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The day I discovered that my all-time favorite cocktail, a gin and tonic with lime, could have upwards of 150 calories per serving was the day I suddenly became interested in finding health(ier) alternatives, such as low-sugar and low-calorie cocktails.
Studies about alcohol always seem to arrive at contradictory conclusions. One day the benefits of drinking tequila are front page news and the next day the headlines blast the negative effects alcohol has on your health. That being said, if you’re in the mood to treat yourself to an adult beverage, you might as well enjoy a cocktail (or mocktail) that boasts some nutritional benefits.
Here are some rules of thumb to get you started. And we’ve got a refreshing option for every taste!
Steer clear of dark liquors.
Whenever possible, choose cocktails that call for clear liquor (think vodka, gin, light beer, white tequila, and pisco). Why the distinction between clear and dark liquors? It turns out that dark liquors contain higher amounts of congeners, the chemical responsible for flavoring alcohol and a possible contributor to why dark liquors can make you feel more hungover.
Alcoholic beverages that are higher in congeners include whiskey, bourbon, dark beer, and red wine (one of the worst hangover offenders). Avoid hangovers altogether by enjoying alcoholic beverages in moderation (or not at all) and drinking plenty of water between cocktails.
Ice quality makes a difference.
When it comes to healthier cocktails, quality ingredients are an essential component of achieving a smooth taste. To begin, make sure you’re using filtered water and fresh ice. Tenaya Darlington, co-author of The New Cocktail Hour and Booze & Vinyl, offers this important tip: “Always use fresh ice made from filtered water! If you’re going to splurge for quality spirits, don’t use stale ice. Batching fresh ice a day or two before a party will assure that your drinks taste fresh and crisp, not like stale shrimp or an old bag of peas.”
For clear ice, use filtered water that has been boiled and then cooled to room temperature.
Get inspired by nature.
Maggie Hoffman, author of the The One-Bottle Cocktail: More Than 80 Recipes With Fresh Ingredients and a Single Spirit, is a huge fan of farmers markets.
“If I learned one thing from writing The One-Bottle Cocktail, it’s that there’s a treasure trove of ingredients at the farmers market. Obviously, you see a lot of mint in cocktails, but other herbs can add fantastic flavor—cilantro and thyme and basil and lemongrass are just a few. I love fennel in all its forms, especially with gin, which already has a wonderful herbal flavor.”
Darlington echoes this sentiment and even uses fresh herbs as a low-key decoration for the table. She says, “Sometimes we gather mint to use as centerpieces for the table and encourage people to try different mints as a garnish. It helps if you group the mint in different jars and label them, then guests get curious about tasting the different kinds.”
She also suggests using pineapple leaves as a garnish, especially if tiki drinks are on the menu: “We love to use pineapple leaves as garnishes for tiki drinks, like the East India cocktail and Planter’s Punch. In the summer, we love to grill pineapple when we bbq, and instead of tossing away the leaves, we always save them for cocktails.”
Use plenty of flower power.
Edible flowers add a beautiful burst of color to cocktails, taking an ordinary mixed drink and making it something truly spectacular. Darlington suggests jazzing up ice cubes with fresh edible flowers: “We like to freeze edible flowers in ice cube trays, then drop them into gin and tonics or into a big punch bowl. There are also lots of summer drinks involving shaved ice, where an edible flower adds stunning color and texture.”
Since flowers can’t be easily washed for consumption, make sure you use organic food-grade flowers from a reputable source.
Sun-kiss with citrus.
Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits add tons of fresh fruit flavor without compromising the calorie count of your cocktail. Remove any traces of wax left on citrus peel by washing the fruit with very hot water for 45 seconds. For optimal juice extraction, roll the fruit under the flat of your palm until the flesh begins to soften.
When zesting citrus peel, make sure you avoid as much of the white pith as possible so you can prevent any overly bitter flavors being added to your cocktail by accident. If you’re left with any extra citrus juice, freeze it in ice cube trays for future use.
Mix it up!
The key to successfully making low-calorie and low-sugar cocktails is all in the right mix. Seltzer water, iced and unsweetened herbal tea, and kombucha are just some of the choices you have when crafting a more health-conscious, low-calorie, and low-sugar cocktail. Simple syrup can be used in moderation to sweeten up low-calorie ingredients, while bitters are used to disrupt and contrast the smoothest of cocktail ingredients.
Basic Simple Syrup Recipe
If your cocktail calls for simple syrup, don’t sweat it. You can whip up a homemade batch in almost the same amount of time it takes to assemble your drink. Simple syrup is made by dissolving sugar in simmering water in a 1:1 ratio. It’s then cooled and can be added to cocktails to impart sweetness without the risk of sugar granules sitting at the bottom of your glass.
This simple syrup recipe can be adapted to suit any taste or cocktail recipe. Add fresh herbs, herbal tea bags, or whole ginger or turmeric to the water as it simmers, and let it steep as the syrup cools before discarding.
- 1 cup of simple syrup
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup filtered water
- Measuring cup
- Small saucepan
- Squeeze bottle or glass jar for storage
Combine the sugar, water, and any optional flavoring additions in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, allowing the syrup to simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the simple syrup cool to room temperature. Discard any solid ingredients and store the syrup in the fridge in a glass jar or plastic squeeze bottle for up to one month.
Turmeric Ginger Mule
This spicy mule gets its kick from an easy-to-make yet potent turmeric and ginger simple syrup, and the use of seltzer water instead of ginger beer keeps this cocktail light and bright. Many cultures have long regarded turmeric as having medicinal value, and there is promising research that it has anti-inflammatory properties and may help fight chronic diseases.
