Modify Your Way to a Better Low-ABV Cocktail

Amid a cultural moment for moderation, bartenders are seeking out ways to convert even traditionally boozy classics into lower-proof, sessionable drinks. A growing number are turning to vermouth and aperitif spirits to add complexity to drinks without bumping up the alcohol, transforming familiar high-proof cocktails into easier sippers. Some of those recipes are calling on vermouth as the base, while others using it to replace a measure—or all—of a drink’s high-octane spirits.

“Vermouth is as versatile as any spirit; it is capable of anchoring almost any kind of cocktail,” says Thomas Eslinger, of Death & Co.’s Los Angeles outpost. “The modern vermouth cocktail can fit in any section of a [drink] menu.”

As part of Lo-Fi Aperitif’s Mod Squad—a team of bartenders selected to showcase their creativity using the California brand’s portfolio of aperitif spirits—Eslinger is turning the concept of “modifier” on its head.

To wit: He rejiggered the Jungle Bird, that bold tropical stalwart, by pulling back on the rum and using an ounce and a half of Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro as the star of the drink, bumping up the bitterness and complexity. The grapefruit, ginger and hibiscus pair well with the tropical notes of pineapple and aged rum, Eslinger notes.

Similarly, Briggs Brown, assistant general manager of L.A.’s Everson Royce Bar and another member of the Mod Squad, revamped the classic Daiquiri into an unorthodox stirred version, supplementing navy-strength gin with Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth and a simple lime cordial.

“I’m a big fan of the low-ABV category,” Brown says, noting the “resurgence” of the style and observing that many guests are actively seeking out lower-proof drinks.

To similarly rework a typically boozy classic at home, Eslinger advises staying focused on the balance of the drink. “Whether you’re substituting vermouth for a spirit or using it as a building block, it’s important to think about how much ABV you’re adding,” he says. “If you are replacing a higher-strength spirit, you may need to add more vermouth than you would think, in order to keep the balance correct and avoid the drink getting ‘syrupy.’”

Next, consider the amount of sweetness a particular vermouth might contribute (or not), Eslinger says; it may be necessary to adjust the volume of other sweeteners or spirits.

Meanwhile, Brown takes the “Mr. Potato Head” mix-and-match approach when modifying drinks with vermouth, swapping in a quarter-ounce at a time in place of a similar amount of spirit, “and seeing what that does to the drink.” He’s also a fan of tasting modifiers straight to “see what kind of sensory memories come to mind,” and then building a drink around those characteristics. For example, when tasting Lo-Fi Sweet Vermouth, the subtle coconut tones and pleasant brightness he detected suggested a citrusy, “zippy” drink—ideal for a warm-weather vibe. That brought him to a Daiquiri, though he “rearranged the formula” to create a stirred rather than shaken-style drink.

In Miami, Mod Squad bartender Lucas Garcia of Miami’s Kyu, hit on one of the holy grails of the low-proof cocktail canon: a Margarita riff that omits tequila altogether, using a split base of Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth and Gentian Amaro. “Tequila is a little herbaceous, with some sweetness and spice,” Garcia explains. While the dry vermouth added appropriate herbal tones and sweetness, “the backbone needed to be a little more intense, so I added the amaro to support it.”

To develop a similar low-ABV drink, Garcia suggests flipping the script: Start out by leaning into a modifier like vermouth, then add small amounts of a full-strength spirit if needed.

“You can have beautiful vermouth drinks,” Garcia says. “Vermouth is usually used as a modifier only. But it can be the main character of a cocktail.”

Below, three recipes from the Mod Squad demonstrate the versatility of low-ABV modifiers in decidedly modern takes on classic cocktails.

For his riff on the classic Margarita, Lucas Garcia uses three-quarters of an ounce of Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth with one and a quarter ounces of Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro—and drops the tequila altogether. The natural bitterness of the gentian amaro gives additional oomph to the “vibrant, lightly sweet” vermouth and ensures that its “delicate flavor” stands up to the lime juice and orange liqueur.

“Most of the Jungle Bird riffs I see lean toward the boozier side, which makes sense since the Jungle Bird is a big-flavored, hard-hitting drink,” Eslinger explains. His response: Flip the drink on its head, keeping its “flavor bomb” aspect but scaling back on the rum, while subbing in amaro for a traditional red bitter. The Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro brings the same bitterness and complexity, Eslinger says, while layering in grapefruit, ginger and hibiscus—all flavors that hit just right in a tropical drink. Pineapple and lime juices ensure that the Jungle Bird keeps its signature sweet juiciness. The result is “just as delicious, but refreshing in a different kind of way.”

Incorporating aspects of both a Daiquiri and a Gimlet, this drink features an easy equal-parts formula of lime cordial and navy-strength gin, both of which “pay homage to rum’s seafaring nature,” Brown says. Within that framework, Lo-Fi Sweet Vermouth takes a central role, adding both natural sweetness and a “bright, zippy” quality that enhances the sweet-tart nature of a Daiquiri. “The subtle coconut notes and bright attributes of the vermouth really came to shine,” Brown observes.

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