On a warm spring evening, the theme at theReading Room, a literary cocktail bar in Washington, D.C., was the 2017 novel “Pachinko.” The saga of a Korean family that immigrates to Japan, the book had inspired the dozen cocktails on the menu, each named for a key passage.
One drink, called “She was right; it was weird that he was born in Japan and had a South Korean passport,” was a heady blend of lemongrass, ginger, soju, sake and mint. Another, “The rouge on her lips was the color of umeboshi,” mixed Bermondsey gin, Campari, plum wine and orange peel.
Each week, the bartender Chantal Tseng chooses a new book and offers new cocktails. But one thing about the menu is always the same: Nearly half the drinks are low in alcohol.
“It’s always better to have a well-mixed drink than just pure alcohol,” said Christopher Williams, a federal employee who was dressed in a motorcycle jacket and a fedora, and sipping an aperitif of Bermondsey gin, Madeira, Chartreuse and a splash of kimchi juice.
As another summer approaches, low-proof drinks — both refreshing and a smart choice for long, sun-baked afternoons — are moving into wide circulation.
Fresh Kills Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dedicates a section of its menu to “low-A.B.V.s” (alcohol by volume), while Nitecap, on the Lower East Side, calls its versions “aperitifs.” And some bartenders are promoting a new name, “session cocktails.” The term, thought to have originated in England, refers to a long bout of drinking, usually of beer, in which lower-proof beverages keep the party going.
The focus on these kinder but still carefully made libations is not the cocktail world’s attempt at 21st-century wellness. It’s a rediscovery. According to Drew Lazor, an author of “Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion,” published this month by Ten Speed Press, 19th-century martinis were often made with equal parts gin and vermouth instead of today’s four- or five-to-one ratio.
Many early standards were designed to be low proof. The Bamboo, created in the 1890s in Japan and a regular on American menus by the turn of the 20th century, is made with sherry, dry vermouth, simple syrup and a mix of Angostura and orange bitters. The Adonis substituted sweet vermouth for the dry, producing a fruitier, brighter aperitif.
While there is no precise rule for what counts as a session cocktail, Mr. Lazor says it should contain no more than three-quarters of an ounce of strong spirit.
An appreciation for these drinks was lost in the early years of the recent American cocktail renaissance. When Mr. Lazor told people he was writing a book about low-alcohol cocktails, the most common response was a snort: “Well, what’s the point of that?” His answer: “It doesn’t have to be a drink that will knock you on your butt after one to be big in flavor or interesting.”
Many bartenders have come to the same conclusion, though perhaps for different reasons. Phoebe Esmon, cocktail director at both Cùrate and Nightbell in Asheville, N.C., says that at least some of the interest in lighter cocktails is driven by self-preservation: Bartenders have been known to indulge in their own creations, and lower-proof drinks are one response to rampant alcohol abuse in the business. And it turns out that pleasantly bitter liqueurs, like the electric yellow Suze or the artichoke-based Cynar, are just as interesting as 80-proof bourbon.
In that spirit, Ms. Esmon serves several refreshingly low-kick cocktails. At Nightbell, there’s Between Rounds, a mix of Oloroso sherry, Cynar, pecan syrup and barbecue bitters. At Cùrate, a modern tapas bar, she kegs Manzanilla sherry with house-pressed cider and lightly carbonates it.
“You’re not doing anyone any favors, including yourself, by taking their knees out from under them with one drink,” Ms. Esmon said. “People like to hang out in bars. And that’s how you make your money.”
It’s relatively easy to build a session-cocktail bar at home. You don’t need endless, exotic and expensive bottles. A bottle of sherry and one each of sweet and dry vermouth gets you much of the way there. If you choose to invest more, liqueurs like crème de cassis and the gingery Domaine de Canton mix well with white and sparkling wines.
“Session cocktails are a great way to start making great cocktails at home,” Mr. Lazor said. And to keep the drinks flowing all summer.
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