One of the biggest professional hazards for someone who writes about restaurants and bars is having one too many drinks. In January 2020, I was relieved to find that sober cocktails would be the next big thing, with health-conscious diners and brands, like Seedlip, pushing for no-alcohol spirits. I wrote a story, Will zero-proof cocktails outrun the G&T?, to examine this trend. But in the lockdowns that ensued, the exact opposite happened: Drinking at home picked up and it seemed spirit-forward and simple recipes, like the Negroni, were the way forward, with bartenders taking to social media to share alcohol knowledge and people setting up home bars.
By 2022, restaurants and bars were back, with elaborate menus featuring cocktails that read like magic potions. However, there was another significant change: A few of them introduced sections dedicated to zero-proof (no-alcohol) or low-alcohol (abv) drinks.
Take the Asian chain Foo, which has seven branches in Mumbai and one each in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. Last year, it launched a menu dedicated to “zero-proof” cocktails. A zero-proof drink qualifies as a cocktail if it has a no-alcohol spirit, like Rumish or Ginish, which mimics the flavour of rum and gin without any alcohol, making them different from cloyingly sweet “mocktails”. In June, a cosy cocktail bar, Mia’s, opened in Delhi’s Greater Kailash with a Buzzfree menu. The drinks are aimed at the mindful diner who would rather not worry about their liver or hangovers.
Bar consultant Nitin Tewari, who designed the menu for Mia’s, notes that lifestyles have changed, with people drinking and eating out at least three-four times a week. “Alcohol fatigue sets in,” he says. Location dictates drinks too. A restaurant like Foo, in a burgeoning city such as Ahmedabad, has to have zero-alcohol drinks because Gujarat is a dry state. While such drinks cater to a niche audience, low abv cocktails, with an alcohol content of 10-15%, are far more popular. In 2023, premium restaurants are catering to everyone from a Gen Z-er celebrating their first job to a pregnant millennial and a health-conscious Gen X-er. This implies the menu has to be inclusive. While Gen Z might opt for a trendy Negroni, the millennial might want a zero-alcohol G&T, while the Gen X-er may look for a low-alcohol spritzer.
Discussing the origin of low-alcohol drinks, beverage consultant Avinash Kapoli points to aperitifs. In Italy, he says, people enjoy sparkling alcohol, Aperol or vermouth—all three have an abv of less than 15% each—served with a splash of soda and ice that dilutes the spirit and brings down the abv to around 11%. These are enjoyed in the afternoon or early evening as a way to unwind, with just the right buzz before dinner. These low-alcohol, fizzy and refreshing cocktails have found their way into Indian bars.
Beverage consultant Pankaj Balachandran, who has created menus for bars across cities in India and Dubai, says, “Spritzers opened up the category of low abv drinks in India.” These drinks combine soda and wine for an easy and enjoyable experience.
In July, he created the cocktail menu for the Mezzo Mambo restaurant in Delhi. It has a drink inspired by a spritzer with dry red wine, Lapsang Souchong tea, vermouth and cola. Next, he is working on a bar menu for the soon-to-be launched restaurant by Mumbai chef Gresham Fernandes. Called Bandra Born, it will have a selection of zero- proof cocktails like Berries Drying Out (strawberry, lychee, mint, zero-proof G&T) and Funky Fresh (orange, basil, passionfruit and ginger ale).
Kapoli, co-founder of the bar Jamming Goat in Goa and Bengaluru, says one of their most popular drinks is Not A G&T. Gin is replaced with 30ml of Martini Rosso, a red vermouth with 15% abv, and the tonic is swapped with in-house elderflower and ginger soda. He calculates the total abv of this drink at around 9-10%. A regular G&T has about 13-15% abv. Strictly speaking, a low abv drink should have 8-12% alcohol. But some bars offer cocktails with around 15-20% and pass them off as low-alcohol cocktails.
For those looking to drink consciously, it’s prudent to know the alcohol content of the base spirit (about 40-45% for vodka, gin, tequila, whisky and bourbon) and make an estimate based on the extent to which non-alcoholic mixers are added with alcoholic liqueurs (more than 40% for most) and other ingredients, like vermouth, alcoholic shrubs, infusions, etc.
It isn’t the best idea to consider numbers while enjoying a cocktail but if you drink three times a week, it makes sense to know that there are low- or no-alcohol options available—ask the bartender. Your liver will thank you for it.