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.