The Basics Tips & Tricks

5 Low and No-Alcohol Cocktail Books Every Bartender Needs to Read

They prove that sometimes, less is more.

Low and no abv cocktail books
Image: / Laura Sant

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 Dinah Sanders’s “The Art of the Shim” in 2013, 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 Jules Aron’s Low-Proof Happy Hour suggests? Or drinks that contain no more than 3/4 ounce of strong spirits, as Drew Lazor’s 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 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 plenty of options for those seeking to indulge (but not overindulge). And two 2022 releases, Drink Lightly and Mindful Mixology, give readers choices with both low-ABV and zero-proof cocktail recipes. They’re all sure to provide inspiration for countless bartender riffs. 

  • Drink Lightly

    Drink Lightly book / Laura Sant

    Natasha David (Penguin Random House, $27)

    Written by bartending pro Natasha David, the proprietor of New York City’s now-shuttered Nitecap, this joyful book is a love letter to apéritif culture. But the recipes inside span far beyond the spritz: Inspired by her global upbringing and years of working at top New York cocktail bars, David draws on the classics to create a range of recipes that spotlight low-ABV ingredients like fortified wine, organized into sections like “Gulpable Thirst Quenchers” and “Slow Sippers” (think sessionable versions of stirred drinks like the Manhattan). Full-proof spirits, meanwhile, are treated as supporting characters rather than stars of the show. A dedicated non-alcoholic section follows the same ethos as the rest of the book, using ingredients such as fresh juices and oat milk. David also includes two-part drinks throughout, calling on combinations like coffee and sherry or port and white vermouth.

    Excerpt: “What always drew me to low-ABV drinking, or as it’s commonly known, the apéritif, is the social aspect of it. As my mother’s dinner parties showed me, an apéritif is best enjoyed with a group of friends over lively conversation. It’s romantic and charming, and it can extend a pleasant afternoon into a spontaneous dinner, then dessert and a nighttime stroll, and perhaps even a spin under a disco ball. The alcohol content is low, so you get a lovely little buzz but can remember everything the morning after.”

  • Mindful Mixology

    Mindful Mixology book / Laura Sant

    Derek Brown (Rizzoli, $40)

    This 2022 release from bartending veteran and mindful drinking advocate Derek Brown isn’t solely a low-ABV cocktail book, nor does it focus only on zero-proof drinks. Instead, Brown aims to provide recipes across the spectrum. A non-alcoholic chapter includes original drinks and zero-proof adaptations of classics like the Ramos Gin Fizz. In keeping with the book’s mindful approach, a low-ABV chapter lists the alcohol content of each cocktail, and utilizes ingredients like shochu, port, and sherry, the latter of which Brown developed a particular affinity during his time at Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. Recipes range from a classic Adonis to a Sherry Colada that clocks in at 5% ABV.

    Excerpt: “That choice is, drink alcohol, leave out the booze, go light, or mix it up. This isn’t a binary choice, it’s about a plethora of options, an embarrassment of options. You can have a drink with a friend that’s sophisticated, dare I say even strong, and looks beautiful sans alcohol. You can have a drink, like I sometimes do, and make a second non-alcoholic cocktail. You can have a sessionable cocktail, a low-alcohol drink, or a few. This book is a book about options. But those options haven’t always been apparent.”

  • 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 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 sections on functional ingredients support a collection of more than 100 recipes that “won’t interfere with your wellness journey,” according to the author. Fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs are heavily featured, as in the Jet Set Reset, a green-juice-like punch bowl that combines 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.”

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 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.’”