24 carrot magic cocktails from planter's house photo by carmen troesser

The rise of low-ABV cocktails in St. Louis

The rise of low- and no-ABV cocktails has bartenders and thirsty patrons forming the best symbiotic relationship since honeybees and orange blossoms. With an increasing number of complex, low-alcohol bottles like vermouth and sherry coming on the market and a greater number of curious drinkers seeking to sample the creativity without getting wasted, everybody wins.

It’s not like shot glasses are going out of production, but there is a notable industry trend. William Grant & Sons distillers kicked off Tales of the Cocktail (the trendsetting annual bar and spirits convention in New Orleans) this year with a dry party. Breweries from Sam Adams to The Civil Life offer a widening variety of beers meant to be enjoyed all afternoon long, and low-alcohol wines claim more space on the shelf. Monikers like “virgin” and even “mocktail” are being replaced by less embarrassing labels like “sessionable” and “zero-proof.” People are choosing to be more responsible, knowing they can order a low-alcohol drink without compromising quality or flavor.

When Parlor opened in The Grove last winter, bar manager David Greteman featured a Parlor’s Cup employing primarily Pimm’s, which clocks in at a mild 12.5 percent AVB compared to bourbon’s nearly 50 percent, and just a little gin. The bar served up 240 cups in its first 10 days.

“It’s more about enjoying the experience of going out rather than pounding Jäger and getting sloppy,” said Frazer’s beverage director Terry Oliver, who has also seen an uptick in interested customers at the Benton Park bar.

the benevolent king general manager tony saputo // photo by carmen troesser

Just because you don’t or can’t drink doesn’t mean you want to be stuck sipping ginger ale with a splash of orange juice. General manager Tony Saputo at The Benevolent King in Maplewood said the nonalcoholic offerings on his menu, like the refreshing Moroccan-inspired almond-orange-black pepper soda, have been a hit with a variety of guests.

“There’s no single type of person that goes for it,” Saputo said. “It’s a relief for pregnant customers that there’s still something for them.”

Planter’s House in Lafayette Square has an entire mocktail menu, on which the 24 Carrot Magic is the most popular order. The sweet, earthy and black pepper notes of the carrot and turmeric juice offer enough interest to play against the lemon, coconut water and ginger cordial for a sip as deep and satisfying as any bourbon-based drink. “The key is to start with ingredients that have layers of flavor,” said co-owner Ted Kilgore.

Mixing up a great no- or low-ABV cocktail is just as demanding as building a boozier beverage. In fact, the challenge of creating something with nothing is part of the attraction.

“It should never be disregarded – the importance of classic builds and ratios,” Greteman said. “If you stray from the basics, nothing works. You first learn how to balance a stirred cocktail, then a shaken, citrus-based one. Faced with the challenge of making a low- or no-alcohol drink allows you to redevelop that principle of balance.”

It’s a challenge Retreat bar manager and Yellowbelly co-owner Tim Wiggins enjoys taking head-on. “Nonalcoholic drinks can be lame,” he said. “I wanted to create cocktails instead of just shaking juice. I like figuring out what’s missing.”

It’s not easy to replicate a boozy drink. “It’s the aroma and the heat when you swallow that make a cocktail feel like a cocktail,” Wiggins said.

To mimic that heat, Wiggins infuses juices and syrups with spices like chili flake and utilizes cold-pressed ginger juice at his Central West End bars. He uses a bourbon spray or rinse to trick the nose with some drinks.

flower power cocktail at frazer's // photo by carmen troesser

Many incorporate bubbles to mask the mouth feel of lo-fi sippers. Oliver uses a palate-bending edible buzz button flower to shake up mild-mannered liqueurs at Frazer’s with no spirits required. The diminutive, yellow cone packs a punch as it opens salivary glands, amplifies taste buds and creates a tingling, buzzing sensation like you’ve licked a 9-volt battery or your tongue has gone to sleep.

“It’s intense,” Oliver said. He advises guests to try the Flower Power cocktail, eat the flower, then go back and try it again to see how the flavors change. “For me, the drink starts sweet but after eating the flower, it becomes more tart,” he said. “But other people notice salty or savory flavors.”

The cocktail itself is equal parts of three liqueurs and lemon juice served with a small glass of cava – not a barnburner by ABV standards but a memorable drink nonetheless.

Swapping out spirits for liqueurs, amari or fortified wines is one way to lower the proof. Wiggins turns to sherry as a replacement for harder spirits in some classic cocktail riffs. In his Session Daiquiri, rum is replaced by dry vermouth and fino sherry. Shaken with lime and pineapple, it’s a crushable cocktail that won’t crush you.

Another trick is to switch up the ratio of spirits to traditional modifiers. “If you reverse the formula of some drinks, you can play Mr. Potato Head and play with different spirits and liqueurs,” Oliver said.

Instead of a normal sour with two ounces of liquor and modest amounts of sugar and citrus, Oliver’s Sidewinder at Frazer’s features an ounce of apricot liqueur, an ounce of ginger liqueur and a mere three-quarter ounce of cognac and three-quarter ounce of citrus. The fruit and spice play forward, with the cognac keeping time in the background.

Kilgore noted that some original martini recipes contained two-thirds sweet vermouth to a mere one-third gin. Eventually, dry vermouth replaced the sweet, and gin stole the spotlight. If you don’t want to slam your classic all the way in reverse, mix it up half-and-half to lower the octane while preserving the essence of the drink. Though obviously not aiming for zero-proof, these simple changes can seriously change your experience of a night out.

The same principles the pros use can be applied at home. Wiggins said to achieve the balance of sweet, sour, bitter and savory, and a better mouth feel, add a pinch of salt or shake the drink with a slice of jalapeno.

With the variety of intriguing drinks made with compelling ingredients by driven bartenders, there’s no end to your evening and no reason for your Uber driver to give you a bad review.

Kristin Schultz is a longtime contributor to Sauce Magazine.