San Francisco’s Myriad Gastropub has a license to serve beer and wine, including fortified wine, but not spirits. The bar team is nonetheless determined to offer mixed drinks, but as lead bartender Stephen Swisher points out, creating cocktails with these low-abv beverages required a bit more work: “There aren’t really any standard session cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Martini, so you have to be creative and try something new.”
Like Myriad Gastropub, Timna in New York City has a license to sell only beer and wine, so all its cocktails are in the session category. “Our guests gravitate toward these types of drinks because they’re refreshing and elegant, and they complement our cuisine without overshadowing it,” says general manager Danielle Magen. “Our food menu is influenced by flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. To match this in our cocktails, we use a lot of fresh and seasonal ingredients, including fruits and vegetables like pineapple, watermelon, beets and cucumber, as well as spices like cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, lavender, cayenne pepper and even raw tahini.”
Chef Nir Mesika created many of the drinks on Timna’s menu, including the Wicked Red ($14), which features a low-proof vodka called Klir Red, as well as fresh beet and lemon juices and orange blossom water; and the Tahini Martini ($14), comprising Dolin Dry vermouth, raw tahini, lime juice, house-made anise syrup and a date honey syrup imported from Lebanon. “One of the things we like most about session cocktails is that they’re the perfect option for those who want to have a few cocktails over dinner, or those who want to start the evening with a cocktail and later switch to wine,” Magen says.
Even with the lower alcohol content, session cocktails can still pack a flavor punch, especially with the addition of house-made tinctures. At Cindy’s in Chicago, “spirit guide” Nandini Khaund’s Miss Beauregarde ($12) is a beer-based cocktail comprising Off-Color Brewing’s Apex Predator saison, lemon juice and house-made blueberry-ginger Demerara syrup.
Bright and bubbly cocktails are always a hit, notes Camille Ralph Vidal, global brand ambassador for St-Germain. She notes the continued popularity of the elderflower liqueur brand’s signature St-Germain Cocktail, a blend of the liqueur, Champagne and sparkling water.
Sparkling wine is indeed a common ingredient in these lighter, aperitif-style session drinks that are currently in such high demand. At Boa Steakhouse, which has two locations in Los Angeles, the Floral Bloom ($15) features Charles Lafitte Brut Rosé Champagne and a foam made with Patz & Hall Chardonnay and St-Germain. At Timna, former manager Amir Nathan’s Peace in the Middle East ($14) comprises Dolin Dry vermouth, fresh lemon juice, house-made lavender syrup and Paul De Coste Blanc de Blancs Brut sparkling wine.
Beyond sparkling, there’s a wide range of different, complex wines to choose from when making low-proof cocktails. Though typically featured as a modifier in classic cocktails, vermouth shines when used as a base ingredient. Myriad Gastropub’s Swisher notes that vermouth is his favorite low-proof product to use in session drinks, so he’s happy to see it “becoming more mainstream.” Lo-Fi vermouth, which is produced in Napa, is his preferred brand. His Old Timer cocktail ($13.50) features Lo-Fi dry vermouth, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, lime juice, house-made thyme syrup and Angostura bitters.
“I love amari and aperitifs that have spicy, herbaceous notes,” says Lisa Nguyen, bar manager at Seaworthy in New Orleans’ Ace Hotel. “They’re great for adding depth and complexity.” She notes that these types of spirits have long been favored among industry professionals and are becoming more common in popular cocktails. The Outer Banks ($11), created by Seaworthy’s consulting bar program manager Lauren Schell, comprises Averna amaro, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, house-made ginger syrup, lime juice, Angostura bitters and a splash of club soda. At Cindy’s, Khaund’s Roman Holiday ($15) mixes Meletti amaro with Campari aperitif, La Colombe Pure Black cold brew coffee, Demerara simple syrup, pineapple and lime juices, and a pinch of sea salt.
“These products bring great, big flavors to a drink, and fresh fruit and syrups help to balance the different nuances of those ingredients. Adding a sparkling wine or soda gives the whole drink texture,” Nguyen adds. Her Stranger Than Paradise cocktail ($11) comprises Dolin Blanc, Giffard Elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and house-made honey syrup, topped with a splash of Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon soda and a spritz of Kübler absinthe.
Swisher’s Byrrh-ning Man ($13.50) features Byrrh Gran Quinquina, Lo-Fi dry vermouth, Blandy’s Rainwater Madeira, lemon juice and Torani cherry syrup. “Our guests are often quite skeptical that session cocktails will have enough flavor,” he says. “Then they have one, say ‘Wow!’ and try two more.”