Food

Low-Alcohol Holiday Cocktails to Try this Season

Oh Bother Blog / Drinks

December 8, 2020

Alton Brown sips low-alcohol holiday coctail cranberry-apple shrub on the set of Good Eats: The Return.

Stock your bar with a few low-ABV staples to sip holiday cocktails all season long… without the hangover.

The holidays are a treacherous time. Despite the shiny allure of tinsel and trimmed trees, dark dangers lurk down every dark hall.

During this time of year, home accidents go up, car accidents go up, and emergency room visits go up. The culprit? Alcohol, of which Americans double their dosage during the holidays.

One answer to the problem would be to stop drinking. Or, you could switch gears to low-alcohol holiday cocktails, which can deliver complex flavors without inspiring the complex behavior often associated with stronger stuff.

First, some basics:

WHAT IS A LOW-ABV DRINK?

“ABV” stands for alcohol by volume, a standard measurement used to identify how much alcohol is in a spirit. You may have also heard the word “proof” used in this manner, but that’s an antiquated term from the days when gunpowder was used to “prove” how much ethanol, aka ethyl alcohol, was present in a liquid.

Typically, hard spirits like vodka fall in the 35 to 50 percent ABV range, while wines are typically in the 10 to 15 percent range, and beers can fall anywhere between 3 and 13 percent.

Here in the test kitchen, we define a low-ABV cocktail as one containing roughly 10 percent or less alcohol by volume.

WHICH SPIRITS ARE LOW ABV?

To mix low-ABV libations, you’ll want to stock your bar with these liquids that you should really get to know better: sherry, vermouth, port, and a liqueur or two.

Sherry 

Once relegated to the back of the pantry or your grandma’s liquor cabinet, this historic fortified Spanish wine is making its way back onto the craft cocktail scene thanks to its diversity of styles.

The beauty of sherry is that it can be dry, sweet, or fall anywhere in between. Dry sherries bring salinity, umami, and nuttiness to tipples, while sweet sherries add richness and acidity to twists on classic libations — try adding a half-ounce or so to upgrade an Old Fashioned or use it instead of vermouth in a Manhattan. You can also drink it straight up; dry sherries pair well with many savory dishes and sweeter sherries make excellent after-dinner quaffs.

In short: The spirit helps create food-friendly cocktails.

Vermouth

Probably best known as the magic ingredient in martinis, vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with various botanicals. There are two main varieties: red (sweet) which usually hails from Italy, and white (dry), which generally comes from France.

Like sherry, vermouth works wonders in classic cocktails. Sweet vermouth ties together gin, Campari, and watermelon juice in our Watermelon Negroni — delicious, but not low ABV.

To let a good vermouth really shine, mix up the ratio of a traditional tipple. Try combining three parts vermouth with one part gin for a twist on a gin martini … just be sure to use really good vermouth. Or, you could sip a quality vermouth all on its own with a twist of citrus.

Port

You guessed it … port is also a fortified wine, this time from the shores of the Portuguese town of Porto. Generally speaking, there are three major categories: vintage (pricey and all made from the same year), tawny (blended from older vintages and aged in wood), and ruby (young mixtures of different vintages and grapes; named for its deep ruby color).

While all are undoubtably delicious, we tend to stick to ruby port for cocktail making since it’s less expensive, pairs nicely with strong cheeses, chocolate, and berry-based desserts, and works perfectly in cold-weather cocktails like Clarified Milk Punch.

But to make this comforting winter tipple, you’ll need one more low-ABV ingredient …

Allspice Dram

Basically allspice-infused rum (aka, a high-ABV spirit), allspice dram earns a spot on our low-ABV list because it takes very little to imbue a lot of flavor into our holiday cocktails. How does it taste? Like winter baked goods by a warm fire … with a kick.

The sip enjoyed a moment during the tiki craze of the mid-20th century, but it’s become increasingly hard to find.

Luckily, it’s extremely easy to make as long as you can get your hands on a bottle of rum over 50 percent ABV and you don’t mind waiting around for a bit. You know what we say about patience.

Cranberry Apple Shrub

As American as, well, apple pie, shrubs are vinegar-fruit-based beverages that were once popular for their cooling effects in the days before ice was easy to come by. They also gave temperance-era folks something snazzy to drink before soda pop came around. Plus, it’s easy to make at home.

The final product is bracing, fruity, and rendered holiday-worthy by the inclusion of rosemary and sage. Seltzer transforms it into the only sip you need to get you through the New Year, but three fluid ounces of Prosecco or other sparkling wine per one fluid ounce of shrub gets you right into that low-ABV sweet spot.

If you’re feeling inspired to experiment with low (and no) ABV sips, here are a few more ways to whet your whistle:

Hot Toddy
Make this holiday classic a little less boozy by swapping out the Scotch for a sweet port, sherry, or vermouth. If you’d like to keep it full strength, a splash of any of these low-ABV spirits will add a boost of festive flavor.

Cucumber Lemonade Gin Punch
Perfect for summer sipping or a warm-weather holiday gathering, the cucumber lemonade part of this cocktail can easily be served without alcohol. Those who’d like to imbibe on the low-ABV side can add a splash of dry sherry or vermouth for a slight kick.  

Fiery Ginger Ale Concentrate
This spicy DIY ginger ale concentrate is always good to have on hand, whether for homemade soda or as a sparkling addition to seasonal tipples.  

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