In a city fueled by happy hours and bottomless brunches, options without high ABVs, otherwise known as “session” drinks, have been slower to catch on. But the demand for a range of proofs has been expanding in D.C. with new vigor, a sign that the industry is not only growing more conscious of creating welcoming spaces for all types of drinkers, including sober ones, but also treating low-proof concoctions with the same art and care as stronger drinks.
For Andrea Tateosian, president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, a welcome habitat for healthier drinks has been a long time coming. As one of the pioneers in the low-ABV cocktail scene, she introduced patrons at Urbana to cocktails made with fortified wines back in 2015. Her creations bear the mark of studies abroad in Europe, a channeling of the continent’s mindset around drinks in moderation before and after meals.
“The intention of low-ABV drinks is to savor and enjoy the moment, rather than seeking an immediate buzz,” Tateosian wrote in an email to DCist. “It’s all about the experience you want to have. If you want something light to sip on before dinner or want to stay sharp while at a work function, a low-proof option may be the right choice for you. If you had a rough day and want something with more kick, or need some courage before swiping right, a Manhattan may be the way to go instead.”
The low ABV trend is a companion to a similar movement of creative, experimental drinks that are booze-free. Dos Mamis in Petworth, Columbia Room in Shaw, and Reverie in Georgetown are among the restaurants that prominently showcase imitations of classic cocktails without the booze (though often in a similar price range). Cocktail Curations, a start-up by two former Joseph A. Magnus distillery employees, curates tonics and punches for events with spirits on the side. And craft beer-heavy spots, such as Bluejacket and ChurchKey, are offering a handful of beers in the 4 percent ABV range. The city is part of a national trend, which has taken off through sober bars and zero-proof pop-ups in cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles.
What exactly does low proof mean, by the numbers? Depends on the kind of alcohol in the glass. For beer, it’s often categorized as anything under 5 percent alcohol by volume. Cocktail classifications are a little trickier, says Nick Farrell of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which runs bars and restaurants all over town, including ChurchKey, Bluejacket, The Sovereign, and Hazel. Farrell will head up the company’s first low-ABV cocktail bar, slated to open next year.
Since drink size and proof vary based on the type, he sees a low-ABV drink as one that has “less than one serving of alcohol”—whether that’s 12 oz. of alcohol at 5 percent or less or 1.5 oz of alcohol at 40 percent or less.
The low-ABV bar requires a willingness on the part of bartenders to experiment. Back when Farrell was spirits director at Iron Gate, he says customers were increasingly curious about the sugar and alcohol content of their drinks, and seeking alternatives. He often modified ingredients and enjoyed the challenge of working with alternatives—say, Cappelletti, a wine-based aperitivo, instead of popular, higher-proof Campari—to create similar flavors with a balance.
“I think it requires a little bit more creativity and thinking outside the box,” Farrell says. “A lot of restaurants are now offering these options—savvy people are sensitive to trends.”
Research released this year by the International Wines and Spirits Record found that about half of U.S. respondents want to drink less alcohol, but 70 percent said they hadn’t thought about low- or no-proof beverages. This might be in part because availability is still scant: Brands that provide such products make up only about 0.5 percent of the country’s alcoholic beverage market.
Among those low-ABV producers in D.C. is Don Ciccio & Figli, a purveyor of Italian aperitifs and digestifs. Aperitifs range between 11-25 percent ABV, Don Ciccio’s site says. In contrast, the ABV of Tito’s Vodka is about 40 percent. The company, which has been in operation since 2012, opened a tasting room and bar earlier this year, where customers can sample a range of liqueurs. The attached bar, Bar Sirenis, serves up cocktails starring the products, including spritzes.
“[There’s been] an increase in interest across the board from bartender creation to at home consumption,” says Jonathan Fasano, the company’s portfolio manager, of liqueurs. He traces it to the rise of “cocktails focused more on the actual flavors instead of the base spirits themselves. Base spirits have taken on a slightly different role as a fortifier of the cocktail, where fresh juices, tinctures, and liqueurs have become more and more prominent.”
In other words, instead of a gin and tonic, curious imbibers might be tempted by cocktails that include gin as a member of an ensemble cast, such as the blend of sherry, salted watermelon, lime, and cucumber in the frothy Cu-cumber Here Often? at Dos Mamis.
In session cocktails, ingredients are key. One risk in moving away from traditional recipes is the possibility of watering down depth and flavor with calorie-laden juices or sugary ingredients. But thanks to the recent popularity of small-batch spirits, the reemergence of vermouth, and the growing cider industry, bartenders have more options to play with funky, tart, and dry flavors—often from local producers like Don Ciccio or Capitoline Vermouth.
