Low-Calorie Cocktails

Proposed By: Jonathan

Enacted By: David (and Jonathan)

It has taken me a long time to do this write-up. I introduced the concept of calories in cocktails and then began a search for background and ideas. Want to get an idea of the contradictory information related to that? One of the first lists I found for drinks to avoid included the mojito. Then I pulled up drinks that were lower in calories and my friend the mojito made that list too. Maybe the best place to start is by constructing a drink from base calories.

There are sources that claim one liquor has more or less calories than another. The bottom line though is that the calorie content is directly related to alcohol by volume and what else is included with that liquor. The concept of efficiency is as simple as knowing pure spirits derive all calories from the alcohol since there is little other than water and flavor (or so one hopes) in a bottle of liquor. A 40% spirit has 97 calories/1.5 ounce serving, a 45% spirit has 109 calories/1.5 ounces and a 50% spirit has 121 calories/1.5 ounce serving. It doesn’t matter if that 80 proof liquor is vodka or Scotch, it’s still going to be 97 calories. So there’s the first tip – if you want to count calories while drinking you should go with liquor neat, on the rocks or with no calorie club soda or seltzer.

The next step is to see what happens when you add mixers or liqueurs. The first part of many drinks is fresh fruit juice. Lime (8), lemon (8), grapefruit (11) and orange (13) juice don’t add many calories per ounce especially when you consider both the small amount used and the flavor they add. Standard mixers up the count especially when you consider that an average drink may include 4 or more ounces in the recipe. The calories per 4 ounce serving of some of the favorites are 40 for ginger ale or tonic and 48 for coke. Another popular option for adding that flavor and sweetness are simple syrups and their flavored versions. The problem is that a single ounce of simple syrup is around 75 calories. Liqueurs add the double dose of alcohol calories and the sugary additives that give them their flavor. Some of the more popular ones are triple sec (162), Kahlua (131), Amaretto (170) and sweet vermouth (60) with the calories measured per 1.5 ounce serving. That means a White Russian adds up to around 265 if you use heavy cream – and who wouldn’t?

The challenge was to bring down the calories per drink or to find lower calorie options. As I wrote earlier, one good option is to drink liquor straight, but this is a cocktail blog so that’s out of bounds. Another popular choice is to mix with seltzer and fresh juice. Basic addition will get you to 101 calories for 80 proof vodka mixed with 1/2 ounce of fresh lime and 4 ounces of club soda. That’s the equivalent of a light beer but who wants a light beer? That brings in the idea of rum (97), lime juice (8), mint (0), simple syrup (75) and club soda for 180 calorie mojito. Now we’re up to the equivalent of a high test beer (for those who want flavor plus vitamins/nutrients as any aficionado would point out), 2 light beers or 2 glasses of wine if you use a restrained pour.

There are also easy substitutes for basic drinks like a gin and tonic or rum and coke. Assuming both start with a 1.5 ounce spirit and combine with 4 ounces mixer (we will consider the squeeze of lime negligible) these drinks ring in 149 calories for the G & T and 145 for the Cuba Libre. The quickest way to get that down is to use a diet version of the mixer to drop the count to 109 and 97 respectively. This is just my taste in drinks mind you, but at that point I would reach for the ice cubes and a straight pour instead.

When it came down to it for proposed drinks with lower calories, I went with flavored simple syrups cut with club soda. On its face this doesn’t make a great deal of calorie sense but I think this method helps with another form of calorie math. Let’s assume that one cocktail leads to another. A martini with 1.5 ounce gin and 3/4 ounce vermouth is a total of 2.25 ounces at the rough 140 calorie level. Per drink that is a good low calorie option but 3 of those are about 7 ounces and 420 calories. A mix of 1.5 ounces vodka, an ounce of vanilla simple syrup and 6 ounces of club soda is an 8.5 ounce cocktail measuring in at about 170 calories. Two of those could last an entire evening with a total of 340 calories. Yet another version of this math is the mint julep. Two ounces of bourbon, an ounce of mint simple syrup, a spring of mint and lots of packed crushed ice is an afternoon sipper with around 240 calories. Except for my fellow blogger, who needs more than one Julep?

