4 great low alcohol drinks for taking it easy

If you haven’t heard of it by now, rest assured, Dry January (a no-alcohol month) is a thing. And as with all “things,” sooner or later there’s a derivative of that thing. So let me be the first to welcome you to Damp January: just “some” alcohol, but not a lot.

The no-alcohol Dry January might have been a response to the American beer, liquor and wine industry’s overwhelming trend towards higher proofs. Renewed your driver’s license lately? On the back is a chart regarding alcohol consumption and body mass; note the comparison that “one drink” is 1.5 ounces of 80-proof alcohol (40% ABV), 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer or 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine — none of which accurately represent real-world values. The typical gin martini or whiskey Manhattan, for instance, is 2 ½ ounces of 90-proof (or higher) product. When was the last time you ordered a 12-ounce beer? Most craft beers are served in “pint” glasses and are in the 4% to 8% range (let’s not even talk about crowlers!) and good luck finding a 12% chardonnay in California. Typically, they run 14.5% and higher. And remember that wine labels are given an additional 1% to 1.5% leeway in alcohol content, meaning that a labeled 15.5% wine could actually be closer to 16%! Couple that with the fact that many finer restaurants serve a 6-ounce glass of wine, not a 5-ounce one, and those numbers don’t really work.

A Hugo-Not, a lower-alcohol take on a Hugo spritz. (Photo by Jeff Burkhart)
A Hugo-Not, a lower-alcohol take on a Hugo spritz. (Photo by Jeff Burkhart)

But it might explain why many Americans want to take a break after the holidays. In Europe, drinking habits are quite a bit different and Dry January has not really caught on there. Perhaps that is because they already consume many lower-alcohol products in the first place, from vermouths to aperitifs. Statista, an online platform that specializes in data gathering and visualization, shows that the “other” category is nearly even with the brandy and whiskey categories as the top-selling products in Europe (with wine being the overall top seller). And brandy and whiskey don’t often feature in cocktails in Europe. Is there something we can learn there? Maybe.

Guinness offers a non-alcoholic beer. (Photo by Jeff Burkhart)
Guinness offers a non-alcoholic beer. (Photo by Jeff Burkhart)

The obvious solution? Damp January, and maybe a damp year altogether. There are many ways to replicate higher-proof cocktails using lower-proof or no-proof alternatives.

“All things in moderation, including moderation,” once said Socrates.

In that spirit (pun intended), here are some lower-alcohol cocktail options sure to make your tastebuds happy during your Damp January experiment.


Half and Half

8 ounces Guinness 0.0 nitrogen-pressed stout (0.5% ABV)

8 ounces Fieldwork Brewing Co. Solace and Virtue German lager (4.6% ABV)

Half fill a chilled pint glass with lager. Carefully hold a large tablespoon right side up, as level with the top of the beer as possible, making sure the tip of the spoon is touching the beer. Open the can of Guinness, and gently pour stout onto the spoon, creating a layer, and continue pouring and raising the spoon as the beer level rises. The mixing point will turn brown, but don’t panic, it will eventually even out.

Note: Black and tan is a derogatory term for this beer and is not typically used in Ireland (referring to the uniforms of a paramilitary police force used by the British during the Irish War of Independence).

The beers can be reversed and a non-alcoholic lager can be substituted, in that case, Moylan’s Dry Irish Stout can be substituted for the Guinness. However, the layering is not quite as crisp in this version.

Amaro Spritz

1 ½ ounces Free Spirits the Spirit of Milano

1 ounce soda water

1 ounce Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut (12.5% ABV)

1 blood orange wheel

Into a large Bordeaux-style wine glass filled with ice, add ingredients in order. Give a light stir and serve.

Note: Aperol spritzes are all the rage. Gloria Ferrer is technically a Spanish Cava-style wine, not prosecco, but their Sonoma brut is quite inexpensive and does the trick nicely in a cocktail. Save the reserve wines for special occasions.

Espresso Martini

1 ounce Hanson of Sonoma espresso vodka (40% ABV)

1 ounce fresh espresso (or strong coffee)

3/4 ounce vanilla-flavored creamer (dairy or non-dairy)

1 large dash hot chocolate powder

3 coffee beans

In a shaker with ice, combine the first four ingredients. Shake until foamy and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with three coffee beans.

Note: Most espresso martinis do not use Irish cream but instead combine a coffee liqueur and espresso coffee with vodka. Irish cream gives the coffee a flavor more reminiscent of coffee with cream and here we try that version.


1/2 ounce Williams Sonoma Elderflower syrup

2 ounces Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut (12.5% ABV)

1 ounce soda water

1 tablespoon fresh stemmed mint leaves

1 Meyer lemon wedge

Into a large Bordeaux-style wine glass filled with ice, add the first three ingredients in order. Lightly crush mint leaves in your hand and add to mixture, squeeze juice from Meyer lemon, drop the squeezed lemon in, stir lightly and serve.

Note: Elderflower liqueur (20% ABV) is the usual ingredient in a Hugo spritz, but elderflower syrup tastes great in a smaller amount. There are many other less expensive non-local elderflower syrups on the market, too, and they work just as well. Omitting sparkling wine in a “spritz” often results in a disappointing drink.