The days of lackluster low- and no-ABV drinks are beginning to wane, with a new wave of culinary-influenced cocktails beginning to dominate the mindful-drinking space. Spritzes, lower-alcohol twists on classics (such as Reverse Manhattans and Reverse Martinis), and simple non-alcoholic serves still exist, to be sure, but as the boundary between kitchen and bar becomes increasingly blurred as cocktail culture evolves, contemporary bartenders have started putting food flavors at the forefront of their low/no-ABV cocktails as a new way to entice bar-goers.
A “Blank Canvas” Means More Room to Experiment
“The great thing about low/no-ABV cocktails is that they are a blank canvas, even more so than their boozier counterparts,” says Louis Macpherson, the head bartender at Lyaness in London. The bar recently launched a full cocktail menu dubbed “British Cookbook,” which showcases universal flavors through a British lens.
“Without heavily relying on spirits, we are forced to work with produce and other ingredients to bring flavor to drinks,” says Macpherson. “When working with produce, it’s about creating a real clarity of flavor and making the most of that ingredient, which lends itself well to low/no-ABV drinks,” since the produce isn’t overpowered by alcohol.
Lyaness’ food-focused menu is designed around five signature produce-laden ingredients the bar’s team has created, such as “oyster honey,” a saline, floral honey infused with oysters and fruity blackberries, among other elements, and “green sauce liqueur,” a boozy take on the standard green sauce found in an array of world cuisines, which the team makes with a blend of herbs, including parsley, coriander, dill, bay leaves, tarragon, Thai basil, and capers.
Using the oyster honey, Lyaness offers a cocktail called the Brackish Rickey, which is available both with or without alcohol—an inclusive offering for all bar guests. The non-alcoholic version mixes the honey with Seedlip Spice, smoked passion fruit, and salsify, while the low-ABV version has a base of VSOP cognac. “Salsify is something more commonly found in kitchens,” says Macpherson. “But we felt it worked well in this highball, as it brings out a lot of the maritime qualities of the oyster honey that we wanted to highlight.” To integrate the salsify into the drink, the Lyaness team roasts it and cooks it into a syrup, giving the highball a subtle toasted and salty character.
Freedom from the Classic Cocktail Canon
At Barcelona’s Two Schmucks, a bar currently ranked at No. 11 on the list of The World’s 50 Best Bars, the current cocktail menu is driven entirely by food memories and experiences—a theme that, according to bar manager Juliette Larrouy, is more common in the growing French bartending scene. “Coming from the French bar scene, I have always seen most of the cocktail creations with a culinary influence rather than a classic influence,” she says. “I think the European countries that don't have much of a cocktail history gravitate towards culinary cocktails, and these drinks have naturally become lower and lower in ABV—especially this past year.”
One of the standout cocktails at Two Schmucks is the Melon Cheese and Pepper, a low-ABV cocktail inspired by southern French cuisine. It’s composed of a cantaloupe-melon cordial, gin, and dry vermouth, with a mozzarella foam and some black pepper, according to Larrouy. “The mozzarella flavor is really delicate, so the foam was the best application I found to really have that flavor come across,” she says. The first sip of the cocktail requires going nose-first into a beautifully whipped layer of mozzarella foam before getting a taste of the vibrant orange cantaloupe-dominant cocktail that lies beneath: a serve that’s interesting both texturally and from a flavor perspective.
Reimagining the Classics
At Super Lyan in Amsterdam, the bar’s latest menu is a modern interpretation of classic cocktails from The Savoy Cocktail Book, featuring an array of produce-driven flavors in both low- and no-ABV applications. “We reimagined the Mary Pickford with a pineapple-and-stone-fruit cordial and a rum blend as the base, with a New York Sour-style malbec float on top to provide red-fruit notes,” says senior bartender Zana Möhlmann.
The Adonis is another no/low-ABV serve currently offered at the bar. It is, of course, a well-known low-ABV cocktail in its classic recipe. But at Super Lyan, the cocktail itself is made in a non-alcoholic format, with the option to spike it with gin. “The drink is based on a homemade non-alcoholic ‘vermouth’ and ‘sherry’ which uses beetroot, raspberry, vermouth spices and oak,” Möhlmann explains.
Creating Your Own Innovations
To try your hand at developing your own culinary low/no-ABV cocktail, there are a few different concepts and techniques to explore. “I think the best place to start is just with an ingredient that you enjoy eating, and then try to understand how to translate that into a drink,” says Macpherson. “Being able to understand how to treat an ingredient is key.”
Macpherson suggests looking at how a food ingredient is typically cooked and consumed, and trying to replicate that in liquid form. “If it needs to be cooked to be eaten, then perhaps cook the produce into a syrup or cordial,” he says. “If you want to maintain the freshness of something, then cold infusion or juicing might be preferable. Then once you have the ingredient, it’s about balancing it the same way as with any other drink.” For a simple place to start, Larrouy from Two Schmucks recommends making a syrup by macerating the produce with sugar to extract the liquid, producing a concentrated syrup similar to an oleo saccharum.
At Super Lyan, Möhlmann explains how the team uses fermentation to best express a food flavor in the bar’s version of an Espresso Martini—not exactly a low-ABV application, but a good example of how to manipulate foods in cocktails. “We ferment rye bread with sourdough yeast and mix it with IPA malt extract,” she says. "This gives the cocktail a rich, malty flavor with a funky, sour finish.”
Ultimately, says Möhlmann, in drinks as with cooking, “You can manipulate food in many different ways, so it’s up to you to research which technique would be best suited for the final drink you’re looking to make.”