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Low-proof Cocktails Take PDX by Storm

Saturday, September 06, 2014


High on taste and low on alcohol, low-proof cocktails, or aperitivos, have been making a comeback, and Portland is riding the trend. 

It all goes back to the Italians. Growing up, one of the closest families to mine was the Zucaros. A large Italian immigrant family, they used to invite us around for a late Sunday lunch after church. As we, the kids, played Star Wars, the grown-ups had these bright red drinks.

Not for me, I was told.

Drink Up! Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc [Image cropped]

Working as a bartender many years later, it dawned on me that they were Campari and sodas. It is such a wonderful drink. Bitter, bubbly and bursting with citrus. What also came to the light after a conversation with my dad, however, was that the true draw card was that they were low in alcohol. 

Aperitivo culture

The aperitivo culture in Italy has been around for more than 200 years. Aperitivo is derived from the Latin word ‘to open’ and has come to describe the low-alcohol beverages consumed daily by Italians before their late afternoon/evening meals. 

Whilst the idea of an aperitivo culture isn’t necessarily lost on anyone in the United States, it still hasn’t fully been adopted. Low-proof cocktails are a relatively new concept. 

Nurturing the appetites of many, cocktails such as the Americano and Aperol Spritz are designed for after-work socializing. And the liqueurs integral to these drinks, such as Campari, Aperol and Cynar, have experienced somewhat of a revival within the current cocktail culture. Locally, Clyde Common has created a bottled cocktail called a Broken Bike. A riff off the classic Italian afternoon aperitivo Bicicletta, the Campari is swapped out with Cynar, carbonated with white wine, citrus oil and distilled water. <

New locally made vermouth brands such as Imbue have also led the charge in bringing the aperitivo to Portland. 


Vermouth is the other linchpin of a low-proof cocktail. Huge around the 16th century, vermouth is an aromatized fortified wine flavoured with herbs and spices.

Here in the US, vermouth-heavy cocktails were all the vogue during the 1880s and 1890s, but experienced a considerable downturn until after World War II. Undoubtedly, people were drinking a little harder back then. 

Now with the revitalization of a cocktail culture and the new breed of bartenders looking back to classic, vermouth-laden recipes, the fortified wine is back in the limelight.

Sean Hoard of the Commissary PDX put together a terrific recipe recently. Inspired to help out a buddy who didn’t want to get too intoxicated before a meeting with a girl at a bar, Sean made him a Life Vest. It’s equal parts of the rich Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and the slightly bitter aperitif-style Cocchi Americano. A touch of apricot brandy and lemon juice rounds out this drink to make it both refreshing and complex. 

Examples of lower-proof cocktails like this are appearing more and more on cocktail menus across the country and the world. The demand for ‘low-impact’ cocktails for guests is growing, particularly during the week, especially in pairings at restaurants. One particular San Francisco restaurant, AQ, embraced an entire low-proof cocktail menu when they opened in 2011. It continues to lead with innovative drinks using Korean Soju and sherry. 


Speaking of sherry, that’s another ingredient that’s definitely back with a bang. Made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez in Spain, this fortified wine is the other major choice for a low-proof cocktail.

Most varieties of sherry are made from the Palomino grape, ranging from Manzanilla to Fino. The distinctive dry, nutty taste lends itself to a great aperitif and plays well with most spirits. Hugely popular before the 1894 invasion of the insect phylloxera, it was embraced by the British and became a major wine export and a booming commodity for the Empire.

But it’s taken centuries for sherry to make the kind of comeback it’s now experiencing. Sherry Week in New Orleans, June 2-8, has grown exponentially over the last two years. More education and availability through wine companies will only see it get stronger.

So, next time you’re out – whether or not you’re waiting for a hot date! -  try a classic Adonis cocktail. Equal parts Italian vermouth and dry sherry with a dash of orange bitters, and you’ll see what this low-proof cocktail trend is all about.

Home Page Photo Credit: Robert S Donovan on Flickr[image cropped]

Jordan Felix is the Lead Bartender of the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library. He has worked in the wine and spirits industry for the last ten years ranging from Melbourne, Australia to New York City.


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