Bartenders and Brewers: Low- and No-Alcohol Drinks Are a Good Thing


Brooklyn bar and restaurant Grand Army will soon list alcohol-by volume (abv) percentages along with cocktail descriptions on its menus. While abv is standard information on beer and wine labels, and proof on spirit bottles is ever present, a potency listing is often absent when it comes to mixed drinks, with the assumption simply being that the result will likely pack a punch.

“We go to bars because we want to be around people, but you don’t need to be drunk to do that,” says Damon Boelte, co-owner of Grand Army and cohost of The Speakeasy podcast. “Bars are about hospitality and fun and welcoming everyone and having something for everyone and not making them feel weird about it.” Across all major alcohol categories, there has been a renewed interest in no-abv drinks, designed to appeal to the health conscious, the sober curious or those who need a lifestyle change. This growth has been helped along by initiatives like Dry January and Sober October.

Between full-strength drinks and zero-alcohol offerings lies the session category, which offers moderate alcohol and familiar flavors that fit into casual occasions and nights out while still allowing for a clear mind and maybe fewer calories.

What’s in a Name?

Session drinks are hard to define because they mean different things to different people, manufacturers and even concepts. “Session” has long been used in the beer world to describe lower abv ales and lagers that can be consumed without the drinker quickly becoming intoxicated. Session beers can also be used to describe selections that can be enjoyed over long outings at a pub or the home bar.

At the Great American Beer Festival, an annual gathering and judging competition, the guidelines for the “session beer” category state that the beer must be at or below 5% abv and have an original gravity and alcohol content below the range of the classic style. “Drinkability is key to a successful session beer,” the rules state.

The earliest beers were low to moderate in strength. Enough alcohol to kill any bacteria living in water, but not enough to render societies unproductive. As brewing science evolved, water became cleaner and civilization advanced, and the abv of beer climbed higher.

Today, standard light lagers are around 3.5% abv and barley wines and imperial stouts can push upwards of 14% abv. A quick survey of tap lists at bars will usually reveal ranges from 4.5% to 10% abv.

Still, from time to time, lower-than-usual abv beers appear. Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Massachusetts experimented with The 2% Beer Initiative several years ago, offering beers at lower strength without sacrificing the flavor. Aecht Schlenkerla, the famed Rauchbier brewery in Bamberg, Germany, annually releases a Hansla, a hoppy, unfiltered smoked beer based on a traditional recipe that clocks in around 1.2% abv.

Sessionable Beyond Beer

Session drinks in the wine and spirits category are a little harder to come by and a little tougher to define. When compared to beer, those beverages boast higher alcohol content, so simply reducing abv is not an easy endeavor. And so, some producers are putting in hard work to make these drinks possible. At Wild Arc Farm, a winery in New York’s Hudson Valley, cofounder Todd Cavallo makes piquette, a low-alcohol wine that is created from the second pressings of grape pomace.

“A big part of why we started making piquette is that it is more approachable, it is sessionable and it is affordable,” says Cavallo. “It just so happens that when we started in 2017, that’s when hard seltzer was making its meteoric rise, and that was about refreshment and low alcohol. We fit into that marketplace with piquette.”

Hard seltzer typically hovers around 5% abv. Cavallo’s piquette is packaged in 375-milliliter cans and clocks in at 7% abv.

“The 7% puts it around a standard drink size as opposed to 12%,” he says. “I’ll have a 15% abv bottle of wine with dinner when I’m at home for the night and if I finish it, that’s OK. But the piquette is for the daytime when I’m hanging out, swimming, fishing, whatever. It’s for if I’m at the beach all day and I don’t want to be knocked out.”

On its own, piquette does not have much body, so Cavallo adds carbonation to the finished product.

Throughout the session category, as alcohol is lessened, makers across all platforms work to beef up body to replicate a traditional alc-bev experience. A drink that is too thin is typically not as appealing to consumers, so carbonation or the addition of adjuncts for a bit of heft can fill the gap.

“Texture is so important,” says Cavallo.

That is how the brewers at Offset Bier Company in Park City, Utah approach many of their beers. State law prohibits beers above 5% abv to be served in containers larger than a gallon, so draft beer needs to be accommodated. When it comes to India pale ale, a style that is usually in the 6% to 8% abv range, the brewers get creative and use specialty malts to enhance the body of the finished product.

Conor Brown, a brewer and co-owner of Offset Bier Company, says that when tourists come through, they are sometimes skeptical of the lower-than-normal abv.

“I think they are slowly starting to come around and usually people are excited because they can have a few rather than just one,” says Brown.

Drinking session illo
Illustration by Lee Hodges

Low/No Consumption Climate

The Covid-19 pandemic put personal alcohol consumption into greater focus. More time at home starting in 2020 and still extending to various degrees into 2022 has removed some of the social guardrails that existed with imbibing. As new variants have emerged, and full reopenings remain uncertain, drinkers are looking for moderation.

According to NielsenIQ’s 2022 Consumer Outlook Report, 61% of consumers in the United States said physical and mental wellness will be more important to them over the next 12 months. The study also found that 78% of non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits buyers also purchase alcoholic beer, wine or spirits.

“The overlap is rather high, indicating that those who are purchasing non-alcoholic options are very similar consumers to our traditional beverage alcohol consumer,” the report states.

Sales numbers are mixed, however. Low-alcohol spirits sales rose 14.5% over the previous year ending in mid-January. Low alcohol wine declined by 1.2% and low-alcohol beer by 0.5%.

“Beer came to it first, but what we are seeing, wine and spirits get into the premiumization of brands, the so-called ‘better for you’ or ‘perceived better for you,’” says Kimberly A. Clements, managing partner of Pints LLC, an Arizona-based consulting firm.

Often, this means touting low calories or low carbohydrates in addition to less alcohol than familiar stalwart brands. “We’ve seen it with Skinny Girl, or Babe, or Stella Rosa, even Slightly Mighty [from Dogfish Head] and Flyjack [from Firestone Walker] on the beer side. People want healthier options.”

There have been low-alcohol cocktail options in existence, says Boelte, but they are often overshadowed by higher-abv cousins. The Bamboo cocktail, for example, is a combination of dry Sherry, dry vermouth and dashes of angostura and orange bitters garnished with a lemon twist. The Adonis is equal parts fino Sherry and sweet vermouth, spritzed with citrus and garnished with an orange peel. Boelte also points to a 50-50 martini where equal parts vermouth and gin are mixed, thus reducing the hard alcohol punch.

“When you’re having an ounce and a half of gin versus five ounces, that’s a cocktail that pumps the brakes,” he says. Session drinking is a frequent topic on his podcast and Boelte believes that innovation is primed to come into the space. With many bartenders looking to lower alcohol consumption along with innovation in the production space, he believes that more flavorful but lower booze impact options are on the horizon.

“It’s a really fun category to work in,” says Boelte. “It’s a whole other world of drinks and you can make things that haven’t been done before.”

That could even be helped along by the ready to-drink segment, where pre-mixed cocktails are hitting the market around 7.5% abv. That is lower than a standard cocktail, but perfect for settings like concerts or tailgates where hard liquor is not often found or embraced en masse. One brand, LiveWire, has been working with bartenders to create sessionable canned cocktails suitable for such venues.

“Initially, the alcohol brands out there were focused on imitation, but now there are brands that are no- and low-alcohol and are delicious in their own right,” says John deBary, author of Drink What You Want and the founder and CEO of Proteau Zero-Proof Drinks.

“There is credibility in the category and as it becomes more common there will be more creation.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!