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Why lower-alcohol cocktails are back in style

Bartender extraordinaire Sandy De Almeida is photographed with one of her new cocktails Mon Sherry Amour, and her other new drink is the No Country For Old Men, photographed in front of an old typewriter at the Churchill on Dundas Street West in Toronto on Sept. 26, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It used to be the most popular bartender was the one with the heaviest hand.

Not so any more. In a fairly dramatic shift, people are asking bartenders for restraint as lighter, less boozy cocktails challenge years of conventional wisdom about what it means to get more bang for your buck.

Ground zero for this low-octane cocktail trend seems to be Atlanta, a city with an entrenched car culture where spirit-forward classic-inspired cocktails were a tough sell. As such, a small group of bartenders invented suppressor cocktails designed to muffle alcohol, without resorting to a drowned-out mixed drink.

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"You're still experiencing the ingredients and flavours come together the same way they do in a proper cocktail," explains Toronto's Sandy De Almeida, who works at the Drake Hotel and designs the menu at nearby Churchill.

Dialling back the alcohol is a simple matter of turning to lower-proof alcohol, such as vermouth, amaro, sherry or port wine for the cocktail base. The Atlanta bartenders actually mandate that their low-octane cocktails use bases less than 26 per cent – something that Simon Ogden, bar manager at Veneto Tapa Lounge in Victoria, B.C., has been doing for years.

"I'm very proud of Victoria for being such a responsible city, which is why we've worked so hard on our low-alcohol program," says Ogden. "I have a lot of people who say 'I would love one more, but your drinks are too strong' or 'I would love one but I'm driving,' so a low-alcohol alternative wins out and is an easy sell over typical cocktails, beer and wine."

Ogden's a big fan of reversing the proportions of a classic spirit-forward cocktail that calls for an aperitif, a technique made most famous, perhaps, by Julia Child, who invented her own reverse martini, which called for five parts Noilly Prat vermouth to one part gin.

"We actually have a Manhattan sampler that has a reverse version of the classic and when we ask which one people liked best so many pick the one with heavy vermouth," says Ogden. "You can't say you're not a vermouth fan after that."

But the most surprising thing about the move to lighter cocktails is how much traction they are getting in "walking" cities, places where the boozy, high-proof drink movement initially took off, such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. De Almeida, for example, who is credited with being one of the early adapters of the boozy brown beverage trend, has been a vocal suppressor advocate since she attended a seminar in New Orleans this summer that championed the movement.

"To me, it was perfect timing, because I was already debating the ethics of overserving," she says. "You get a lot of people you know at your bar and cutting someone off is kind of a weird politic. Now I can just switch them over to a suppressor."

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De Almeida has two suppressors on her cocktail menu at Churchill – Mon Sherry Amour and her No Country For Old Men, made with sherry and sweet vermouth, respectively – and the Drake is gearing up to include one on the menu at its new location on York Street.

"You can only have three or four high-octane drinks before you're annihilated," says De Almeida. "So, to me, a suppressor is a dream come true. You can come by in the afternoon and have that same social hour, but not have it ruin your day."

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