Craft a healthier cocktail — with these simple swaps

The easiest way to tone down the sugar and the calories that go along with it is to replace sugary sodas, tonic water, and simple syrups with sparkling water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, or kombucha.

SHARE Craft a healthier cocktail — with these simple swaps
Happy hour doesn’t have to interfere with a healthy lifestyle if you sip smartly.

Happy hour doesn’t have to interfere with a healthy lifestyle if you sip smartly.

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Behind every skinny margarita, virgin mai tai, or mocktail of choice, is the desire for a healthier libation. Whether that means fewer calories, less sugar, or less or no alcohol, the demand is real and on the rise.

Low-carb beers, hard seltzers, and low- or zero-proof cocktails designed with fresh and flavorful natural ingredients are trending high.

And why not, when it’s so simple and even fun to swap out boozy, syrupy, calorie-laden sips with healthier ingredients that pack just as much enjoyment in your glass.

Simple swaps

The easiest way to tone down the sugar and the calories that go along with it is to replace sugary sodas, tonic water, and simple syrups with sparkling water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, or kombucha, a fermented tea rich in gut-friendly probiotics.

Sparkling waters come in plain as well as a wide variety of cocktail-friendly flavors, from lemon and grapefruit to ginger lime and coconut pineapple. Just be sure they’re unsweetened and flavored with natural extracts or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices.

Juice and kombucha pack a punch of flavor, so a splash should be enough to sweeten your drink and add a pop of color, while bringing a dash of vitamins and nutrients too.

Enhance your sip

A better-for-you cocktail doesn’t always mean taking something away. You can also boost your next pour with nutrient-rich ingredients.

Whole or sliced fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs, 100% juices, kombucha, and unsweetened coffee or tea all deliver a healthy nutrient dose, including fiber and health-protecting plant compounds.

Fruits, which can be fresh or frozen — frozen berries make great ice cubes — can be an edible garnish as well as flavor enhancer, especially when muddled, meaning gently bruised or smashed to release their essence.

Herbs are an excellent way to bring fresh flavors to the mix. In fact, they often define them. What would a mojito be without fresh mint? Other favorites to try include thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, and basil. Muddle them with a muddler, mortar and pestle, or a wooden spoon at the bottom of a glass or cocktail shaker, mix your cocktail, and strain out the herbs if you like.

Less is more

When a cocktail recipe is perfect just the way it is, the best way to kick up its health factor is to simply drink less of it. That may mean having one cocktail instead of two, or serving it in a smaller glass. Or, it might be a better fit to stretch out the volume by filling the glass with ice or ice cubes made with juice, or made by combining fruit, vegetable slices, or herbs with water in ice trays.

Adding more sparkling water or an extra splash of lime juice, for example, works, too. You can also go low- or zero-proof by lessening the typical two-ounce shot of alcohol by a half- or full-ounce, or by cutting it altogether and making it a true mocktail.

Keeping it classic

A splash of champagne and a heaping helping of fresh orange juice combine for a classic mimosa.

A splash of champagne and a heaping helping of fresh orange juice combine for a classic mimosa.

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Some cocktails are clearly better than others when it comes to health. This is the case with many classic cocktails, which may be at least partly why they never go out of style.

Made with few ingredients, low or no sugar, and often dressed up with a nutrient-rich slice of lime, squirt of lemon, or muddle of mint, here are a few classics that deserve a nod for being inherently healthier than most:

Mojito: Sparkling water, mint leaves, lime juice, white rum;

Cosmopolitan: Lime juice, cranberry juice, vodka, orange liquor;

Mimosa: Orange juice, champagne;

Bloody Mary: Tomato juice (sodium-free), horseradish, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, spices, vodka, celery stalk, green olives, lemon and lime wedges;

Martini: Gin, vermouth, orange bitters, lemon slice.

Bottom line

Health and happy hour typically don’t have a lot in common. But it doesn’t mean they can’t coexist.

We can certainly shrink that health gap when mixing libations with these small, yet strategic adjustments: keeping alcohol at lower levels or skipping it altogether, minimizing added sugars, and choosing nutrient-rich ingredients to enhance flavor.

And remember, moderation is also key: The CDC recommends that adults limit alcoholic beverage intake to 2 drinks or less a day for men, or 1 drink or less a day for women, should they choose to drink.

Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.

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