The stigma associated with low-alcohol cocktails may be coming to an end thanks to bars that are creating the drinks out of choice, not necessity. Places like Brass Tacks, Bergerac, and Range devote subsections of their menus to the low-proof drinks that taste, well, like real cocktails. Even books entirely on the subject are making their way to bar shelves, like The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level by San Francisco-based author Dinah Sanders.
At Starbelly (which doesn't have a full liquor license), mixing low alcohol cocktails is something they've been doing for a long time and doing it very well. There are no soju "margaritas" or "cosmopolitans" on the menu, but you will find legitimately tasty drinks like The Declaration ($9, Madeira, port, Bonal, rosemary). The drink is has both plenty of heft and flavor.
The recipe was developed by Bryan Hamann, who is both restaurant and bar manager and cut his teeth working behind the bar at places like RN74 and MUA in Oakland. Hamann created the drink after being inspired by the smell of fresh rosemary being chopped in the kitchen by chef Adam Timney. The herb made him think of lamb, which in turn conjured images of port demi-glace that got him playing with port infused with the resinous herb, and blending it with Madeira's nutty and savory qualities.
"The name was inspired by the fact that our founding fathers toasted with madeira when they signed the Declaration of Independence," says Hamann. "The drink... is intended to 'declare,' in a way, that we have drinks on the menu besides wine and beer."
The Sunset in Seville ($8, bitter orange liqueur, prosecco, lemon, egg white) has all that you love from a good fizz, but won't knock you on your ass. Despite the low-octane nature of the drinks, the attention from the bartender is the same caliber you would find in full-liquor license bar: quality ice, care in mixing drinks, and fresh juices.
Declaring your preference to lower alcohol comes with a big bonus: You can easily try more than a few and most of the cocktails work great with the food -- something much harder to accomplish with higher proof drinks.
1 oz. Off-dry Madeira
1 oz. Oloroso sherry
½ oz. Bonal
½ oz. Rosemary infused port
¼ oz. Simple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, and stir until well chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass.
Peel a strip of lemon zest with a sharp vegetable peeler, and express citrus oils over the top of the drink. Drop zest in the glass to garnish.
Starbelly, 3583 16th (at Market), 252-7500