The Basics Tips & Tricks

3 Books About Low-ABV Cocktails Every Bartender Needs to Read

These drinks allow you to indulge without overindulging.

Cocktail books
Image: / Laura Sant

The best bartenders are also bookworms, constantly researching the latest tastes and trends. But with so many titles to choose from, it’s easy to wind up lost in a sea of stale prose and sloppy recipes. We’ve paged through the stack to give you the essential booze books to read this month.

Somewhere between the extremes of the high-octane Martini and zero-proof temperance drinks lies the low-alcohol cocktail. This tier of moderate drinks has been the laser focus of just a handful of modern bar books, starting with 2013’s “The Art of the Shim,” although they populate just about every bar menu to some degree. 

How does one define a low-alcohol cocktail? There seems to be a sliding scale: Is it 10% ABV or lower, as “Low Proof Happy Hour” suggests? Or drinks that contain no more than 3/4 ounce of strong spirits, as “Session Cocktails” advises? Or no more than a half-ounce of the same, as defined by “The Art of the Shim”?

Low-ABV drinks certainly aren’t a recent invention, as “Session Cocktails” rightly notes. Many are classic mainstays. “Consider the cobbler,” suggests author Drew Lazor. These wine-based drinks rose to prominence in the mid-19th century. Similarly, the Sangaree, a combination of port, sherry or Madeira with water, sugar and nutmeg, was well-documented in the same era, as were wine-and-fruit-based “cups.” The best-known of that latter category is the easy-drinking Pimm’s Cup, an inspiration for many modern-day drinks.

The following books collect these useful drinks, which represent survival strategies for those seeking to indulge (but not overindulge) and will provide inspiration for countless bartender riffs. 

  • “The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level”

    The Art of the Shim / Laura Sant

    Dinah Sanders (Sanders & Gratz, $9 for Kindle edition)

    When this book first dropped in 2013, it was a rarity: the only modern cocktail book specifically dedicated to the low-ABV genre. Compiled by cocktail enthusiast Dinah Sanders, the book celebrated the concept of the “shim,” defined as a “well-proportioned” drink “containing no more than half an ounce of strong spirits,” meaning it would have less alcohol than the average six-ounce glass of wine. In addition to classics like the Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, many of the drinks in the book have gone on to be modern classics in their own right, such as John Gertsen’s Iggy, a sleek Italian Greyhound variation made with Punt e Mes and grapefruit. 

    Excerpt: “If the goal of drinking were to get drunk, cocktails would never be the best route! Instead of treating ourselves to good company, pleasant surroundings and fine ingredients, we could just stay home, buy any old cheap rotgut [and] drink it straight from the bottle. … But that’s not why civilized people drink. We drink to connect. … To drink a cocktail properly is to say, ‘We are here now, together, you and I.’”

  • “The Low-Proof Happy Hour: Real Cocktails Without the Hangover”

    The Low-Proof Happy Hour / Laura Sant

    Jules Aron (Countryman Press, $19)

    Written by a Palm Beach, Florida, holistic wellness practitioner and bar consultant, this new book, published in January 2021, takes the view that cocktails don’t have to be booze-free to be virtuous. For example, callouts on sustainability in making and serving drinks (e.g., no plastic straws) and callouts on functional ingredients support a collection of more than 100 recipes that “won’t interfere with your wellness journey,” promises the author. Fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs are heavily featured, as in the Jet Set Reset, a green-juice-like punch bowl that fills out dry vermouth and yellow Chartreuse with green tea, honeydew syrup and lime juice. 

    Excerpt: “Low-alcohol drinks that contain up to 10% ABV pack all the flavor without the punch, and make it easy for folks to embrace a healthy lifestyle and stay on track with their fitness and wellness goals while still enjoying a night out with friends. … ‘Less is more’ can become your mantra to live by in more ways than one. From low alcohol to low waste, I’m always at the ready with advice to help you live your best low-proof life.”

  • “Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks For Any Occasion”

    Session Cocktails book / Laura Sant

    Drew Lazor (Ten Speed Press, $19)

    Drawing heavily on bartender-sourced drinks, this 2018 book pulls short of putting parameters around the easy-drinking “session cocktail,” offering a more general guideline: “It’s low enough in alcohol for you to down more than a few without getting punchy.” Look for sophisticated riffs on stirred classics, and long drinks like the Suze & Tonic. A chapter on frozen drinks, such as a blended Aperol Spritz, is a particularly fresh and welcome addition to the low-ABV canon. 

    Excerpt: “Dan Greenbaum, bartender at Attaboy in New York City, offers the following guideline for building session cocktails: ‘I generally tend to start with particular ingredients or flavors and imagine how they’d work together in the same way that I would with a boozier drink. Once I’ve got that down, I try to figure out what form the drink will be in and think of any existing or similar drinks that I can use as a template.’”