New Year’s resolutions bring hefty challenges to the bar scene, where tipplers who are watching their weight want just as much buzz without the caloric intake. That’s a hard beverage to serve because many of the most popular cocktails are packed with calories: A glass of Long Island iced tea has nearly 800 calories, a piña colada is loaded with about 650 calories, and a White Russian contains approximately 450 calories.
Though plenty of light beers and low-cal wines have been widely available for some time now, calorie-conscious cocktails have only started to become a common offering in the last few years.
Elizabeth Dodwell, author of Skinny Jeans Cocktails: Libations for a Lean Lifestyle, says that calorie-conscious cocktails are generally designed for—and overwhelmingly consumed by—women. “They’re looking for something more than a boring old vodka soda or a rum and Diet Coke,” she says.
Fortunately for bartenders and lean-minded ladies alike, diet-friendly alternatives are popping up in every flavor and color imaginable. From 2010 to 2011, the number of drinks billed as “skinny” increased 533 percent according to research firm Technomic.
The Buzz on Skinny
The trend has become so prevalent that it’s tough to walk into a national chain and not find at least one low-cal cocktail. There’s the 62-calorie Shanghai Shandy, one of five skinny cocktails at sports-themed chain Champps. The margarita at Applebee’s will only set you back 100 calories. The raspberry mojito at Houlihan’s has fewer than 125 calories, and there are seven other cocktails on hand with a similar low calorie count. Meanwhile, the blood orange Cosmopolitan at Morton’s clocks in under 200 calories—one of its five Spa-Tini offerings. And the dragon-berry martini at Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill is part of the chain’s Naturally Skinny drink menu, which features six cocktails with less than 250 calories.
Enthusiasm for serving slimmed-down sippers stretches across the country and includes upscale independents as well as the chains. For the last two years, diners have been flocking to Ralph Brennan’s café b in New Orleans for a menu that brims with comforting dishes like crab beignets, chipotle-glazed meatloaf, and buttermilk fried oysters. The café b offers a trio of low-cal, low-carb, low-sugar cocktails: the 55-calorie Skinny Sparkler, the 105-calorie Raspberry-Lime Cooler, and the 150-calorie Lemon Drop. The latter is one of the most popular cocktails in the entire bar program, claims beverage manager Caleb Chafin, and since the calorie-conscious cocktail program debuted at the restaurant a year ago, he has seen a marked rise in interest for low-calorie options. “It reminds me of when Sex and the City came out and everyone was drinking Cosmos,” he says. “Now everyone wants skinny cocktails.”
Counting Cocktail Calories
“People are getting away from Fuzzy Navels,” agrees Teresa Marie Howes, a skinny-cocktail consultant and author of SkinnyTinis: All the Fun for Half the Calories. “They want something more slimmed down.”
Crafting skinny-cocktail recipes can be tricky. There are four major areas that need to be addressed: liquor, sweetener, garnishes, and mixers and flavor enhancers. Any one of those components can easily tip the scales on a cocktail’s calorie count.
Even ascertaining the calorie count or other nutritional information about liquor can be extremely difficult, since producers are not required to put that information on the label. Luckily, a number of websites, such as Calorie King and Calorie Count include liquors in their databases.
However, Howes says there is a general rule of thumb to keep in mind: “Anything that’s around 80 proof has about 64 calories per ounce.”
If that still sounds like a lot, compare those figures to some of the low-cal liquor lines that are available and determine if they are worth stocking. The most high-profile option is “Real Housewife” Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl Vodka, which is offered in plain, tangerine, island coconut, and cucumber. A 1.5-ounce serving may have only 75 calories, but it’s also only 60 proof.
Voli Vodka boasts that it has 25 to 40 percent fewer calories than traditional vodka. However, it, too, is only 60 to 70 proof, which means there is less booze for your buck in every serving. It comes in five flavors—espresso vanilla fusion, raspberry cocoa fusion, orange vanilla fusion, lemon-flavored vodka, and mango coconut fusion. (It is also available plain.) Another positive aspect of using flavored, low-calorie vodka lines is that mixologists can add more flavor to a cocktail without involving another ingredient that would introduce more calories.
That doesn’t mean any flavored vodka is fair game. “Flavored vodkas are tricky,” warns Howes. “What producers use as a flavor enhancer can change the caloric content—especially when you’re talking about flavor enhancers with names like Cotton Candy and Cookie Dough.”