Tateosian of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild gravitates toward fortified wines like port, Madeira, and sherry as a bridge between contrasting ingredients, and table wines to play up dry or floral notes. For St. Anselm’s fall menu, for example, she created the Chinato cocktail, made with two types of wine (cardamom-tinted Barolo Chinato and the aromatized Cocchi Americano), a bittersweet red aperitivo, apricot brandy, and lemon juice.
“Bartenders who are interested in no- and low-ABV cocktails need to be extra thoughtful in their process so as not to make a glorified fruit punch,” Tateosian wrote. “I personally enjoy seeing how bartenders can stretch their imaginations and create a delicious, complex cocktail while keeping it low proof.”
For some bartenders like Chantal Tseng, creating cocktails with less buzz is not driven by a goal of low ABV.
“I’m going to use ingredients I particularly enjoy,” she says. “So it’s more of a natural progression [to low ABV drinks]. Sherry is my pride and joy.”
She was one of the masterminds behind the former sherry-centric Mockingbird Hill in Shaw, which had 95 varietals. Sherry still makes a frequent appearance at her weekly Literary Cocktails series at Petworth Citizen & Reading Room, in which each cocktail list is inspired by a book.
Because her menus change every weekend, she has a lot of flexibility to play around. Each list always includes a nonalcoholic drink and several low-ABV ones. Tseng is also a fan of “reverse” cocktails, in which you switch the formula, so instead of a strong gin martini, you add two parts vermouth and one part gin.
All those creative ingredients, however, can add up, sometimes to create a drink that’s just as pricey as its boozy counterpart. Single cocktails can be as much as $15. Now, with just as much thought, care, and ingredients put into low-proof cocktails as high-proof ones, the cost for bars is similar.
As demand for these kinds of drinks increase, Farrell believes equity of access is just as important. “As providers of hospitality, we have to be able to offer our skills and expertise to provide lower-cost, low alcohol drinks as well,” he says. “We have knowledge base that allows us to manipulate a wide array of ingredients.”
He’s keeping price in mind as he develops Roost, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s forthcoming multi-restaurant concept in Capitol Hill. A beer hall and cocktail bar devoted to low-proof drinks are set to debut in early 2020, alongside tacos and a fourth Red Apron location.
At Show of Hands, run by Farrell, low-ABV cocktails will mimic higher-proof favorites—whether it’s sherries and teas to channel whiskey’s flavors, liquors, vermouths, and amaros to create Manhattan-esque cocktails, or stirred spritzes and aperitivo-style drinks using Don Ciccio & Figli’s amaro line and kombucha.
Shelter, the beer hall, will offer 50 drafts and two cask ales—half of which will be 2-5 percent ABV. The line-up is an expansion of the crushable beers the group already offers at Churchkey and brews at Bluejacket, says NRG’s Greg Engert, who is overseeing the project.
Engert sees Shelter as a return to historic European customs. Like Tateosian, he drew influence from travels across the pond, where he tried English cask ales (around 4 percent) that had “full flavor and complexity, but also fewer calories and carbs.” As a tribute to the low-ABV traditions in England, Germany, and Czech Republic, the team has dreamed of opening a hall reminiscent of their favorite European beer gardens.
The program will be a balance of stateside brews (Jester King’s Le Petit Prince; Dogfish Head’s hoppy, 100-calorie Slightly Mighty; Bluejacket’s signature “Forbidden Planet,” a 4.2 percent blonde ale) and imports (French and Belgian ales like Thiriez’s “Extra” and De la Senne’s Taras Boulba; British Fyne Ales’ Jarl and Moor Beer’s Nor’Hop; and German/Czech-style lagers like Mahr’s Hellesand Hostomice’s Fabian 12) for $7-$9.
Just as with cocktails, the idea is not to sacrifice flavor, even as bartenders think about wellness. While a richer craft beer can run up to 300 calories for a 12-ounce pour, Shelter won’t have “gimmicky beers designed to be just low-calorie,” Engert says. “Before soda in the 20th century took hold, table beer—2 to 2.5 percent—was the soft drink of its day. It’s the best of both worlds.”
By that, he means full-bodied brews, most less than 150 calories, with 10-15 grams of carbs.
In keeping with German tradition, Engert sees low-proof environments as a place to gather and focus on the people you’re with, rather than the drink in your hand.
“I don’t think you’re going to pound 13 percent imperial stouts in a bright food hall surrounded by friends and family,” Engert says. “You can drink and it won’t interrupt the rest of your day.”