Just like the rest of America, cocktails are counting calories. Traditional drinks like the cosmopolitan, margarita and martini are being reinvented at restaurants all over the country. The goal for most is to maintain or improve upon flavor while cutting calories by half or more—ending up anywhere in the 99 to 250 calorie range.

For liquor-based drinks the prospect of slimming down poses a unique challenge. “The psychology behind a “skinny cocktail” is conflicted since the industry arose as nothing more than a source of fun and pleasure,” explains Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a food and beverage advisory firm in Buellton, California.

However the colossal crisis over obesity in this country has left the beverage industry with no choice but innovation. What was once a bartender with a handful of bottles to choose from is now a mixologist with a stock of fresh fruits, herbs, syrups, natural sweeteners and an expert palate.

For instance, take the Cucumber Slenderita, introduced by Scottsdale, Arizona-based RA Sushi just over a year ago. It includes 1 oz. TY KU Soju, 1 oz. TY KU Liqueur, and 0.5 oz. Monin Sugar Free Triple Sec Syrup with the juice of three lime slices, three lemon slices, a splash of orange juice, a splash of soda and two cucumber slices.

“Since RA Sushi’s demographic is 20- to 40-year-olds, we created low-calorie drinks that appealed to the health-conscious as well as those interested in emerging trends,” says Alex Summer, beverage director for the chain, in reference to the Cucumber Slenderita and two more under-200-calorie concoctions, the Thin Mint Mojito and the Cosmo-teeny.

Clean and Simple Concoctions

“As bartenders become more skilled and more culinary in their approach they are going for cleaner, more natural fruit-derived flavors,” says Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst with Mintel, Chicago.

For instance, The Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, California, launched five new skinny-style fresh, handcrafted and muddled-to-order mixers last year, using a proprietary blend of sugar substitute and natural sweeteners like fresh fruit and cranberry juice.

Meanwhile Flemmings Prime Steakhouse and Winebar, owned by OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC, in Tampa, Florida, recently introduced Skinnier Cocktails with less than 100 calories each, including the 99-calorie Tickled Pink. It mixes 1 oz. Belvedere Vodka with 1 oz. sugar-free raspberry preserve, one squeezed orange wedge, 0.5 oz. of Mionette Prosecco and two fresh raspberries.

“When I have to make [a cocktail] with 99 calories or less, it really gets my creative side going,” says mixologist for the restaurant, Marian Jansen op de Haar.

Mass Appeal

Houlihan’s, Leewood, Kansas, introduced a line of five Skinny Drinks system-wide last spring, and while mostly women are consuming the cocktails, the chain’s decision to base its low-calorie offerings on drinks that were already popular to its consumers, like margaritas and mojitos, speaks to a focus on maintaining a wide appeal.

Another strategy is introducing the drinks in spring, says Jen Gulvik, vice president of marketing for Houlihan’s. Patio season, “when everyone looks forward to a refreshing cocktail,” is a good time to start.

Pirko agrees: “Positive emotions and sensations in spring and summer help create a sense of loyalty.” However, the holiday season also provides a nice opportunity, and as Summer of RA Sushi points out: “Many people look for ways to make healthy changes as part of their New Year’s resolutions.”

Low-Cal Not Low-Profit

RA Sushi, which marketed its line using social media outlets, email blasts, and store-level training, decided to price its low-cal cocktails in line with the rest of its drinks menu. “If we were to rate our cocktail menu by number of sales per cocktail, this program was as successful as the better selling portion of the cocktail menu,” says Summer.

Houlihan’s skinny drinks are also priced on par with its drinks menu price-wise, and it has marketed with billboards, online and print advertising and in-store messaging. The chain has had success with sales, says Gulvik.

In fact, it after its first round, it added three more skinny drinks: the Skinny Cut-ini (Effen Cucumber vodka, fresh lemon juice, mint); the Skinny Lemon Collins (Skyy Citrus vodka, Triple Orange, lemon, mint) and the Skinny Cosmo (Skyy vodka, Triple Orange, lime, cranberry juice).

If all the skinny references and names like Tickled Pink and Cosmo-teeny don’t make it obvious, the skinny drink market is targeting females for the time being. But this trend is going to have to appeal to the male demographic if it’s going to last, says Pirko.

“So far the trend skews young and old, so marketing to people between 21 and 28 years old who are just entering the drinking category and want to take it gently, as well as those in their late 40s and 50s, whose metabolisms are slowing, is a good way to go,” he adds.

But it doesn’t just come down to gender; possibly the strongest factor in the success of healthier cocktails is word-of-mouth. The great thing about how bars operate now, says Mintel’s Hayden, is that bartenders and servers have time to talk to customers about their drinks. The skinny cocktails’ strength comes from a buzz at the most basic level—grassroots.

By Wendy Toth

Beverage, Industry News