Dancing With The Devil
We can have it all—at least that’s what most of us believe these days.
So drinking an indulgent cocktail that is also healthy is something that consumers are coming to expect.
Many restaurants are jumping into the low-calorie trend, offering skinny cocktails. At the same time, others are doing the opposite: Instead of taking something out of their drinks (the calories), they’re putting ingredients in, making sure cocktails are good not only for the mind, but also better for the body.
For the ultimate in both indulgence and health, there’s Tini Bigs. In February, this Seattle restaurant started to juice its own fruits and vegetables to put them into drinks.
The juices are used in three ways: served straight up for a nonalcoholic boost; mixed with the spirit of the customer’s choice and served on the rocks; and made into a daily juicer cocktail that the bartender creates.
Every day the juices change, but so far blends have included celery-carrot-ginger and carrot-lemon-apple. Nothing yet has been poorly received, says general manager Joe Zara, though he admits that “it’s going to take a while for people to venture out with something like beets or spinach.”
The number of orders for these drinks varies depending on the juice, “but I would say average, they are one out of every seven cocktails ordered,” Zara says.
The cocktails are pretty complex. One combined bourbon, Ramazzotti Amaro, old-fashioned bitters and carrot-lemon-apple juice; another included gin and Benedictine with celery-ginger-carrot juice.
There’s no sugar in the cocktails since there’s so much natural sugar in the produce. They’re not incredibly strong, Zara says, “so they’re not too sweet and the cocktails are very juice-forward.”
Costs for the drinks are $10 for a mixed drink; $11 for a cocktail; $7 for a juice. Costs on the juicer cocktails range from 22 to 25 percent, and it’s less when the juice is mixed with a spirit, Zara says, ranging from 18 to 22 percent. “The liquor is less adventurous in these cocktails, so [they’re] cheaper,” he adds.
Local, seasonal cocktails
The restaurant is also trying to keep the juices as local and seasonal as possible—to be environmentally focused and to keep costs down. A recent straight watermelon juice was well received, Zara says, especially mixed with gin and a few drops of house-made ginger tincture, but watermelon’s just too expensive at this time of year.
Tini Bigs is also going ensuring that its juicing waste is as close to zero as possible: It’s using the leftover pulp from the produce.
After the fruits and vegetables have been juiced, the bartender spreads the pulp onto a baking sheet and leaves it to dry for about four hours. Once it’s dry, he puts it into the food processor and turns it into powder.
“So in the same way you can put a sugar rim on a lemon drop, you can take this powder and put it on the rim of the juice cocktails,” Zara explains. “So the rim can either match the cocktail or we can use something opposite the cocktail so it’s got extra flavor and extra color.”
Going forward, there will be multiple flavors bartenders can choose from. The powders will last for around a week in the refrigerator so at any one time, there should be seven to choose from, and the oldest will be rotated out at the end of the day.
The two Yerba Buena restaurants in New York (one each in the West Village and East Village) both serve a couple of healthy cocktails, although they don’t note them as such on their menus.
The Boludo’s ingredients include yerba mate-infused pisco, grapefruit and lime cordials, and fresh lemon juice. Yerba mate has been a base for herbal medicines in South America for centuries and has several therapeutic properties. The herb contains vitamins A, C, E, and B complex and is a good source of calcium, potassium and iron.
Flavor + health
“It’s hard to say that a cocktail is actually good for your health, but we introduced this for two reasons—the flavor of the mate is great, but it’s also healthy,” says chef and owner Julian Medina.
The restaurant infuses its own pisco, a yellowish South American brandy, for about an hour at room temperature, but not too much longer, points out Medina, since it’s a strong herb and turns the drink very yellow.
The menu doesn’t mention the health benefits of the drink. “I think if it was ‘good for you’ people would laugh at it,” Medina says. But, he adds, if people are interested in health, they’ll know yerba mate is good for them; if they’re not, they’ll simply enjoy the cocktail as a tasty beverage.”
The two Yerba Buena restaurants also have a skinny cocktail, translated as flaca in Spanish.
La Flaca is a skinny margarita with agave nectar (since that has fewer calories than sugar), fresh lemon and lime, pomegranate, and tequila. This one does get a skinny designation on the menu.
The restaurant does not list calories on this drink because customers rarely ask about them. “Consumers see that we are substituting agave nectar for sugar,” Medina notes.
