The art of drinking during the day—but not getting daytime drunk—is the mastery of the low-ABV beverage, also known as the session cocktail. These libations are light on liquor yet just as tasty as their boozier counterparts. We talked to Drew Lazor, drink writer at Punch and author of Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion, to learn how to make three tasty session cocktails you won’t want to put down.
Rise of the Session Cocktail
Gone are the days of the three-martini lunch. The recent popularity of the session cocktail, Lazor says, is largely a response to people’s preferences shifting away from more traditional, more alcoholic happy hour offerings. “The party-hardy, get-wasted-after-every-shift lifestyle is just not realistic or sustainable for so many professionals anymore,” he says. “The industry trending toward thoughtfulness and accountability is a very positive development.” The session cocktail enables social drinking that doesn’t involve getting hammered in the middle of the day.
Drinkers’ interest in healthier options has made session-oriented ingredients easier to come by. “Some of the best vermouths from Italy and France, for example, were not sold here in the States until about a decade ago,” Lazor says. And as creative bartenders are seeing increasing interest in their session creations, customers are becoming more adept with the makings of an all-day drink. “[Customers] are constantly becoming more fluent in the vocabulary of sessionability, knowing how or what to order,” Lazor says. “My hope is that the lower-alcohol drinks like the ones in the book encourage a smarter approach to drinking—more measured but still fun, social, and satisfying.”
As all cocktails have alcohol, Lazor is sure to distinguish the creations he highlights from beverages of nutritional substance. “Drinking alcohol is, by its very nature, an unhealthy act,” he says. ”I’ve seen a lot of drinks in the past few years identified as ‘healthy’ because the cocktails have ginger, green tea, turmeric, acai, or what have you in them. That’s all marketing. No matter how you gussy it up, it’s still booze.” Session cocktails, he says, are instead an effort to enjoy the taste of a mixed drink without consuming so much alcohol that you can only have one—hence the term session.
The pillars of sessionability are reduced alcohol content and a focus on healthy ingredients. “The fact that our ceiling for strong spirits in a session cocktail is three-quarters of an ounce automatically trims things down significantly,” Lazor says. The syrups used to flavor a session cocktail are typically 0.75 ounces or less as well, and the use of soda water and wine (as a substitute for liquor) further cuts down the calories per ounce.
Many session cocktails are less-alcoholic versions of traditional drinks. The Astoria, for example, is essentially a backward martini. Whereas gin or vodka dominates a regular martini, 2.5 ounces of dry vermouth take the front seat in the Astoria, and 0.75 ounces of dry gin add taste. In the White Negroni Sbagliato, 4 ounces of prosecco replace the gin component, which means you can fill a highball glass without being too buzzed afterward.
Make These Cocktails
Try the following three recipes from Lazor’s book for your next outdoor occasion.
The Drink: Watermelon Cooler
Adapted by: Dale DeGroff, New York, New York
Lazor’s thoughts: “Bartending legend Dale DeGroff keeps it simple with his watermelon cooler, which is a super-easy combination of sauvignon blanc, St-Germain, watermelon juice, and a small dose of agave syrup. With an ABV that’s below that of the average glass of wine, it’s a prime candidate for daytime drinking.”
3 ounces sauvignon blanc
2 ounces fresh watermelon juice
½ ounce elderflower liqueur (preferably St-Germain)
1 teaspoon agave syrup (recipe follows)
- To make the agave syrup, combine ½ cup agave nectar and ¼ cup hot water in a heatproof container, and stir to combine. Let cool completely before storing in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
- Pour all ingredients into a collins glass filled with ice, then garnish with a cucumber ribbon and lime wheel.
The Drink: Roebling Rumrise
Adapted by: Rob Krueger, Extra Fancy, Brooklyn, New York
Lazor’s thoughts: “This tropical-leaning drink was born of necessity: Any time Extra Fancy offers a sparkling wine by the glass, the bartenders go out of their way to develop a cocktail that uses it to decrease waste. The inherent fruitiness of Lambrusco suggested a tiki canvas to Rob Krueger, who expanded on the idea with touches of Venezuelan sipping rum and pineapple juice.”
½ ounce pineapple juice
½ ounce Velvet Falernum
¾ ounce Santa Teresa Gran Reserva rum
½ ounce lemon juice
- Combine the rum, Velvet Falernum, and lemon and pineapple juices in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled.
- Strain into a flute with a brandied cherry garnish at the bottom, and gently top with Lambrusco.
The Drink: Pimm’s Cup
Adapted by: Dan Greenbaum, Diamond Reef, Brooklyn, New York
Lazor’s thoughts: “In some ways, the Pimm’s Cup is Britain’s answer to America’s sherry cobbler, given its scant alcohol content and flashy garnish game. But the drink, named for the brownish-red, gin-derived liqueur it’s built around, also has plenty in common with the mint julep, as that drink’s association with the Kentucky Derby is comparable to the Pimm’s Cup’s ubiquity at Wimbledon. Both cup and cobbler are simple examples of session cocktails built around a single low-proof element.”
1 strawberry, halved
3 slices cucumber
½ ounce simple syrup (recipe follows)
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur
½ ounce lime juice
½ ounce lemon juice
- To make the simple syrup, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a small pot over very low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Transfer to a plastic or glass container, and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
- Combine the strawberry, cucumber, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker, and use a muddler to lightly crush them together.
- Add the remaining ingredients, along with ice, and shake until chilled. Fine strain into a collins glass filled with ice, then top with soda water.
- Garnish with a strawberry and mint sprig.