For those who prefer dressed-up cocktails over a stripped-down version, like vodka and soda or gin and tonic, you’ve probably been told that forgoing the frills (syrup, garnishes, purees) is a smarter and healthier choice. And chances are you’ve heard that clear liquor carries fewer calories. And really, when all of the questions are said and done, finding just one that actually tastes good and isn’t packed with an absurd amount of calories may feel impossible. As it turns out, that’s just your anxiety and definitely not the case.
According to Thumbtack bartending pro Ian McCarthy, the only thing you need to think about when ordering a drink that isn’t loaded with calories is less sugar.
“Calories in cocktails are all about sugar. Less sugar means fewer calories. Completely dry drinks (think alcohol + soda water) are at the far end of that spectrum but can be lacking in the flavor department,” he says. Most cocktails do have an element of sweetness to balance out acidity or bitterness, but simple syrup isn’t your only choice. Aromatic herbs and produce are a nice way to add complexity without adding sugar. Some popular examples would be mint, cucumber, and citrus peel.
Also, “adding that sweetness in the form of fruit—rather than sugar or corn syrup—can be a way to get vitamins and minerals along with the sweetness. I am not a nutritionist by any stretch, but it feels more wholesome to me. Sky is the limit here—but berries and stone fruit are the things I reach for this time of year,” says McCarthy. In addition to changing the type of add-ons in your cocktail, remember that whether your liquor is dark or light has very little to do with caloric content.
“Any distilled spirit, as long as it is not some liqueur that has added sugar, is only going to provide calories from the alcohol (ethanol). Bourbon, vodka, Scotch, gin, tequila—it does not matter; they all have the same caloric value per gram of alcohol,” he says. “Brown spirits are only brown from oak aging, which isn’t adding anything nutritionally to a spirit—just color and oak flavor.” But once you start adding sugary ingredients to your base spirit, all bets are off.
Here are 15 drink recipes that taste like summer without the help of sugar or syrup.