Make this a mocktail by omitting the vodka and adding an extra spritz of lime juice before serving.
- 1 serving
- 1½ oz vodka
- ¾ oz turmeric ginger simple syrup*
- Juice of ½ lime (about 1 Tbsp. total) + lime wedges for garnish
- 4–5 fresh mint leaves
- 3 oz seltzer water
- Crushed or regular ice
*Follow the recipe for basic simple syrup, adding 2 inches of peeled turmeric root and ginger root. Steep the turmeric and the ginger in the syrup until it cools to room temperature. Discard and store in the refrigerator.
Add the turmeric ginger simple syrup, lime juice, and mint leaves to a mug or serving glass. Using a long-handled bar spoon, gently muddle the mint leaves as you stir. Fill the mug or glass with ice and stir in the vodka, topping with seltzer water to finish. Garnish with a slice of lime.
Vegan Pisco Sour
If you love sours but are also living the vegan life (or are avoiding raw eggs) you’ll be happy to know that the foam in this cocktail comes from aquafaba (the liquid found in cans of chickpeas) instead of the usual egg whites.
Pisco is a high-octane brandy from Peru and Chile that has become an integral ingredient on cocktail menus across North America in recent years.
- 1 serving
- 2 oz pisco
- 1 oz fresh lemon or lime juice (to get juicier results, roll the citrus fruit across the counter with your hands while pressing down before cutting)
- 1 oz simple syrup
- 1 oz aquafaba
- Angostura bitters
Combine all of the ingredients (except for the bitters) in a cocktail shaker. Shake for 30 to 45 seconds (aquafaba needs a few extra seconds compared to egg whites) and strain into a glass. Shake 2 to 3 drops of Angostura bitters on the foamy meringue and enjoy!
Spicy Jalapeño Micheladas
These spicy micheladas are perfect for brunches, backyard barbecues, and summer picnics. Made from Mexican lager, spices, lime juice, and tomato or Clamato juice, this michelada recipe can easily be doubled or tripled to serve a crowd.
- 3 servings
- 2 12-oz bottles of cold Mexican lager
- Tajin seasoning
- Juice of 1 lime (about 2 Tbsp.) + extra lime wedges
- 1 tsp. your favorite hot sauce
- ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, or Maggi seasoning
- 1 cup tomato or Clamato juice
- 2 Tbsp. finely diced jalapeño pepper, seeds and white pith removed
- ¼ cup finely diced cucumber, seeds and rind removed
- Long-handled bar spoon
- Measuring cups and spoons
- 3 beer or highball glasses
- Chef’s knife and cutting board (for dicing the jalapeño and cucumber)
Rim the glasses using a lime wedge and the Tajin seasoning. In a pitcher, combine and stir together the Mexican lager, juice of one lime, hot sauce, Worcestershire or other flavoring sauce, and tomato or Clamato juice. Spoon the diced cucumber and jalapeño evenly across all three glasses. Carefully pour the micheladas in the glasses, stir once more, and enjoy.
Rosé Kombucha Watermelon Slushie
This gorgeous take on a rosé slushie will immediately become your new favorite summer drink. It’s light, fruity, and makes use of hibiscus ginger kombucha to add a pleasant effervescence to the final cocktail with no added sugar.
Freeze watermelon in bulk and an entire bottle of rosé in ice cube trays; store in freezer bags so that you can make this slushie whenever you feel like it. For a non-alcoholic treat, ditch the rosé and use extra kombucha in its place.
- 2 servings
- 2 cups watermelon, cubed and frozen (seeds removed)
- 1½ cups rosé wine, frozen in ice cube trays
- 1 cup hibiscus ginger kombucha (we love GT’s Enlightened Kombucha)
- 4 mint leaves
- Edible flowers, for garnish
- Measuring cups or spoons
- Highball or large serving glasses
Add all of the ingredients to the blender and blitz until smooth, adding extra kombucha if needed. Pour in glasses and garnish with mint leaves and edible flowers before serving.
Beet Juice Bloody Marys
Sweet and earthy tasting, beet juice makes an interesting alternative to the tomato juice that is usually added to Bloody Marys. Beet juice has been shown to reduce blood pressure and inflammation, another reason to try this deeply purple take on a brunch classic.
If you don’t have access to a juicer, don’t worry. There are plenty of beet juices on the market (such as Lakewood Juice’s Pure Beet Juice). If possible, give these Bloody Marys 12 hours in the fridge to let the flavors fully develop. For a Bloody Mary mocktail omit the tequila.
- 4 servings
- 4 cups beet juice
- Juice of 1 lime
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tsp. prepared or freshly grated horseradish
- 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce or Maggi seasoning
- Hot sauce, to taste
- 2 Tbsp. pickle brine
- ¾ cup tequila
- Celery stalks (with leafy greens still attached)
- Pickled vegetables (green beans, asparagus, or cucumber spears)
- Lime wedges
- Celery salt
- Long-handled bar spoon
- Measuring cups and spoons
In a pitcher, combine all of the ingredients except for the celery stalks, pickled vegetables, lime wedges, and celery salt. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before serving. To serve, rim four glasses with lime juice and celery salt and add ice to each glass. Pour the beet Bloody Mary in each glass and garnish with a celery stalk, your choice of pickled vegetables, and extra hot sauce if desired.