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6 minute read

Cutting Down

Words: Nina Caplan

Many customers try to moderate their alcohol consumption after the festive period, but what does this mean for those in charge of the drinks?

A luxury hotel is a place apart: a zone ofcalm and privilege, where the mundanetasks of daily life are whisked away outof view, every bed is freshly made, allsurfaces shine with cleanliness, andany gastronomic whim can be rapidlyfulfilled by a team of talented F&B professionals. That,at any rate, is what every top property wants to offer, although January presents a special set of challenges. After all, this is when excuses for excessive behaviour evaporate, and the idea that whatever guests desire can be instantly obtained becomes more of a burden than a blessing for some.

Partly, the solution is tact. No right-thinking bartender is going to offer to ply guests with Martinis without some signal from customers that they are actually looking for a 30% ABV beverage. For starters, more people now choose to sign up for a Dry January; and that’s fine, since no-alcohol options have been getting more interesting over recent years. But what about guests who don’t necessarily want to deprive themselves entirely? This is not a small market – and it’s growing. According to recent research, 52% of nonteetotal adults in the US are either trying to reduce their alcohol intake now or have done so in the past. These days, most of the northern hemisphere sees the new year as a good excuse to exert more self-discipline.

So, how are hotels responding? As always, when fashion throws a spanner in the corporate hospitality works, the answer is both varied and creative. In the US city of Boston, several properties – including Boston Harbor Hotel and The Envoy Hotel, part of Marriott International’s Autograph Collection – stock Twisted Tea. This Cincinatti-based brand is a clever alternative to a soft drink; for one thing, it contains malt liquor. But the ABV is just 5%, less than half that of most wines, while the marketing – the name, plus a label that refers to the contents as ‘hard iced tea’ – appeals to the subversive instincts of younger drinkers, as well as those among their elders who grew up feeling that low- or no-alcohol beverages were somehow ‘soft’. Meanwhile, The Hoxton in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn carries Special Effects by Brooklyn Brewery, a lager with an ABV of 0.4%, brewed using a specially developed fermentation method that is intended to retain flavour while losing most of the alcohol. The UK Hoxtons will soon be listing it too.

Upside-Down Fizz at The Lanesborough’s Library Bar is designed to be light and refreshing

Even parts of the world that are known for having relatively relaxed attitudes towards drinking are embracing early-season low-alcohol initiatives. Experimental Group, started by three childhood friends as a craft cocktail venue in Paris, now has more than a dozen venues across two continents, yet its passion for mixology no longer necessarily means an emphasis on strong drinks – especially not at this point in the year. At Hotel des Grands Boulevards, which opened in 2018, the ground-floor Shell Bar has a three-tier system of cocktails, with ‘no shell’ being alcohol-free and ‘two shells’ signalling a full-strength concoction. In the ‘one shell’ category, bartender Maxime Potfer has taken on the challenge of creating flavourful, inventive drinks that don’t suffer for the lack of kick – on the contrary, they benefit from it. “We wanted to emphasise the healthy side of drinking,” he says, and so seasonal fruits and vegetables are given priority, in a clear attempt to emulate the French wine world’s emphasis on terroir, the soil and ambience in which a given ingredient was grown.

This is very clever, as it can be tricky for some spirits to offer much sense of terroir. A fruit, on the other hand, if lovingly and organically grown, cannot help but do so. Potfer is a fan of Japanese bartender Gen Yamamoto, who likes to turn the spotlight onto a single ingredient; he also admires the taste-matching approach of René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s iconic restaurant Noma. Creating low-alcohol cocktails, he says, requires another way of thinking: alcohol is no longer a main ingredient, but one among many. The result is an influx of homemade syrups and tinctures that use everything from wasabi and agave to lapsang souchong and muscovado to provide a very different sort of pizzazz. No guest in search of a low-ABV drink is likely to feel deprived here.

In southern Spain, too, one of the country’s most exclusive properties is extending a sympathetic helping hand to those trying to be abstemious – at least a little. Finca Cortesin, a 215-hectare resort with a 67-suite hotel and an 18-hole golf course, is the kind of place that always tries to anticipate guests’ needs before they are even aware of them, and the Jasmine Sour it has introduced for January is a prime example. The serve features St-Germain, the 20% ABV elderflower liqueur, judiciously combined with orange blossom water, lime juice, sugar and egg white. “It’s a twist on a classic cocktail, perfect for a slightly less boozy January tipple,” says Finca Cortesin’s PR representative.

The Lanesborough’s Library Bar offers sophisticated cocktails in elegant surroundings

Across the border and north, in Portugal’s Douro Valley, the Six Senses hotel there is making creative use of a lesser known incarnation of the region’s most famous beverage, port. “White port has always been regarded as the ‘poor cousin’ of the full-bodied, more traditional red port,” says Wine Director Acácio Peixoto. “However, it has a lower alcohol content – 16.5% instead of the usual 19-22% in red ports – making it a popular and interesting option for those wanting to enjoy a slightly less alcoholic port treat this January.” The less forceful style also works very well in cocktails.

It is, however, feasible to use stronger ingredients to make lower-ABV serves. One Aldwych in London, newly reopened after a major refurbishment last year, has partnered with Mediterranean-influenced Gin Mare to offer a wellbeing package that includes a spa treatment, lower-alcohol gin cocktails featuring herbs and juices, and a living wall from which guests can pick their own garnishes. A new initiative for January, it will run all the way through until April.

Adopting a more flexible approach towards drinks programming may also involve recognising that giving customers choice is the essence of good service. Six Senses Douro Valley, for instance, offers an afternoon tea where guests can learn to make shrubs-and-tonics – and adding alcohol to their creations is optional. Meanwhile, The Lanesborough in London has formed a partnership with Seedlip, the alcohol-free spirit, for January – but without making any assumptions about visitors’ inclinations. “We have prepared a new, more inclusive menu to allow guests the opportunity to enjoy their favourite cocktails with or without alcohol,” says Mickael Perron, Manager of The Lanesborough’s Library Bar. He understands that the key is to offer complex flavours that don’t necessarily involve alcohol – and then leave the decisions about including alcohol up to the drinker.

Across the board, strong drinks aren’t necessarily going out of fashion, but strict rules may well be. Bartenders have been playing with traditional recipes for years: now it’s the turn of the drinker.

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