It’s mostly women drinking the skinny cocktails at True Food Kitchen, a restaurant chain that champions sustainability, simple food, and healthy eating, with two locations in Phoenix, Arizona, and two in Southern California.
And they’re drinking them at any time, says beverage manager Mat Snapp, but especially before dinner.
The restaurants have two healthy beverages, one of which is the Cucumber Citrus Skinny Margarita. It is made with tequila, lime, fresh mint, and soda, and is garnished with cucumber and orange slices. The cocktail retails for $10 and has just 175 calories.
The restaurants launched the cocktail two years ago to meet the demand for low-calorie drinks, says spokeswoman Julia Archer.
It’s one of the restaurants’ top-selling cocktails. The chain’s Newport Beach location alone sells around 17,000 of skinny margaritas a year. The next-best-selling cocktail there is the Açaí Mojito, of which the restaurant sells just 3,300 annually.
“The people who drink this are not necessarily people on a diet, but I think that often contributes to them ordering it,” Archer says. “But it’s people who want a cocktail without extra calories and without feeling guilty.”
True Food promoted the skinny cocktail through social media, but a drink with the word “skinny” in its name is mainstream enough now, Archer says, “so people gravitate towards that and know what it is.”
Popular with everyone
The skinny margarita and blackberry margarita were launched in January 2011, and later last year the eateries introduced On Thin Ice Tea, a spin on a Long Island iced tea.
Of the three, the blackberry margarita is the hands-down favorite with customers, though regular cocktails outsell all of them. But, points out spokeswoman Amie Dancu, “skinny drinks are an important part of our menu strategy, and they’re gaining popularity with all our guests in all markets.”
Each has just 130 calories and is sweetened using an agave sour. “The key to all the skinny drinks is the Friday’s house-made agave sour, which allows us to reduce the sugar content in the drink, which reduces the calories,” Dancu says.
The drinks don’t have the same flavor as traditional margaritas and Long Island iced teas, she notes, but have their own unique spin.
So, Dancu says, “if you’re a guest who loves our ultimate Long Island iced tea, there’s not a chance we’re going to change you to the On Thin Ice, but we do see people who are opting into the beverage because of the new better-for-you profile. So each has its own market.”
And the market for these low-calorie drinks has been surprising, she says.
“My opinion when we started this was that it would be more women, more diet-conscious people. But a lot of people drink them who aren’t that demographic, and they’re gaining popularity with men and women equally, diet-conscious or not.”
If all consumers are enjoying these drinks, it seems there’s no downside to adding them to menus. Then we can all have it all.
Drinks don’t have to be alcoholic for patrons to enjoy drinking them and appreciate their healthy benefits.
Linger, a global street food restaurant in Denver, introduced chia limeade and black barley water last June.
Chia is known as nature's complete superfood. It's the highest plant-based source of Omega 3, is rich in fiber and protein. The chia seed can also absorb more than nine times its volume in fluid, which helps prolong hydration and retain electrolytes in body fluids, especially during exertion or exercise.
Barley is a good source of natural fiber and is known to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, help fight and prevent cancer, and promote a healthy heart.
Linger also has a hibiscus pomegranate cooler, a light, super dark red summer drink.
Nonalcoholic drinks actually fit better with the restaurant’s street food menu than alcoholic cocktails, says owner and chef Justin Cucci. He only serves these beverages only in the warmer months and switches to hot drinks in the winter.
Linger doesn’t make a big deal about the health benefits in its drinks, but does educate the servers so they can explain them to inquiring guests.
“If people think they are healthy, they might not want to drink them. The fact that they’ve got a health benefit is just a bonus,” Cucci says. "If someone is really concerned about health, they will know why these things are good for them anyway.”
True Food Kitchen also serves a non-alcoholic natural refreshment called the Medicine Man.
Made with pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, black tea, soda water, and pomegranate seeds, it delivers an antioxidant blast. It also contains olivello, an extract from sea buckthorn berries whose antioxidants and phytonutrients are said to provide a boost to the immune system.
The beverage costs $6 and sells well at both lunch and dinner with both male and female diners. The drink is promoted on a table tent that displays the food pyramid and mentions certain menu items, one of which is the Medicine Man. The card also provides details on olivello.