The Garden Party is a non-alcoholic watermelon “tequila” drink. Credit: Kevin Carlow

I love sharing cocktail history, and living vicariously through my guests as they try tipples both modern and classic. Every once in a while, however, it’s incumbent upon me to recognize that alcohol can be a toxin. I’m constantly working on finding that balance of enjoying my craft without it becoming too much of my life.

Fortunately, it’s possible to enjoy delicious alcoholic beverages that aren’t too alcoholic. Here are some of my favorite low-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails that won’t make you feel like you’re missing out on a thing.

I’m not sure how I’ve never covered the Aperol Spritz before. Not only is it an absolute favorite; it’s a perfect brunch drink, weekend-starter, and aperitif! It has quickly become one of the signature drinks of millennials, and it’s staking a claim on being the “hot girl” drink of the 2020s. How did this cocktail take over social media and brunch culture so quickly? I suppose the answer lies in the ingredients and their wonderful synergy … but you can’t have an Aperol Spritz without the Aperol, so let’s start there.

Invented by the Barbieri brothers in 1919, when Europe certainly could have used a stiffer drink, Aperol would become the signature spirit of Padua, Italy. Now owned by Campari, it could certainly be considered Campari’s spritely little sister: still bitter and vibrantly colored, but with less alcohol and a lighter taste. Its herbaceous and bubble gum-like flavor, plus the Instagram-able electric-orange color, make it the perfect spirit for anyone who is there for the event and not necessarily the buzz, coming in at a modest 11% ABV. Add that Aperol to soda water and some half-decent bubbly (save the Champagne), and you have yourself a party. The standard recipe is 3:2:1, but feel free to eyeball this baby; it’s stress-free.

  • 3 ounces of cava or prosecco
  • 2 ounces of Aperol
  • 1 ounce of soda water

Build in a wine glass over ice; garnish with an orange slice or twist.

I’ve covered the Champagne Cocktail before, but it’s worth another go-around. I’ve heard this drink referred to as “the only good reason to have sugar cubes,” and I would have to agree. This one comes from Jerry “The Professor” Thomas, and if you don’t know who he is, you’re not a regular reader of this column: He’s the “OG” of bartenders. Going back to 1862, this one is barely a cocktail on paper, but it’s both fun and elegant in the glass. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that simple syrup works in this drink; if you must, use a half-teaspoon of white sugar instead of the cube. Do not use prosecco or cheap sparkling wine; it must be Champagne, or at least a crémant, to taste right. This is a simple recipe, but it allows no compromise.

  • 5 ounces of Champagne
  • 4 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 sugar cube

Using a spoon, douse the sugar cube with the bitters until well-soaked. Place the cube in the glass, and slowly pour in the Champagne, using the back of the spoon. Garnish with a lemon peel.

The Bamboo Cocktail … now that’s something I don’t get a lot of requests for these days; I had one guest years ago who would order them regularly, and that’s about it. It’s a shame this tipple isn’t more popular, but vermouth’s reputation is just mud for people of a certain age. I have hope, however, for the youth here.

Dating from at least the 1890s, according to Difford’s Guide, this once-popular drink didn’t even make it back to prominence during the “sherry renaissance” of the early 2010s. It’s not for everyone; this is a serious blast from the past, and it tastes like it. Serve this one with Marcona almonds, Spanish cheese and Iberico ham for best results. Don’t skimp on the sherry and vermouth; if they’re not around $20 a bottle, don’t bother—and bust out your best vintage glassware. This version is based on William Boothby’s 1908 recipe, and it’s how I make it.

  • 1 1/2 ounces of fino sherry
  • 1 1/2 ounces of dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes of orange bitters
  • 2 dashes of angostura bitters

Stir, up; lemon twist or olive.

You can make this one into an “Adonis” cocktail by substituting the vermouth for a nice Italian sweet, and skipping the orange bitters. You might also want to go heavier on the sherry, maybe at a 2:1 ratio, and use an orange peel instead of lemon, of course. The Bamboo was popularized by legendary barman Louis Eppinger, but despite the name, it was likely not created at his bar in Yokohama, Japan; the timelines just don’t jibe. As with the Adonis, we know when the concoctions gained notoriety, but not who actually created them. There is a record of this drink being referred to as a Boston Bamboo early on, and I must say I kind of like the sound of that, being a Masshole and all.

Last but not least … what if you don’t want any alcohol at all? Good news: The NA “spirits” category has never been more popular. Manufacturers have really stepped up their game, and it’s possible to drink something without alcohol that checks nearly all of the boxes of a proper cocktail. An NA “spirit” won the Best New Spirit (or Cocktail Ingredient) at the last Tales of the Cocktail conference, which would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

I have been experimenting with faux-tequila, faux-Aperol and other “spirits” lately with great success. My guests have been tickled with the results. Canned RTD (ready to drink) non-alcoholic concoctions have also taken a leap in the last year. There is no reason to feel left out of the party anymore! Just sub them into recipes where you would use standard alcohol; there are even “whiskeys” out there that make decent Old Fashioned, if you can believe it. If you want to skip the “fake hooch,” our archives include several columns from over the years that feature fresh and tasty no-regret recipes for you to try.

So no matter how you chose to unwind, party smart!

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...