What Is a Low-Proof Cocktail and How Do You Make One?

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Want to cut down on booze without giving it up entirely? Try these low proof suggestions for tasty drinks without as much kick.

Many people rethink their drinking at the beginning of the new year. There’s always a lot of talk about Dry January, the tradition of going sober for the year’s first month. According to a survey published in the Washington Post, about 20% of Americans say they participate in Dry January.

The reality, however, is that most people who try Dry January don’t give up alcohol entirely. In the same survey, only half say they will not drink at all during the month. A quarter of participants responded, “I will drink more than a few days [in January] but less than I normally would in a month.” That’s more damp than dry. But there’s still another way to take a step back and reframe your drinking: Low-proof cocktails.

Why Are Low-Proof Cocktails Trending?

While mocktails and other non-alcoholic drinks are swiftly gaining popularity, many people want to cut back without abstaining totally. Peter Suderman, in his popular newsletter, Cocktails with Suderman, writes that low-proof cocktails have emerged as an antidote to the booze-heavy drinks of the early 21st-century cocktail revival.

“Lower-proof cocktails have appeared on the scene partly as a reaction to the kick-you-in-the-temple stirred-and-boozy drink trends of the craft cocktail movement that grew in the ’00s. Even if you’re fairly hearty, you can only drink so many Old Fashioneds in a night,” Suderman said.

What Is a Low-Proof Cocktail?

There’s a good deal of debate around what qualifies as “low-proof” and a number of bartenders and writers have tried to define this. In his book Session Cocktails, author Drew Lazor argued that “session cocktails” (another name for low-proof cocktails) and not can contain no more than ¾ ounce of high-proof spirit. So whiskey, gin or tequila are permitted, but only in small amounts.

For me, though, a true low-proof cocktail should only use low-proof ingredients. My philosophy is more in line with an influential group of bartenders in Atlanta, who established a rule for low-alcohol cocktails. According to the Atlanta Magazine, they called these drinks Suppressors, because they suppressed the booze. No individual ingredient could be higher than 25% alcohol by volume. That meant no base spirits such as vodka or tequila (at 40% abv) or whiskey or gin (at 45-50% abv). It even eliminated liqueurs such as Grand Marnier and Chartreuse. Instead, they used sparkling wine, vermouth and fortified wines like sherry and port. Italian aperitifs such as Campari, Aperol and Cynar also made the cut.

What Are Some Popular Low-Proof Cocktails?

Several of the most trendy cocktails right now would quality as low-proof, such as the Aperol Spritz, Negroni Sbagliato and Kir Royale. But beyond spritzy, sparkling wine drinks, I especially like lower-proof cocktails made with fortified wines like dry sherry and aromatized wines like vermouth.

In fact, there is a whole family of cocktails that can be made with different proportions of sherry, either dry or sweet vermouth, bitters and a citrus peel garnish. There are four classic sherry cocktails found in most pre-Prohibition cocktail guides—the Duke of Marlborough, Bamboo, Adonis and East Indian. All four are made with ever-so-slight variations on those same four ingredients.

These are not “kiddie” drinks. All four of these cocktails are sophisticated and look great in a cocktail glass, and they’re complex enough to deliver all the flavor of a higher-proof cocktail.

The boldest of the quartet is the Duke of Marlborough, which is equal parts sherry and vermouth, with dashes of orange bitters. The lightest is the Bamboo, which replaces amontillado with fino sherry, sweet with dry vermouth and calls for only two dashes of bitters.

Further variations include the Adonis with a 2:1 ratio of amontillado sherry and sweet vermouth, and dashes of both orange and aromatic bitters. And finally, the East Indian, with equal parts sherry and dry vermouth and a single dash of bitters. I’m including the basic recipe for a Duke of Marlborough, but play around with variations and find out what you like.

How to Make a Duke of Marlborough

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces amontillado sherry
  • 2 ounces sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes orange bitters
  • Twist of orange peel

Directions

1. Fill a mixing glass with ice.

2. Add the sherry, vermouth, and bitters. Stir vigorously for at least 30 seconds.

3. Strain into a cocktail glass.

4. Squeeze a twist of orange peel over the drink (to release its natural oils) then drop it in as a garnish.

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