Here’s David’s Portion:

Like Jonathan, my scientific explorations suggest basic laws of low-calorie cocktails:

  1. Variation in proof aside, all spirits have essentially the same number of calories, which leads to an axiom…
  2. The lowest calorie option is drinking spirits straight, or…
  3. Mixing them minimally with botanicals or citrus (like a gimlet or a mojito), and not…
  4. Adding liqueurs or other secondary spirits that have a high sugar content and…
  5. Sparing yourself too many or too much mixers like ginger ale or coke because they too have a lot of sugar, hinting a better strategy might be…
  6. Using a little simple syrup and soda, but…
  7. Still keeping the cocktails to around 4-5 ounces… though a bartender once told me 6 ounces is the more standard amount, because of the melt from the ice in the glass and/or shaker.

A calorie being an inviolable unit of energy, there’s no getting around these laws, but I did experiment with a variation Jonathan didn’t mention, vegetable juices. When a Whole Foods opened near me recently, it occurred to me that some of their comically named concoctions—each invented to promote my personal health and wellness—might make interesting ingredients.

So I chose Lucky Juice-Iano (weighing in at a whopping 6.7 calories an ounce) and Juice Bigalow (at 13.75 calories per ounce).

The label of Lucky Juice-Iano says, “This killer combo of PEAR, CUCUMBER, LEMON, and SPINACH is like unloading a tommy gun of hydration to your mouth while helping you fight off illness like an old-timey gangster.” I’m pretty sure I ruined any boost to my immunity by adding an ounce and a half of gin (at 42% alcohol, I’m calling it 102 calories), but this cocktail seemed the more successful of my experiments. As long as you don’t put in more than an ounce and a half of the juice—spinach cocktail, anyone?—and add plenty of soda to dilute the feeling you might be eating your hedge trimmings, this drink is palatable and only costs you 112 calories. Truth in advertising, I also added (but didn’t count) a dot or two of Angostura. That helped.

Juice Bigalow’s labeling claims, “If APPLE, BEETS, CARROT, GINGER, and LEMON ‘got it on,’ this would be their lovechild. And said child would relieve stress so you can live a long life, both in and out of bed.” I’m not sure what any of that means or who writes such bizarre copy, but this experiment seemed more iffy. I thought tequila (at 40%, 97 calories) would be the match for Juice Bigelow, and I wasn’t wrong because somehow the spirit pushed its way through all those juices and soda to a position of prominence. Still, I’m no great fan of beets and confess that I mostly chose the juice for its color. A last-minute impulse to add a shake or two of tabasco seemed to balance the sweetness a little bit, but I’d have to work on the proportions to improve it. At 120 calories, this drink didn’t produce enough fuel to even consider it.

I don’t start many statements with “People, here’s the thing…” but here goes. People, here’s the thing, if cocktails become an element of your health regimen, there’s possibly a problem with your regimen.

Jonathan’s take: The most basic truth is that there are zero calories in water. This isn’t a water blog either.

David’s Take: Do you know the contemporary use of the term “fail”?

Next Time (Proposed By David):

As tempted as I am to suggest high calorie cocktails, instead I’d like to draw on a single ingredient plentiful this time of year, watermelons. Whatever Jonathan and I make has to include watermelons prominently. The rest is up for grabs.

The Livorno

fireProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

One of the things I have worried about with this blog is excess. I am here to admit I have reached that point. Not in drink, but in literature. The basis of the cocktail blog is that we are tasting and experimenting which means that, except in very rare occasions, the weekly drink is only one or two cocktails. The books about spirits, though, have begun to mount especially in digital format. I had no idea there was so much variety to the genre of alcohol related non-fiction. The latest is Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson and it is the inspiration for this week’s drink.

The drink is the Livorno and the recipe is as follows:

1.5 ounce bourbon
.75 ounce Tuaca (tu’ a ka)
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Preserved or maraschino cherry

Fill glass with ice, add bourbon, Tuaca and bitters. Stir until cold and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.

The main, and most interesting ingredient, is Tuaca an Italian liqueur with flavors of vanilla and citrus. Like many of the liqueurs, especially those from European countries, it has an interesting history. The original recipe goes back to the Renaissance period and was rediscovered by two Italian families the Tuonis and Canepas who lived in the city of Livorno. That recipe has evolved from what was once called Milk Cognac to a less alcoholic version that certainly contains no milk. Originally produced in Italy, the brand was purchased by liquor giant Brown-Forman of Louisville. It had reached a point that most of the product was made in Italy but exported to the U.S., so it is not surprising that the production has moved to the U.S. I should mention that to complete the Louisville connection, I chose a bourbon from the same company that is produced in that city – Old Forester.

