Keep the Party Going with Low-Alcohol Cocktails
Warmer weather calls for lighter libations. Local bartenders weigh in on what to drink, and where.
Drinking is a big part of life in Boston (file under NEWS: NOT) but every night can’t be a banger ending in bad decisions and regrettable text messages.
On the nights you want to take it easy, your drinking options aren’t limited to light beer and sauvignon blanc.
Built around amaro, fortified wines, and lower proof liqueurs, exists a whole world of complex and delicious low alcohol cocktails. And with the warm weather finally here to stay, refreshing cocktails like spritzers and cobblers are a perfect substitute for the boozier manhattans and old fashioneds that warmed us through the winter.
“I personally tend to prefer lower alcohol cocktails a lot of the time. I’m not 22 anymore,” Lauren Vigdor says with a laugh. Vigdor is the bar manager at River Bar in Assembly Row. With its riverside patio and proximity to the Assembly T stop, the restaurant’s lower alcohol offerings have caught on with a few different segments of the population.
“It’s nice to have a low alcohol cocktail in the middle of the afternoon. We’re obviously a great place for day drinking,” Vigdor says. “We also have a lot of commuters coming through so it’s nice to offer a cocktail that people can drink then drive home afterwards and still be safe.”
Vigdor makes a point of including at least one low alcohol cocktail on the restaurant’s seasonal drink menus. Along with a Pimm’s cup ($10) there’s the body electric ($12), a riff on a Campari sour with Licor 43, citrus, and egg white. Vigdor explains to me that while keeping a low alcohol option on the menu is a priority, she and her staff rarely come by them intentionally; they focus on building drinks around base spirits. “We don’t usually have to go out of our way to come up with one. It just sort of happens.”
Heading south on McGrath Highway to Inman Square, you’ll find Loyal Nine’s cocktail list is split between “low octane” and “hard liquor.” Bar manager Fred Yarm likes having options on the menu that explicitly put flavor before functionality.
“There’s definitely a time and a place for low-octane drinks,” he says. “They help you appreciate food better. When you come here, maybe this isn’t the time to get liquored up. Maybe you want to remember every single moment, but still have a little something.”
Currently on the list are the East Cambridge cobbler ($9) with madeira, Averna and cinnamon syrup, as well as the Italian stallion ($9) made from Aperol, gentian liqueur, and passion fruit syrup, both of which come in at about half the ABV as hard liquor cocktails.
Yarm thinks a big factor in the recent popularity of low alcohol cocktails is in the renewed interest in their base spirits. “With the explosion of amaros, aperitifs, and quinquina you can make some really good, really flavorful drinks. I think the little Giuseppe is a great example where someone who’s really into cocktails won’t say, ‘oh that’s not going to kick my ass enough. You’re putting Cynar and Punt e Mes in the same glass. This is amazing.’”
Sometimes the limitations of the law determine the direction of a restaurant’s cocktail menu. One of Boston’s “quirks” is that the city sometimes issues cordial licenses in lieu of a full liquor license allowing for restaurants to pour blended spirits, fortified wines and liqueurs. The Salty Pig in Back Bay turned limitations into a strengths by devising an inventive cocktail list.
General Manager Ines Lee Santos explains. “The license itself doesn’t stipulate anything about alcohol content and in the last few years, numerous higher alcohol spirits have qualified for the licenses because it isn’t specific about that. We try to focus on the spirit of the law to provide guests with a little aperitif or digestif before and after a meal and not try to replicate other cocktails.”
Drinks like the negroni sbagliato ($9) where sparkling wine takes the place of gin and the French chameleon ($10) with Lillet, chartreuse, lime and lavender provide guests with an array of uncommonly delicious cocktails.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think about it as a low alcohol list,” Santos says. “I think more about what the cordials are, what the spirits are. The focus really is on making a balanced cocktail that is true to the spirit of our license and the food we serve and the rest of our beer and wine programs.”
Whether you’re looking for something light and bubbly to get you through a hot afternoon, trying to stretch out a night with friends and still make your morning meeting, or just want to try something new, low alcohol cocktails provide an exciting avenue for exploration. Give them a shot. They'll keep your palate happy and your liver will thank you.
River Bar – 661 Assembly Row, Somerville, 617.616.5561, river-bar.com
Loyal Nine – 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617.945.2576, loyalninecambridge.com
The Salty Pig – 130 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617.536.6200, thesaltypig.com