Cutting the Calories Out of Cocktails

Happy hour can be healthy hour if you stick with lighter, leaner libations.

James Haburcak pours specialty cocktails at Harry’s Seafood Grill in Wilmington.


Golden Bloody Mary

Ginger Lady

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Dutch Tulip

Jalapeño Margarita

Skinnygirl Lady-like Lime

No one would start dinner with a two cheeseburger appetizer, eat another two cheeseburgers alongside a full entrée, and then finish off with a two-cheeseburger dessert, right? But if you’re drinking three large frozen margaritas in an evening, you’re packing away as many a calories as are in six McDonald’s cheeseburgers, warns Alex Bianchi, D.O., of Bianchi Medical Weight Loss in Hockessin.

Order 1 ½ ounces of gin with club soda, which has 0 calories, and you’re swigging about 300 calories total for three drinks instead of a whopping 2,400 for those three margaritas. Better yet, stick to one gin and club soda.

You need to watch the bar foods you’re noshing on as well. Many are fried, cheesy or otherwise calorie-packed. Opt instead for grilled seafood, or ask if you can get a plate of vegetables to share with a friend. 

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“Once you’ve had one beer, your judgment goes down. Then you have another, and another,” Bianchi says. “Then the nachos and all the other snack foods
come out and next thing you know, you’re 1,500 calories or more in the hole.”



The Good

In response to the nation’s newfound focus on health, liquor and restaurant/bar industries are beginning to respond with more healthful alcoholic drink alternatives for those want to imbibe while maintaining their waistlines. 

“The popularity of dieting and the trend toward light and lean is finally starting to take off in the alcohol world,” says Ivan Zambrana, beverage manager at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. “People think that if you’re trying to lose weight you have to stop drinking. That’s not really the case. You just have to make wise choices.”

Ironically, beer makers marketing to men were the front-runners with lower-calorie alternatives, with Miller introducing its Lite by Miller in the mid-1970s. In comparison, it took until 2011 for the trend to hit the liquor industry, led by Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl pre-mixed cocktails, followed by its lower-calorie vodkas and wine.

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Smirnoff recently introduced its own lower-calorie vodka, Smirnoff Sorbet Light, which has 25 percent fewer calories than other “dessert-inspired vodkas.” Some of the chain restaurants, including Bahama Breeze, are beginning to follow suit by adding sections to their drink menus for “skinny cocktails.”

When Home Grown Café in Newark came out with its new cocktail list in July, it included seven cocktails weighing in at around 200 calories. Beverage director John Holmes says he didn’t specifically set out to create low-cal cocktails, but many of them ended up being so because of his focus on fresh, light ingredients. “Home Grown is known for being healthy and organic, so we wanted to go for healthier drinks, too,” he says. “That’s what people want these days.”



The Bad

At the same time, however, a glance at the list of specialty cocktails in many bars will tell you that sweet cocktails are still selling well.

“A lot of bars and restaurants are trying to be creative with their drinks, and not all of them are healthy alternatives,” says Mark Harrison, general manager at Nage in Rehoboth Beach.

Those super sweet vodkas that have become so trendy in the past few years, think whipped cream or cotton candy flavors, are something to steer clear of, Holmes says.

But it’s the mixers in cocktails that can really “screw it up” as far as calorie content, notes David Engle, bartender at a(MUSE.) in Rehoboth Beach.

Sodas, juices, tonic water and sour mixes all add calories, as do the simple syrups added to so many cocktails to flavor and sweeten them. Frozen drinks are another problem because many places make daiquiris, piña coladas and margaritas with syrups or with artificially sweetened, frozen drink mixes.



Taming the Alcohol

So what’s the health-conscious person to drink? There are plenty of delicious choices, if you know what to look for. 

As a rule of thumb, 4-ounces of wine, a 12-ounce bottle of light beer and 1 ½ ounces of many types of alcohol are all about 100 calories. Upgrade from light beer to a thick, hoppy microbrew and you will double or triple the calories in that 12-ounce beer, Bianchi warns, and many people go for those 16- or 20-ounce servings of draft beer.

Larger cocktails (or generous bartenders) can mean more liquor in a drink, upping the calories. And when we imbibe at home, we tend to serve ourselves even larger portions than we do at a restaurant, say, an 8-ounce glass of wine or three ounces of alcohol in that mixed drink.

While you might think that choosing light beer is the solution, not all light beers are the same. Popular Michelob Ultra has 96 calories, while Budweiser’s Select 55 has, well, 55 calories. If light beers don’t appeal, there are other options. One of the lowest calorie, non-light beers is Guinness Stout at 80 calories a pint, Holmes says. “IPAs are really big right now, but if you stick to pale ales, pilsners or basic stouts, you will cut the calories in half,” he adds.

Don’t be fooled by the popular misconception that alcohols that are lighter in color are also lighter in calories. Unless you go for one of the newer, lower calorie liquors, 1 ½ ounces of unflavored 80-proof vodka, rum, tequila or whiskey all end up being roughly 100 calories. Higher proof liquors are higher in calories.

Another problem arises when you opt for some of the flavored liquors or creamy liqueurs. Trendy RumChata packs 140 calories in 1 ½ ounces. Order 3 ounces of it over ice and you’re quaffing nearly 300 calories in one drink.

You can prepare for a night out by checking the calorie count of wines, beers and liquors online. Some brands include it on their website. You can get estimates for some others at



Mix It Up

Let’s say you do stick to 100 calories of liquor. How do you control the mixers? First, read the ingredients on the menu and ask questions of the server. A drink that has simple syrup in it is one to steer clear of. If there’s sour mix in the recipe, opt for a squeeze of citrus instead, Harrison suggests.

Choose 0-calorie club soda (soda water) instead of full-calorie sodas or tonic water. “If you’re going to go for flavored sodas, choose Diet Coke or ginger ale,” says Nikki Farley, a former manager at Harry’s Seafood Grill. A splash of fresh-squeezed fruit juice makes a healthier, lighter mixer—if the bartender doesn’t add any simple syrup, as they sometimes do to balance out the tartness of limes or lemons.

“Our signature cocktails tend to be sweet, so we do add syrup to many of them,” Farley admits. If you want to go lighter, she suggests trying something like a classic martini instead. “Skip the vermouth to save calories and instead add more pickle or olive juice for additional flavor,” she adds.

Nage has begun making its own infused liquors to up the flavor without adding unnecessary sugar, according to Harrison. These naturally flavored liquors allow you to go lighter on the sweetened mixers. Gin or vodka can be infused with just about any fresh or frozen fruit—peaches, blueberries, cherries, pineapples—and some vegetables and herbs as well, like cucumber, jalapeño or lemon with rosemary. Seasonal fruits are especially appealing. For the fall season, Nage will infuse bourbons with figs, cherries and oranges. 

You can even infuse liquor at home, Harrison says, but it takes 24 to 48 hours. A quick alternative to infusing liquor is to muddle the fruit in the bottom of the glass before adding the liquor. Muddled fruit or fruit purées add taste and sweetness without the need for flavored syrups. 

If you are truly a fan of very sweet drinks, you can “take baby steps” to wean yourself from the sweetness by asking the bartender to cut back on the simple syrup, Harrison suggests.

“People want to live healthier lives and people still want to have fun on weekends,” Holmes says. “And there’s no reason why you can’t have both.”  

» For more from this issue, click here. 

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