Jason Wilson describes the liqueur in a chapter that focuses on St. Germain, Jagermeister and Tuaca. Each of these liqueurs has a fanciful history that stretches the imagination and one of them, Jagermeister, has reached a level of popularity through marketing and placement that far surpasses any history or tall tales. Tuaca was marketed and positioned to challenge Jagermeister in bars as a shot for the younger crowd, but I think the confused looks I received when I mentioned that to some recent college graduates speaks to the failure of that marketing. In fact, I would say the expressions of that same crowd when I served this cocktail speak to part of the reason for that.

Here’s David’s Review:

LivornoSaturday being my birthday, my wife and I invited guests for dinner and served them the Livorno. And, because I’ve become the Cliff Clavin of cocktails, I explained what Tuaca is, where the cocktail got its name, how the drink might be considered a Manhattan variation… yadda, yadda, yadda. I must have sounded pret-ty savvy because a guest asked me if I’d try the drink again prior to writing the review. I said “No.” Though I liked this drink, I didn’t need to take notes or swirl the cocktail around the glass or in my mouth.

When we tried whiskeys a couple of weeks ago, I watched some videos of tasters online and came away feeling inadequate. Perhaps you’ve had this experience watching a blu-ray DVD on your friends’ new floor-to-ceiling flat screen TV or listening to that super expensive sound system that sends waves through baffles or into an anchored sub-woofer or up into space and back. One whiskey taster online detected marshmallow charred over oak and mesquite smoke, and I thought the whiskey was kind of burn-y because I accidentally aspirated a sip.

So, if you’re not already, please regard my comments as the views of a well-meaning philistine. Tuaca, like many liqueurs I’d put in the TLAOL (Tippling Like An Old Lady) category, is quite sweet, syrupy even. The description on the bottle describes it as “A Vanilla Citrus Liqueur,” but I don’t really taste the citrus at all—certainly not the bitter citrus of a peel. Tuaca has a sort of amaretto or praline flavor, faintly nutty and matching mellow bourbon or complementing the sharp taste of Rye.

The spiciness of the Rittenhouse Rye I used and the warm, spirituous Tuaca, in fact, largely erased the Peychaud Bitters. One of my guests—who seems far more savvy than I—commented that this cocktail, lacking bitter elements, couldn’t stand up to the complexity and depth of a Manhattan. Though I like sweet drinks, that response makes sense to me.

One of the most interesting conversations at dinner was about the nature of cocktails, whether they are like cooking, which accommodates improvisation, or like baking, which sometimes punishes experimentation with abject failure. No doubt, invented cocktails can be utter flops (particularly when they include Crème de Menthe) but I like to believe cocktails are more like cooking because I have all these silly things in my liquor cabinet (minus Crème de Menthe) to fool around with. Maybe I just can’t taste failure, but, when it comes to mixology, I have an infinite capacity for hope.

If I do try the Livorno again, I may experiment with a lower measure of Tuaca to cut some of the sweetness of the drink, and make up the difference with a bittersweet vermouth like Carpano Antica or dry vermouth. The alterations might add another dimension, or—like that time I tried to bake cookies on the grill—only create another tragic tale.

Jonathan’s take: Bourbon overwhelms any subtleties of the Tuaca, but for a sipping drink by the fire it’s not too bad.

David’s Take: I enjoyed the Livorno. It could be I was swayed by the wonderful company, but it seemed a warm and wonderful way to start an evening.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Moscow Mules have become a staple of bar menus. I’m not sure what those copper cups add to the drink, but I do think they give it an appealing festive feel. Up to now, I’ve stayed away from making Moscow Mules at home because I didn’t have the proper bar ware. No more! My wife gave me two cups for my birthday, so it’s time to try one (or some variation). If the cup is important, maybe Jonathan and his wife can have one out at a bar, but it’d be interesting to see what the cup adds (if anything at all). Shouldn’t it be the same drink, regardless of its container?

