What is Low-Alcohol Wine, Beer, and Cocktails?
What do we mean exactly when we say low-alcohol? It depends on the drink and, in some cases, the drinker.
According to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), low alcohol in wine is defined as under 11%, medium is from 11–14%, and high is over 14% abv. However, there is no established standard for what constitutes “low” in spirits, cocktails, or beer.
Session beers are lighter beers that U.K. drinkers refer to as “moreish.” These beers typically have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 2.5–4.5%, compared to the 5% found in average mass-market American lagers.
At 4.5%, you can still enjoy the full beer flavor without getting intoxicated too quickly. A stout, for example, is a traditional session beer with a taste that feels substantial, but it only has about 3.8% ABV. Fifteen years ago, the average craft beer fan wasn’t interested in session beers because they seemed to offer “less bang for the buck,” similar to kabinett Rieslings at 8% ABV in the wine world.
There are no official regulations regarding ABV in cocktails. Many popular cocktails, such as Gin & Tonics and Moscow Mules, have an ABV close to 10% since they primarily consist of mixers with only one shot of alcohol. For instance, a canned Paloma, made with grapefruit soda and tequila, has an ABV of 10.6%. The Scotch highball, a popular Japanese cocktail currently trending in hip U.S. bars, also tends to have an ABV around 10 or 11%.
Bartenders can lower the alcohol content of classic cocktails through various techniques. One such technique involves changing the proportions of the ingredients. For example, instead of using two parts rye and one part sweet vermouth to build a Manhattan, some bartenders flip the proportions and use two parts vermouth. The same principle applies to the 50-50 martini, which consists of equal parts gin, white vermouth, and orange bitters. As most gins have an ABV of around 80 to 94%, while vermouths are typically 15 to 18% ABV, this adjustment reduces the overall alcohol level in the drink.
Many industry professionals prefer their martinis prepared this way. It becomes delicious when you use excellent vermouth and gin.
Even the definition of the word “spirit” is evolving. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes 14 meanings for the noun “spirit,” including distilled alcohol. In recent years, these meanings have expanded due to the emergence of non-alcoholic distilled spirits like Seedlip in the market.
“What defines a spirit?” asks Geyan Surendran, head of research for Three Spirit, a line of zero-proof functional aperitifs. “In Europe, the E.U. legislates that a spirit is anything over 15% alcohol derived by distillation.” However, in Russia and the U.K., a spirit is typically 37.5% alcohol. In the U.S., a spirit must have at least 40% ABV.
Although Three Spirit doesn’t contain any alcohol, it is classified as a spirit by the International Wine and Spirit Competition. This functional drink still offers a mental uplift due to a variety of botanicals like schisandra berry, rhodiola rosea, and tulsi. Others in the same category, such as Aplos and Artet, incorporate CBD.