Are Low-Alcohol Cocktails Actually "Healthier"?

Photo: Courtesy of Eric Medsker.
Maintaining a comfortable buzz can be a futile effort when you're at a bottomless boozy brunch, because just a couple free-flowing Bloody Marys, mimosas, Bellinis, and tequila sunrises can take you from tipsy to turnt in a surprisingly short amount of time.
This slippery slope may be why more bars and restaurants are adding low-alcohol by volume (ABV) cocktails, aka "session cocktails," to their menus. It's seemingly win-win, because customers can theoretically drink all day without getting sloshed. Plus, this trend fits the narrative we've been told about "healthy" alcohol consumption: Some studies suggest that light-to-moderate drinking — aka one to two drinks a day — can have protective health benefits (though people are now questioning the alcohol industry's involvement in this research and messaging). So, does that mean these low-alcohol drinks are healthier than a standard cocktail?
That's a tricky question to answer, because there are so many variables and metrics to consider, beyond the amount of alcohol per drink — like how much sugar is in a particular cocktail, the type of alcohol used, the mixers, and so forth. For our purposes, we're focusing on the amount of alcohol per drink, and how that may change people's drinking behaviors.
A standard drink, according to the CDC, contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which you can find in 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of an 80-proof liquor. Overall, these types of alcohol are equally safe: It's the amount of alcohol consumed that affects people, not the type of alcoholic drink, according to the CDC. So, if all else is the same, is ordering drinks with less alcohol in them the more health-conscious choice?
To figure that out, it's important to understand why alcohol is generally considered unhealthy. Alcohol messes with your brain's communication pathways (which alters your judgement and behavior), changes your mood, makes it harder to think clearly, and leads to dehydration and hangovers. The more you drink, the worse these symptoms are, and the more often you drink, the higher your risk for developing various cancers, especially breast cancer.

They don't feel as intoxicated, so they end up having a few more, and later on they're more loaded than they wanted to be. In time, people could lose a lot of trust for their own internal navigation system.

David Wiss, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition In Recovery
That said, if people generally drink the same amount of session cocktails as they would comparable regular cocktails, then sure, that's likely "healthier" (again, only if all else is the same). But, if there's less alcohol in a drink, people may be inclined to drink more of them. And that's where the problem arises.
A "low-alcohol" drink could appeal to health-conscious people, because it feels like you're being responsible and indulging at the same time, says David Wiss, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition In Recovery in Los Angeles. There isn't a regulated or standard amount of alcohol in session cocktails, but bartenders generally add the same amount of a lower-ABV liquor as they would a standard drink. For example, an Aperol spritz is technically a low-alcohol cocktail, and contains 1.5 ounces of 11% ABV liquor and a splash of 11% ABV Prosecco. In comparison, a Moscow mule is a standard cocktail, and usually contains 1.5 ounces of 40% ABV vodka.
By framing a product as a treat in moderation, bars and restaurants can put a sort of "halo of health" on their drinks, Wiss says. The people buying the drinks may also feel like they're somehow reducing the harm of drinking (which, if they do drink less alcohol, they are). "[Restaurants and bars] can combine this idea of, Hey, you're actually doing something better for your health, and, We know what you really want," he says.
When you're drinking several low-alcohol beverages over a period of time, though, you can still get intoxicated, just at a different pace than you're used to. So you may end up drinking more — remember what we said about impaired judgment? "[People] don't feel as intoxicated, so they end up having a few more, and later on they're more loaded than they wanted to be," Wiss says. "In time, people could lose a lot of trust for their own internal navigation system."
According to Brian Evans, the lead bartender at Sunday in Brooklyn, a popular brunch restaurant in Brooklyn, part of the fun of session cocktails is that you can sip on several over the course of the meal. The term "session" really refers to "drinkability," and the term implies that you can drink multiple beverages in one sitting. For example, at Sunday In Brooklyn they serve a drink called the Havana Honey Bear, which is a twist on a classic Cuban cocktail, but it uses sherry and amaro (which are lower-ABV alcohols) instead of rum. Both sherry and amaro tend to have alcohol levels between 18-20%, while certain rums can contain up to 80% ABV, so there's a pretty big difference there.
"We created this brunch-to-midday crushable, sessionable cocktail that's cutely served in a honey bear — and it has half the proof of your average full-force cocktail," he says (and TBH, it is very cute).

? Havana Honey Bear ? - @ericmedsker

A post shared by Sunday In Brooklyn (@sundayinbrooklyn) on

Sunday in Brooklyn is not a party destination or a place where people go to get wasted, but Evans has noticed people generally order more of their low-ABV cocktails to achieve a buzz. "It's kind of a fun feeling to be able to enjoy more cocktails and sample a wider variety during dinner, without feeling completely drained at the end of your experience," he says. (While we're only using alcohol content to measure healthiness here, it's worth pointing out that drinking more cocktails in one sitting than you usually would could lead to unwittingly consuming quite a bit of extra sugar, which certainly isn't the most "healthy" habit.)
So, as fun as low-alcohol drinks may look, they're not an excuse to binge-drink "healthily." Binge-drinking is still a common issue in the United States, and researchers suspect that the culture of excessive drinking has normalized many of these unhealthy behaviors. But hey, plenty of people can and do consume alcohol in moderation — so if you can mindfully kick back a couple of yummy sessions cocktails, then by all means enjoy.
Regardless of what type of drink you order, it's always wise and healthy to pace yourself and know your tolerance — even if it seems like time stands still and responsibilities don't matter when you're at boozy brunch.

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