The Blue Sky Cocktail

Proposed by: Davidblue

Reviewed by: Jonathan

My cousin Alan Bourque and I were particularly close because, besides being exactly the same age, we went to the same college. For a time, it appeared Jonathan’s son Josh and my son Ian might too. Alas, Carolina wait-listed Ian, but he and Josh have always enjoyed being together and have sought every opportunity to meet. And, even if they’re graduating from different schools over the next couple of weeks, they do share the same school color, which you can call Columbia Blue or Carolina Blue as you wish.

This week was all about color, and celebration. Remembering The French 75 fondly, I though it’d be fun to have a champagne (or prosecco) cocktail to commemorate our boys’ achievement. Blue Curaçao provided the color for the Blue Sky Cocktail, which, besides being properly named for our boys’ futures, I hoped might mimic a color that, after living in North Carolina, I can almost see with my eyes closed. Color isn’t my brother’s strong suit, but I want to say, “It’s the gesture. It’s the gesture.”

Once in college one of my roommates said I should add milk to his coffee until it exactly matched the shade of the cup it was in, and it took twenty minutes of careful calibration to get it right. When the coffee arrived cold, he wasn’t amused, but I like a challenge. The recipe for this drink is below, but—confession time—I was more focused on achieving the right tint than the right combination of ingredients. In fact—an uglier confession—the photo I’ve posted above isn’t this drink at all, which, with yellow champagne and lemon juice and brown amaretto, was aqua, the color of no sky I’ve experienced and not nearly faint enough to achieve the pastel glory of Carolina and Columbia. To create the concoction pictured, I combined only the blue curaçao with the champagne and added a little water and then some absinthe to create a milky hue.

The resulting drink was horrible, but it was, I think, a decent approximation of the right shade. There’s that, at least.

Here’s the recipe for a Blue (not really so blue) Sky Cocktail:

  • 1/2 oz blue curacao
  • 1/2 oz amaretto
  • 1/2 oz champagne
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Combine everything except the champagne in the glass. Add the champagne and stir gently.

photo-90Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

Last week, David had many well founded reasons to avoid reviewing the Mint Julep. This week I feel almost the same. The proposed cocktail was to be part of our celebration of graduations – first my son, Josh, and then my nephew, Ian. I don’t want a negative review to seem like a sour note in what was in all ways a glorious weekend and series of graduation events. So to handle that, I will consider the drink and the celebrations separately.

We have tried a few different cocktails that have included sparkling wines, and I have learned the type of sparkler matters. This one called for champagne, whereas some of the ones we have had in the past have been very general (sparkling wine) and more specific (Prosecco). The Caiparinha de Uva recipe indicated sweet wine, but David was more successful in substituting Prosecco. I used all of that experience to decide on Cava as the sparkler of choice, and that was part of my undoing.

This cocktail seemed more like a battle than a blend. The Cava and the Amaretto both wanted to assert their will, if spirits can in fact make assertions. It was hard to get past the two of them and even begin to taste where the curacao and lemon juice came in. Even the color was a bit off, with more of a teal than the hoped for light blue. Despite my lovely nieces modeling the drink, one can see the color just wasn’t right or appetizing. I had to wonder if a simple dry champagne would have helped with both taste and color.

The celebration on the other hand was a harmonious blend of events. A party with roommates and their families, dinner with family, a gorgeous Sunday morning graduation ceremony and finally a luncheon to toast the graduate, mothers, and a bonus birthday (my oldest son’s) all made for the perfect weekend. My wife and I feel very blessed that both our sons are graduates of the university from which we received our degrees. Even more importantly, it is obvious that they each had their own great experiences and received a wonderful education all while learning to love the place just as we had.

Jonathan’s take: The cocktail, not so good, but the rest of the celebration, couldn’t imagine better.

David’s Take: I wish I were as happy with this cocktail as I am about Ian and Josh’s graduation. Too bad the Blue Sky Cocktail is okay, but not brilliant.

Next Week (proposed by Jonathan):

Two weeks ago we had Mint Jules with the Derby. This coming weekend is the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. The official flower and cocktail of the Preakness is the Black Eyed Susan. The recipe has changed over the years (oddly in perfect correspondence with the liquor sponsorship), but last year I simply found the version that sounded best to me. Since David and I are our own sponsors, I propose we each do the same and pick the flower which we find the most appealing.