Calling a cocktail “weak” doesn’t have to be an insult.
Take a cue from the Italians, who sip orange-tinged Aperol spritzes with abandon as sunset approaches. Or the French, who clink sparkling Kir Royales before dinner.
These are session cocktails: low-alcohol drinks that are perfect for sipping over happy hour or at a daylong barbecue. They’re relatively lower in alcohol but as satisfying as higher-proof drinks. Proper session cocktails should never taste watered down, experts say, just lighter.
“They’re simple, easy-drinking, low-alcohol predinner cocktails meant to ease you into your night,” said Drew Lazor, author of the newly published Session Cocktails ($18.99, Ten Speed Press) and a regular Inquirer contributor. “You don’t have to sacrifice flavor, creativity, or integrity in your cocktails just because they are lower in overall proof.”
Lazor defines a session cocktail as containing no more than three-quarters of an ounce of a strong spirit such as gin, whiskey, tequila, or vodka. It’s then rounded out with lower-proof alternatives like vermouth, sherry, amaro, or other liqueurs, and maybe finished with splashes of soda, juice, simple syrup, or other nonalcoholic components.
Lazor’s book is a collaboration with PUNCH, an online magazine devoted to wine, beer, and spirits. Session Cocktails offers more than 60 recipes from bartenders for simple drinks that can be prepared in batches for a crowd, as well as instructions for more complex cocktails for ambitious home bartenders to try.
Session drinks are part of a broader trend toward lower-alcohol beverages. Session beer is part of the lineup for many breweries, and restaurants that once may have offered only low-alcohol aperitif or brunch drinks might now also feature lighter versions of classic cocktails or frozen drinks.
“Personally, I’m a lightweight,” said Kelly Brophy, beverage manager for Cheu Fishtown. “So I tend to be drawn to the kind of cocktails I can drink a few of.”
Cheu Fishtown offers a seasonal spritz made with shochu, a Japanese distilled liquor. The latest version uses cardamom-infused Shimauta Awamori, which is mixed with strawberry-ginger syrup and splashes of vodka, lemon juice, and two dashes of bitters. Shaken, poured over ice, and topped with club soda, it tastes fresh, smooth, and fizzy. If the shochu used at the bar is hard to find, home bartenders can infuse their own vodka with cardamom and use that — plus some sake — as a substitute, Brophy said.
This summer, Cheu’s Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz, the team behind the original Cheu Noodle Bar and Bing Bing Dim Sum, plan to open Nunu, a Japanese-style bar and restaurant next door to Cheu Fishtown on Frankford Avenue. The bar menu will feature several types of whiskey highballs made with filtered, highly carbonated water and served ice-cold.
“It’s not so much about the taste of the alcohol; it’s more about the refreshing nature of it,” said Brophy, who will also manage the beverage program there. “We want to really highlight the ice and bubbles.”
Gran Caffe L’Aquila for years has served a variety of traditional Italian aperitivos like Aperol spritzes and Negronis. Osteria, on North Broad Street, offers a new spin on those: a Lazzi, made with an Aperol-grapefruit granita and served with prosecco, and a twist on a Negroni called a Broken Plot. That drink is made with sweet vermouth, Campari, and orange sherbet, then topped with sparkling wine and garnished with an orange twist, said Jefferson Oatts, beverage manager for the Schulson Collective restaurant group.
Paul MacDonald, head bartender of Friday Saturday Sunday, said a popular low-alcohol drink during warmer months is a Shim and Tonic, made with Manzanilla sherry, Amaro Montenegro, lemon, and grapefruit, then finished with Fever-Tree tonic. MacDonald can make it anytime, he said, but the cocktail will be formally added to the menu this summer.
Some experts said the best way to discover a new session cocktail is to ask a bartender to whip one up. As Lazor wrote in the introduction to his book, “America’s best bartenders view session cocktails less as a fail-safe against poor behavior than as an opportunity to concoct something new from scratch: flavorful and intriguing drinks that are informed by the past but situated squarely in the present.”