Is it really possible to consume a healthy cocktail, or does the concept exist somewhere between oxymoron and wishful thinking?
Over the past decade, more and more organic spirits have appeared on the market. Square One Organic Vodka, founded in 2006 by Allison Evanow, is a pioneer in the category. It is made with 100-percent organic American rye and pure water from Wyoming’s Teton Mountains, and its original recipe is also infused with basil, cucumber, and bergamot. Koval Distillery in Chicago produces a full line of organic and kosher spirits including vodka, gin, brandy, liqueurs, and grain-to-bottle whiskies. Minnesota-based Prairie Organic Spirits makes gin and vodka from single vintage, non-GMO corn.
There are many others but even spirits that are not certified organic are being made more carefully. The revolution that began in the 1990s with brands such as Grey Goose and Patron Tequila introduced the concept of connoisseurship—something previously reserved for wine drinkers. Even on the generic level, more spirits are composed of better ingredients and contain fewer additives and less methanol.
Fans of mixed drinks now have much healthier options in the mixers themselves. Fever-Tree launched in England in 2004 and is now distributed across the U.S. Its tonic, ginger ale, and ginger beer are free of high-fructose corn syrup, which can be found in popular labels such as Schweppes and Canada Dry. Back in Brooklyn, Q Tonic produces all the classic mixers plus Q Kola (flavored naturally with kola nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and vanilla). These alternatives are reinforcing an obvious truth: If your cocktail is 75-percent mixer, shouldn’t the mixer be as good as the spirit?
One of the easiest ways to create a healthy cocktail is to substitute an antioxidant fruit for one of the drink’s standard components; this is probably the reason so many pomegranate martinis and blueberry smashes are appearing on cocktail menus. There are variations on these antioxidant cocktails but most contain vodka combined with two or three freshly squeezed citrus juices along with a dose of Aperol, the Italian aperitivo made from bitter oranges. If you want a shortcut, there are many citrus-infused vodkas on the market, and some producers take it even further (e.g., Van Gogh’s acai-blueberry expression and the triple-threat Absolut Berri Acai, which contains flavored acai, blueberry, and pomegranate).
On the most basic level, bartending culture has changed dramatically. It’s now common to use freshly squeezed juices in cocktails, whereas 20 years ago canned or premixed was the standard. To get an idea of the difference, check the ingredients of Mr. & Mrs. T Sweet & Sour Mix, one of the most popular commercial brands. A serving of 3.5 fluid ounces contains 20 grams of high-fructose corn syrup. It also has preservatives (potassium sorbate and sodium metabisulfite) as well as Calcium Disodium EDTA, an organic pollutant that appears on the FDA’s toxicity watchlist.
While it’s easy enough to beat up on commercial sweet-and-sour mixes, the fact is that many bartenders are making their own simple syrups, bitters, vermouth, and even cordials and liqueurs. These components have expanded the flavor range and creativity of today’s cocktail lists. The debate over whether or not alcohol is good for you won’t end anytime soon, but meanwhile you stand a much better chance of drinking a handcrafted libation with more healthful elements. «