similarly, bartenders at the Mustards Grill in San Francisco International Airport report that “make mine a double” is still part of their day-to-day vernacular. Of course, those patrons might be drinking to calm their nerves before boarding a plane, or to help them sleep on a long flight.
However, there are other occasions, such as weddings, corporate events and casual evenings at home, where U.S. drinkers are keen to sip low-abv libations. Whether you call it mindful drinking or conscious consumption, according to industry analysts at the IWSR, the low- and no-alcohol category is expected to grow by 31% worldwide by 2024, as more people adopt organics and a healthier lifestyle.
“This way of drinking is not about getting wasted,” says Helena Price Hambrecht, cofounder of Haus, a line of lower-proof aperitifs created in Sonoma County. “It’s about having drinks with fine ingredients, having intellectual conversation and maybe getting tipsy.”
Dazed and Confused
What exactly do we mean when we say low-alcohol, though? It depends on the drink and, in some cases, the drinker.
For wine, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) defines low as under 11%, medium from 11–14% and high as over 14% abv. But there’s no set standard for what constitutes “low” in spirits, cocktails or beer.
Session beers are lighter beers that have a quality U.K. drinkers call “moreish,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery. For him, session beers have 2.5–4.5% abv compared to the 5% in average mass-market American lagers.
“At 4.5%, you can have full beer flavor, but avoid moving things along too quickly,” says Oliver. A stout is a traditional session; it tastes substantial, but only has about 3.8% abv. “Fifteen years ago, the average craft beer fan wasn’t interested in session beers; they seemed to offer ‘less bang for the buck,’ just like kabinett Rieslings at 8% in the wine world,” he says.