Anyone who scans the health or lifestyle sections of the daily paper knows that the authorities are rarely in agreement on the purported health benefits of the various beverages we drink. One minute, coffee is an irritant and the source of all evil, and the next minute, it is a miracle preventive for prostate cancer. Red wine is widely presumed by many consum- ers to contain antioxidants that prevent cancer or improve the health of the heart–unless, of course, you drink the entire bottle in one sitting. When it comes to recreational drinking, I have been accused of exaggeration when I refer to craft cocktails as being “healthy.” While admittedly a fresh-squeezed margarita is not going to contain the health-giving properties of a glass of vegetable juice, a properly portioned traditional cocktail is arguably better for you than the same cocktail made with artificial mixers.
Let’s examine the so-called Skinny Margarita phenomenon. While there are now many “skinny” knockoffs, the brand Skinnygirl was started in New York by natural foods chef Bethenny Frankel. What began as a cocktail cameo on The Real Housewives of New York prompted so many viewers to inquire about the low-cal cocktail that Frankel decided to bottle and sell the elixir. Barely two years later, the product is being sold at the rate of more than 100,000 cases annually and has attracted the attention of Fortune Brands, maker of such notable marks as Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Skinnygirl obviously struck a chord–but what exactly does it mean? It boasts of having just 100 calories for a 4-ounce serving, as opposed to what the company’s website claims is a typical margarita calorie count of as much as 500 calories per serving, with many of the calories coming from commercial mixers. While a 100-calorie cocktail is certainly appealing, the comparison is not entirely forthright. A look at two readily available commercial margarita mixes, Sauza and Jose Cuervo, shows a count of 70 and 100 calories per serving, respectively. With 97 calories added for an average 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof tequila, the resulting beverage does have almost twice the calories of the Skinnygirl, but less than half the fear-inducing 500 calories described on their website. Made properly with fresh ingredients instead of store-bought mixers, the calorie count drops further.
Where Frankel is correct is in the assertion that commercial mixers are a big no-no. Besides being packed with calories, they are largely devoid of redeeming qualities, as they are flavored, colored, and sweetened artificially. The problem with “skinny” cocktails, however, is the same as with many low-calorie foods in general: When you sacrifice calories, you often sacrifice flavor (Though naturally flavored Skinnygirl is a step in the right direction, a reviewer at one prominent magazine described the product as tasting something akin to a dog bowl full of artificial lemonade.) I agree with Frankel’s basic assertion that eliminating artificial and superfluous ingredients is a great way to bring down the calorie content in cocktails–but it is taken too far for the cocktail enthusiast inside of me. Is there some better way, a compromise between the impulse to trim calories and the desire to maintain flavor? I think there is. If you look at the struc- ture of many classic cocktails, they are actually quite “skinny,” when compared to the calorie-laden concoctions served up at many restaurants. The “Svelte Margarita” below has only 146 calories, and it hews closely to the simple classic formula, with slightly less orange liqueur and no additional sweetener. When making “1+1” drinks, opt for seltzer or mineral water and a squeeze of fresh fruit instead of commercial sodas.
Cocktails that sacrifice too much flavor in the interest of cutting calories seem to miss the point of a cocktail–something that not only enlivens the spirit, but that also tastes great. One menu I saw recently featured Crystal Light, something I hadn’t seen since my childhood in the 1980s and which I thought might have been locked behind in the dustbin of that decade. That be- ing said, the astronomical success of products like Skinnygirl expose a tremendous demand for libations that pack a punch without packing a paunch–especially as we dive into swimsuit season. There are a number of natural ways to take empty calo- ries out of your cocktails–avoid commercial mixers, replace re- fined sugar with a piece of fresh ripe fruit–but at some point we have to accept the fact that it is the alcohol that is the culprit. If you like to drink, the skinny is that alcohol can make you fat if you drink too much of it. As a personal trainer I once worked with used to say, “If you want to party, you have to pay.”
Approximate caloric value of common alcoholic beverages
1.5 ounces 80-proof spirit, such as vodka, bourbon or tequila: 97 calories 12 ounces creature-of-habit beer, such as Bud Light, etc: 110 calories
12 ounces craft beer, such as Sierra nevada or a local brew: 150-225 calories 6 ounces red wine: 150 calories
With no offense meant to the many fans of the “skinny” margarita, this svelte interpretation stays very close to the original intentions of the margarita, while weighing in at under 150 calories.
1.5 oz 100% Agave Tequila (98 cal) .5 oz Cointreau (48 cal)
.5 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigor- ously to chill. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or onto fresh ice for a “rocks” margarita. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Total calories: Approximately 146
The daiquiri that most people are familiar with, as it is dispensed from frozen-drink machines and blenders from Sixth Street to Bourbon Street, could not be farther from the authentic origins of the drink–a simple, classic, and, as it happens, relatively skinny, concoction of rum, lime and sugar. Muddle a piece of fresh fruit in the bottom of the drink be- fore shaking it, and you have a delicious seasonal treat for the summer, the sweetness coming almost entirely from natural fruit.
1.5 oz light rum such as Bacardi Superior (98 cal)
.5 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/3 cup ripe peach chunks (about one medium peach, diced; 40 cal) Scant teaspoon simple syrup (optional, depending on sweet- ness of peaches; 17 cal)
Using a muddler or heavy wooden spoon, smash the peach chunks in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add rum and lime juice; shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into a glass.
Total calories: Approximately 155
Fresh Tomato Mary
Love it or hate it, in the pantheon of cocktails, the Bloody Mary is arguably the most nutritious, given that its base is tomatoes or tomato juice. It is one of the only cocktails that has noticeable nutritional value, especially if you gar- nish it with a salad of fresh and pickled vegetables, as is the common practice in many parts. But even the noble Mary suffers from the impulse in some quarters to replace fresh or natural ingredients with the convenience of a commercial mix, which can have added sugars and preservatives. In this preparation, the base is fresh tomato that you prepare your- self. It will not have the stewed flavor of a traditional cooked Bloody Mary mix, but it is a light, refreshing and low-cal alternative for the summer tomato (and brunch!) season.
1.5 oz vodka or gin (98 cal)
1/2 cup fresh tomato, diced (16 cal)
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of salt, pepper, celery salt, Old Bay, garlic powder, or other seasoning to taste
Dash of Worcestershire, Tabasco, Maggi or other seasoning to taste (negligible calories)
Total calories: Approximately 115