Skinny Jeans Cocktails author Elizabeth Dodwell enjoys working with Three Olives Vodka, which produces a number of decadent-sounding flavored options, including chocolate and cake.
It’s also relatively easy to infuse your own liquors with strong flavors—Dodwell likes adding fresh horseradish, garlic, or hot peppers to vodkas—to create a wow factor without adding extra calories.
Simple Sweeteners, Strong Flavors
In the end, keeping it simple may be the best approach. At Washington, D.C.’s Art and Soul, the Southern-accented flagship restaurant of celebrity chef Art Smith, restaurant manager and beverage director Christian Eck recently designed a line of skinny cocktails that clocked at 140–150 calories. “The lighter the better,” recommends Eck. “Un-aged tequila, rum, vodka, or gin are best.”
When it comes to sweetener, he prefers using calorie- and carb-free Splenda as the base for his house–made simple syrups. “It sweetens drinks, but doesn’t create an artificial flavor,” he says. “Fruit and herbs come through really clear without any chemical cover-up.”
He ramps up his handcrafted simple syrups with lots of fresh herbs and spices. This strengthens their flavor profile, so he ultimately uses less sweetener. “It’s a balancing act to keep the calories low, but the flavors high,” he says.
One of his creations is a cinnamon-pomegranate margarita made with Splenda simple syrup, infused with cinnamon, and a smidge of mescal. “That adds a touch of smoke,” says Eck. “Ultimately it’s a warming cocktail; it’s not like your average cooling lime margarita.”
If you don’t have time to make flavored sweetening syrups from scratch, Howes often employs premade sugar-free syrups by Torani, while Dodwell also recommends lines by Monin and DaVinci Gourmet.
There are other sweetening options out there. Dodwell usually employs Stevia extract white powder in her concoctions. There are also natural sweeteners like agave syrup (Madhava makes a great option), but that doesn’t mean that they’re calorically more advantageous. “It is a little bit healthier for you, because it is lower on the glycemic index, which means you don’t get the sugar spiking,” says Howes. “But don’t be fooled, it’s still a full-calorie sweetener.”
Mixers are as big a problem as the liquor, warns Dodwell. “They’re usually the biggest culprit when it comes to calories,” she says.
Let Creative Juices Flow
There are plenty of diet sodas and juices available, but it’s easy to get more creative. Use freshly squeezed juices that pack a lot of flavor—Meyer lemons, kaffir limes, and blood oranges are all good options—so they only need to be used sparingly.
At Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., mixologist Gina Chersevani uses a refreshing honeydew and cantaloupe water in her 100-calorie Squeezed Melons cocktail.
Definitely don’t reach for creamy or super-sweet liqueurs that have been used traditionally to add flavors to cocktails. “Yes, they taste delicious, but they have 120 calories per ounce and they’re only approximately 25 percent alcohol,” says Howes. “You’re not getting a very good bang for your caloric buck when you look at alcohol efficiency.”
Another trick of the bar trade: Muddling fresh herbs, fruit, or vegetables in calorie-free soda water then straining out the solids adds a pop of flavor without cranking up calorie counts. At the upscale casual chain the Daily Grill, the Skinny Smash gets a boost from muddled strawberries, basil leaf, and jalapeno slices.
Perfect for skinny Bloody Marys or savory cocktails, hot sauces like Tabasco, sriracha, and Cholula pack a peppery punch, but add zero calories.
“A little dash of bitters can make an enormous difference,” says Dodwell, who is particularly fond of Bittermens artisanal line, which comes in exotic flavors like chocolate-cinnamon mole and grapefruit-hops. The highly concentrated liquids are used a few drops at a time, imparting huge flavor gains, but nearly zero calories.
Though most garnishes end up on the napkin, they can be useful for adding extra zing to the palate and flair to the presentation. “Just take fresh herbs, slap them on your hand to release their oils, then lay them on top of the cocktail,” recommends Dodwell, who crafts a thyme-spiked gin sipper she dubbed The Thyme is Right. She also likes adding pickled produce like beans, asparagus, and okra, which add almost no calories, but introduce both textural and taste elements.
Up the aesthetic appeal even further by adding whole spices. Consider cinnamon sticks in hot toddies, juniper berries in gin and tonics, and cloves in wintery punches.