Trail Ridge Road © Phoebe Trotta.
While boozy, brown drinks still rule in pre-Prohibition-style bars, bartenders who take inspiration from Europe are now popularizing aperitif-like cocktails that are flavorful and low in alcohol. In F&W's series of cocktail predictions for 2013, Bryan Dayton, owner of OAK at fourteenth in Boulder, Colorado, championed low alcohol drinks as the future of mixology. "European cultures have always promoted light aperitifs," Dayton says. "Whether it's cider in Normandy or Aperol spritzes in Italy."
The key to creating new drinks based on those models is a balance between sweet and bitter flavors. Dayton also considers a spirit’s terroir. He named his Trail Ridge Road cocktail after a path through Rocky Mountain National Park where mountain herbs, tiny violets and wild raspberries grow—a setting similar to that of Northern Italy where Dimmi, an aromatic liqueur, is made. "If I'm going to use a spirit made with mountain herbs, like Dimmi, I think about what else is growing in the mountains, what else is growing in that country, what else is growing in that region. And then I'll start building from there," Dayton says. He mixes the Dimmi with Crème de Violette, Crème Yvette made from wild berries, cassis and violets, Dry Curaçao, fresh lime juice and herbal bitters. Served up, the resulting cocktail is delicate and floral with hints of anise and spice.
Dayton loves esoteric liqueurs, but straight high alcohol booze is not off limits when used in small amounts. In The Kamptal Kooler, just one-quarter ounce of whiskey adds structure and spice to a cocktail featuring Reisetbauer Apfel Cuvée—a Champagne-style sparkling cider—the bitter Hungarian liqueur Zwack and honey syrup. “You still want the caramel and the stone fruits that come through in a great whiskey,” Dayton says. “You just have to dial it back a little bit.” Here, more innovative low-alcohol drinks from around the country.
Eastern Standard, Boston
Bar manager Kevin Martin created an aperitif called the Belle de Jour for this top Boston cocktail spot: A sweet-tart mix of herbal Benedictine, house-made grenadine and fresh lemon juice. As a digestif, Martin suggests the Danube: Punt e Mes vermouth, cardamom-inflected Zwack and a pinch of salt, stirred and strained into a chilled rocks glass swiped with orange oil.
East Side Show Room, Austin
At this Old World European-inspired restaurant, the Nectar of Folly features Cynar, an Italian artichoke liqueur and Montenegro Amaro. The herbaceous bitterness is tempered with elderflower notes from St. Germain, honey and lime, then shaken and served up in a coupe.
Portland empire builder Vitaly Paley focuses on the grill at Imperial, but the restaurant also has a great bar program. The low proof Coat of Arms cocktail mixes the Italian apertivo Cocchi Americano with black tea-infused Dolin Blanc vermouth, pear liqueur and Bonal, a French aperitif wine infused with herbs and tart chinchona bark (which gives tonic water its signature flavor). The drink is stirred, strained into a chilled coupe and garnished with a twist of lemon.
Raines Law Room, New York
Head bartender Meaghan Dorman got the recipe for the Rome (With a View) cocktail from Milk & Honey's Michale McIlroy. The bright and fizzy cocktail is made with lime juice, simple syrup, Campari and Dolin dry vermouth, shaken with ice, strained into an ice filled Collins glass and topped with club soda.