Drink

Bartenders Find Balance in Creating Low-Sugar Cocktails

Brad Thomas Parsons

The frequent request for a drink that’s “not too sweet” is a phrase that triggers a mild annoyance in many bartenders. It harkens back to a not-too-distant past when the cocktail landscape leaned more toward fruity and sweet drinks that relied on artificial juices and sweeteners rather than the well-balanced, flavorful drinks you’ll find at most bars today. There’s been a steady rise of creative nonalcoholic drink options featured on many cocktail menus, but you never see an asterisk or special section calling out low-sugar offerings for a guest who’s counting calories and has eliminated sugar due to a specialized diet, or someone with diabetes who has to monitor what they’re eating and drinking to keep their blood sugar levels in check. 

Simply removing the sweet element from an existing drink on a menu will throw the balance out of whack. Most bartenders can offer options to consider when you want to avoid an artificially sweetened mixer but also don’t want to simply sip a neat spirit (or are avoiding spirits like rum where sugar may have been added back in post-distillation). 

As a celiac who has to avoid gluten, Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, is especially sensitive to those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. But she is quick to point out that there are calories and sugar in many spirits and the importance of understanding the way our bodies react to and metabolize different sugars like glucose, fructose, and sucrose. “Drinks are like liquid pastry. Sugar is delicious, and we need sugar to carry flavor,” says Mix, who has been experimenting with alternative natural sweeteners like coconut sugar (which she bolsters with coconut milk, relying on fat to help carry the slightly sweet flavor) and monk fruit. “They’re pricey and the flavors can be a little weird, but they metabolize much nicer if you really need that Daiquiri.” 

 

For the conscientious drinker looking for a slow, spirit-forward sipper, Mix’s favorites include a three-to-one (gin to dry vermouth) dry Martini with a twist or a classic Old Pal, made with equal parts rye, dry vermouth, and Campari. She loves to encourage the vodka-and-soda set to try something a bit more adventurous by instead offering an equally refreshing pisco and soda with lime. “Holy moly, it’s so delicious and flavorful, with no added sugar,” she says of the pisco swap. Mix’s 50/25/25, featured in her book Spirits of Latin America (Ten Speed Press, 2020), is a fresh take on the iconic Martini, presenting a split base of botanical-rich gin and floral pisco (recipe). And if you must have a Margarita, she advises a light-on-the-agave Tommy’s Margarita but notes that it’s important to consider how the agave is made and other ingredients used in the highly processed sweetener. 

At Thunderbolt in Los Angeles, Bar Director Mike Capoferri frequently encounters customers who are limiting calorie intake and looking for a “skinny” cocktail, but cautions that alcohol should be considered just as harmful as sugar to people with blood sugar issues. “I’d never lead a guest towards the assumption that a lower-sugar cocktail has any health benefits over a standard, balanced recipe,” he says. “When I do get these requests, I try to steer people away from the ‘skinny Margarita’ approach. Throwing off the sugar-to-acid balance of a drink is not going to create a desirable experience.”

Instead, Capoferri turns to templates better suited to low-sugar or sugar-free applications, particularly Highballs, taking advantage of Thunderbolt’s custom carbonated water system, which provides a constant supply of what Capoferri calls “ice cold, violently bubbly water.” Their rotating Highball of the month typically employs a rubric of spirit, citrus (oil or expressed), and soda water, but for additional complexity and an added layer of sweetness, Capoferri turns to fortified wines, which can help supplement the base spirit while containing less sugar than syrups and liqueurs. The most popular Highball is the Portugais Highball, a sessionable, low-sugar sipper made with VS Cognac, Rainwater Madeira, soda water, and lemon oil (recipe). “We don’t use any artificial sweeteners at Thunderbolt,” says Capoferri. “If I came across one that tasted as good as the real thing, I’d be open to working with it.”

Brad Thomas Parsons is a New York City-based food and drink writer.