Don’t get us wrong: We love a cold beer on a hot day as much as the next guy. But warm weather, and the abundance of fresh produce that comes with it, calls for an occasional departure from those Shiner Ruby Redbirds.
A good cocktail is a showcase of quality ingredients and a mixologist’s skill and imagination. But it can also be heavy with booze and sweeteners that will seriously mess with your body. We’re not just talking about hangovers; if you’re a fitness enthusiast or a conscious eater, the cost/benefit analysis can vary significantly from one drink to another.
We found five characteristics of “good” cocktails and corresponding recipes that fit the bill.
You can avoid the calorie bombs by following a couple of common-sense guidelines. “Even those who work hard to stay fit and lead a healthy lifestyle like to enjoy cocktails on occasion,” says registered dietician, team sports nutritionist and food sensitivity specialist Meg Mangano (rejoovwellness.com). “I encourage clients to clean up their cocktail choices and to be mindful of how much they are consuming. Request a drink that is refreshing, light and satisfying—something flavorful you can savor.”
We asked Mangano, team nutritionist for the L.A. Clippers, for five characteristics of “good” cocktails; we then got two mixology experts, David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, to find corresponding recipes that fit the bill. The Solmonsons are behind the Saveur-nominated site 12bottlebar.com, which aims to make cocktails accessible to the home bartender—no obscure infused bitters required. Here are the high-flavor, low-consequence libations they came up with.
The health tip: Avoid added sugar.
Mangano: “Just because you’re drinking doesn’t mean you should abandon all of your nutritional goals. There is no need to add unnecessary calories coming from refined sugars. If you want it a bit sweeter, go for the natural sweetness coming from fresh fruit or fresh squeezed juice.”
The cocktail: The Gin Rickey
Solmonsons: “Gin, seltzer and a squeeze of lime are all you need for this tart, fizzy refresher that offers a sugar-free twist on a gin and tonic. If lime isn’t your citrus of choice, grab a lemon instead.”
2 ounces Bombay Sapphire
Seltzer, to top
Half a lime
1. Fill a collins glass 2/3 full with ice. Add the gin.
2. Squeeze the juice of the lime into the glass and toss the shell of the lime in.
3. Top with seltzer.
The health tip: Watch your mixers.
Mangano: “Instead of soda, opt for water or seltzer to add non-caloric volume to your drink. It also helps to decrease the dehydrating effect of alcohol.”
The cocktail: Grog
Solmonsons: “The simplicity of the four ingredients here belies the complexity of the flavors that are expressed. And who doesn’t want to drink like a pirate? These may go down easily, but they pack a wallop.”
2 ounces amber or white rum
4 ounces water
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tsp brown sugar, such as Demerara
Lime wheel, for garnish
1. In a collins glass, dissolve the sugar into the lime juice.
2. Add a few large ice cubes to the glass, followed by the water and rum. Stir gently to combine.
3. Garnish with a lime wheel.
The health tip: Go easy on the pour.
Mangano: “Know how much alcohol you are putting in your drink: 1.5 oz of liquor is considered one serving. Making sure you don’t go above that can help to keep your calories moderate, while also avoiding some of the other habits of over-drinking—like over-eating!”
The cocktail: Reverse Martini
Solmonsons: “In Europe, vermouth is appreciated on its own merits as an herbal fortified wine, rather than always being mixed into cocktails. At roughly 17% ABV (alcohol by volume) compared to gin’s 40-52% ABV (depending on the gin you use), the vermouth here counters the alcoholic punch of the standard martini and makes for an easy aperitif-style drink.”
2 ounces dry vermouth (such as Dolan Dry)
1 ounce dry gin (such as Plymouth, ABV 40.2%)
2 dashes of orange bitters
Lemon peel or olives
1. Combine gin, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass.
2. Fill mixing glass 3/4 full with ice.
3. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds until well chilled.
4. Strain into a martini-style glass.
5. Garnish with either a lemon twist or olives.
The health tip: Add an antioxidant.
Mangano: “Alcohol is immuno-compromising. Adding an antioxidant (such as blueberries, raspberries, apple, cherry, herbs or spices) can help to bring immune-boosting components to your drink.”
The cocktail: El Tamarindo
Solmonsons: “On the antioxidant meter, tamarind is rich in tartaric acid which helps combat free radicals. Used in various cuisines around the world including Indian, Asian and Mexican, the tart flavor of the sticky, edible pulp is something like a date crossed with citrus, making it perfect for a summer quencher.”
1 1/2 ounces amber rum
1 1/2 ounces agua de tamarindo (see below)
3–4 ounces club soda, to top
Lime wedge, for garnish
1. Add all liquid ingredients to a collins glass filled 2/3 full with ice. Stir gently to combine.
2. Garnish with the lime wedge.
For the Agua de Tamarindo:
8 large fresh tamarind pods (with brown flesh; if some of the shell is missing, that’s okay)
1/2 cup brown sugar (piloncillo or light brown)
1 quart of filtered water
1. As best you can, remove as much of the shell and strings from the tamarind pods, being sure to leave all the sticky flesh. If the pods break, that’s okay. If some shell and strings remain, that’s fine too.
2. Bring the quart of water to a boil.
3. Add pods and sugar (if using piloncillo, you may need to chop it up in order to measure it) to the boiling water.
4. Return to a boil. Let boil again for one minute.
5. Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive bowl. Let sit for approximately 2 hours.
6. Scrape the tamarind flesh from the pods using a spoon or your hands (hands are easier; wash them first, of course).
7. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer, pressing out as much liquid from the solids as possible. Store in the refrigerator, and stir well before using.
The health tip: Use fresh ingredients.
Mangano: “Always aim for minimally processed ingredients in food and beverages. Choosing fresh ingredients can help you avoid artificial coloring, artificial sweeteners and added sugars.”
The cocktail: The Bloodhound
Solmonsons: “With the combination of two vermouths, gin and strawberries muddled in the mixing glass, this is a fresh, summery take on a martini offering all the bounty of summer fruit. At the peak of strawberry season, there’s nothing finer.”
1 1/2 ounces dry gin
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3-4 sweet ripe strawberries, 1 reserved for garnish
1. Place strawberries in mixing glass and muddle them until they express their juice.
2. Add the remaining ingredients to the mixing glass filled 2/3 full with ice.
3. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds to combine and double strain (using a cocktail strainer and a mesh strainer) into a martini-style glass.
4. Garnish with a fresh strawberry.
“The 12 Bottle Bar: A Dozen Bottles. Hundreds of Cocktails” (Workman Publishing) is available now in paperback and on Kindle.
Photographs by David Solmonson