Slimmed Down Cocktails

by Francoise Villeneuve
Will Blunt
July 2010

Among more commercial operations, the word “skinny” attached to food or beverage can be a marketing gold-mine; there isn’t a coffee or restaurant chain that doesn’t offer a low calorie cocktail, latte, or frozen beverage. But this poses a contradiction for cocktails in particular, where the prominent player—alcohol—isn’t exactly known for its slimming properties. Americans still like their 700-calorie mega Mudslides, but the weight loss industry is also booming and it’s evident that while the obesity epidemic is not without its contributors at the bar, there is a significant portion of the market that cares enough about their health to see these whoppers in a glass as a problem.

This dynamic of massive portion sizes across the board and an awareness of how unhealthy these options are have increased the demand for less caloric potables. Yes, water is a better choice for those on a diet, but consumers want to indulge in the odd cocktail without feeling guilty. Ironically, marketing studies have shown that consumers actually order more of these beverages than they would if they ordered a full-calorie version of the same beverage, which ends up defeating the purpose.

Multi-unit operations that span the country have a massive impact here as most offer at least one “skinny” cocktail and each has hundreds of locations. Chili’s for example offers a 100-calorie Skinny Patron Margarita made with Patron Reposado Tequila, lime juice, sugar-free triple sec, and Patron Citronge. Alternative sweeteners are flooding the market and agave nectar—with its lower glycemic index—is a popular choice for mixers marketed as reduced calorie. Diabetic Top Cheftestant Sam Talbot is busy selling Truvia-sweetened cocktails as the brand’s spokesman and the Internet is now flooded, like it or not, with Skinnygirl Margarita recipes from The Real Housewives of New York’s Bethenny Frankel.

As much as artisanal-minded mixologists may turn their noses at the idea of calorie-conscious cocktails, it’s not just massive corporations that are affected by this demand for “healthier” items. Even plaid-clad bartenders at high-end restaurants and bars are catching on, and stepping up to the challenge to create less caloric cocktails with the same precision and imagination as they apply to the full-calorie counterparts.

As we saw in our 2009 Culinary Trends Survey, farm fresh cocktails have infiltrated the market coast to coast and their perceived healthiness has contributed to the success of many higher end beverage operations that offer crafted cocktails on the lighter side. At New York’s Rouge Tomate the nutritionist-approved cocktail menu includes a section with this farm fresh philosophy but with less caloric effects, like their Kiwi Smash that combines kiwi, kaffir leaves, lime juice, kiwi juice, and kaffir-infused gin. They also offer numerous non-alcoholic cocktails for teetotalers that offer the hip appeal of their regular cocktails without the resolve-breaking effects of alcoholic cocktails.

At PS 7’s in Washington DC, Mixologist Gina Chersevani is known for her chefly cocktails. When Chersevani began trying to lose weight, she became aware that the options for those watching their calorie intake at the bar are limited and don’t often reach beyond light beers and diet sodas into the crafted cocktail realm. With a view to change all of that, she began experimenting and created a section on her menu for 100-calorie options. Many of them are simply served in reduced portions, so the same care and creativity goes into each as would go into her regular cocktails without the diluted flavor of a “light” cocktail.

Chersevani’s culinary skill also means that her cocktails are perceived by the palate as more satisfying and so less is required for happy hour happiness. The spice and potent flavors like hot Thai chili in her Chili Flip recipe and tangy-sweet pomegranate in her Ant-eye-ox-a-dent add zip, and that luxurious-tasting silky froth on the top of the Chili Flip is the work of the egg white that goes into every fizz.

Boutique distillers are easing into the market too. Last month saw the US release of Haamonii Shochu or Soju, a Japanese spirit that reportedly has a lower alcohol content and calorie count than vodka, but with the same neutral flavor profile, making it a viable alternative for mixed drinks. Whether the industry wants to acknowledge it or not, the demand is there, and savvy mixologists are in the ideal position to push the envelope beyond syrupy “low-cal” Appletinis and show that there is a place in the culinary cocktail world for this substantial portion of the market—hopefully without the use of the word “skinny.”