Published on April 22nd, 2014 | by Adrienne


Low Octane Cocktails

One of the most underrated cocktail categories is the “sessionable” or “low octane” cocktail: drinks with a lower alcohol content that you can sip on all afternoon (or evening) without having to take a nap at 4pm or waking up the next day wondering what happened last night.  As the weather starts to warm and we enter the season of beaches & outdoor day drinking (one of my  favorite pastimes), I start to gravitate more and more to this style of drink.  It’s a refreshing way to transition from day to night, harking back to the most civilized of European inventions: the aperitivo, or aperitif, before-dinner drink designed to stimulate the appetite and awaken the palate.

Last summer at Tales of the Cocktail, we attended a seminar on this very subject hosted by Kara Newman (author of Cocktails for a Crowd) with Joaquin Simo of NYC’s Pouring Ribbons and a few other awesome barkeeps & brand reps.  Here’s some of what we learned & drank:

The Basics:

Classic ingredients in lower alcohol cocktails include all kinds of vermouth, sherry and amaro, which tend to come in between 15-30% abv instead of the 40-45% of most hard liquor.  They are usually very fully flavored and can be served simply garnished over ice; no need for all kinds of crazy ingredients – which also make them very home-bartender friendly.  You can order low-alcohol at many bars, even if they aren’t on the menu.  Just tell the bartender what you’re looking for and they should be able to whip something up.  Restaurants that don’t have full liquor licenses also often have creative low-abv options too.  I especially like Northern Spy in Alphabet City and Pearl & Ash on the Bowery.

If you want to go DIY,  head over to your neighborhood liquor store (Astor, Bowery & Vine and DrinkUp NY have good selections), pick up a bottle of whatever aperitif strikes your fancy, add ice and a wedge of lemon or orange, some herbs like mint or basil, a slice of cucumber, some strawberries – the possibilities are endless. Top it off with a little club soda or sparkling wine (or not), kick back, relax & enjoy. Looking for inspiration? Here are a few recipes to get you started.

Some Recipes:


A classic cocktail that couldn’t be more simple: 1 oz Campari, 1.5 oz sweet vermouth (I really like Vya Vermouth), poured over ice and topped with club soda.  Bitter, slightly sweet, totally refreshing.  If you want to amp it up, reduce the vermouth to 1 oz and add 1 oz gin instead of club soda to make the equally classic Negroni. An orange slice or twist garnish works well here too.


Another old classic, you can make a cobbler with just about anything.  The basic process is to muddle some fruit in a cocktail shaker, add a little simple syrup and a few ounces of your ingredient of choice, shake with ice, and strain into a collins glass filled with pebble ice (or small ice cubes).  Oranges are delicious with Amontillado or Fino Sherry.  Lemon & lime with Cocchi Americano work great too.  I recently combined orange, pineapple, mint and lemon verbena with Cinzano Bianco vermouth and it was fantastic.  In summertime, add raspberries; for fall, try cranberries.

For something a little more advanced, try some of these:

Pineau des Charentes Cobbler by Kirk Estopinal (of Bellocq & Cure, two of our favorite bars in New Orleans):

1.5 oz Pineau de Charentes
1/2 oz lemon
1/2 oz simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar:water)
¾ oz Calvados or Cognac brandy
Boston Bitters-coated lemon pieces, for garnish

Add all (except garnish) to a tin and shake hard with big ice. Strain over crushed ice and top with lemon & powdered sugar.

Red Wedding (by Erick Castro, Polite Provisions, San Diego)

2 oz Lillet Rosé
2 oz Sparkling wine (like Cava)
3/4 oz grenadine
2 dashes Peychauds bitters
Splash club soda

Combine ingredients in a collins glass over ice, garnish with a lemon twist.

Suppressor #1 (by Greg Best, Holeman and Finch Public House, Atlanta)

1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz Alvear Pedro Ximenez Sherry
8 drops of Bitterman’s Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
2 bar spoons of lemon juice

Add all ingredients to a Collins glass filled with ice and stir. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel and a sprig of fresh spearmint.

Still want more? Dinah Sanders, author of the blog, recently published a book of low-alcohol cocktail recipes titled “The Art of the Shim”


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About the Author

Adrienne is one of the co-founders of Dipsology. When she’s not drinking, sleeping & breathing cocktails, she can be found in Napa, drinking wine instead. You can read about her non-cocktail adventures on her blog and follow her @alstillman.

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