First it was binge-Britain, then it was Dry January – now the London bar scene is welcoming the advent of ‘demure drinking’ with slim shots replacing stiff drinks

No longer content with having our cake and eating it, now it seems we want to eat our cake and have a few drinks afterwards, in an effort to combine naughty nights out with a healthy lifestyle.

This ‘healthy hedonism’ or ‘alcho-health’ as it’s been dubbed, has seen a raft of London’s bars and restaurants concocting virtuous menus of ‘healthy cocktails’ with an extra serving of nutritious and medicinal ingredients – all without the hangover.

Known as ‘shims’ (thanks to Dinah Sanders low alcohol cocktail book The Art of the Shim, which advocates ‘more drink, less drunk’), these new salutary shots are replacing high-octane spirits for low-abv alcohol, sugar syrups with superfoods and in many places, yoga ‘Down Dogs’ for hair of the dog.

We’ve seen a paradigm shift towards healthier lifestyles…so it’s little surprise it’s reached our cocktails,” says leading London nutritionist Angelique Panagos. “We’re now demanding products that fit with our changing lifestyles and, for many, this doesn’t stop come Friday night.”

Fit bits

So, is it all watered down whiskey sours and tasteless tequilas? Far from it. The healthy spin has given liquid chefs the momentum for some very creative cocktails, with the hard stuff replaced with low abv choices such as vermouth and herbal liqueurs, and saccharine mixers swapped for more natural alternatives.

At Oblix at The Shard, for example, bar manager Wendy Stoklasova uses low abv, herbal becherovka as a base for many of her cocktails, and at Marcus Wareing’s Tredwell’s restaurant in Upper St Martin’s Lane, head barman Dav Eames likes to “guarantee customers spend their night focused on enjoyment and not their waistlines” with a ‘Sherry Cobbler’ of spritz, sherry and vermouth.

“Ultimately, people are not restricting themselves entirely but making more conscious choices so they can indulge those cravings while cutting back on ingredients that are processed or packed full of sugar,” says Dav. “And we’ve seen a huge increase in demand.”

At Drake & Morgan King’s Cross, bar manager Jay Newell has taken to ‘fat-washing’ alcohol too. And, while this might sound like something you’d find at a dry cleaners, in fact it’s a clever technique to add savoury flavour, and nutrients, to spirits – in Jay’s case, coconut oil to daiquiri, which is chilled down and after a few hours has the fat skimmed off.

“The result is incredible, the punch of the rum remains, the mouth feels velvety and the finish is beautiful, subtle coconut,” he says.

Sweet as honey

But it’s not just the alcohol that packs a punch in the calorie department, of course, there’s the artery-coating syrups and mixers – and many London bars are beginning to swap processed sugar syrups for more natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar and manuka honey, and using mixers such as soda water, cold pressed veg juice and coconut water.

At Treadwell’s, Dav’s ‘Gun Powder Gimlet’ uses fresh cold pressed lime juice and green tea syrup, and in his ‘Down the Apples and Pears’, vodka is mingled with a fresh fruit puree of apple, pear, elderflower and thyme.

“Mass-market cocktails, with all their additives, sugarcoat the mouth and give a massive high in the evening, which is always followed by a cataclysmic low the next day, but because of the way sugar works, we crave more,” says Alex Harris at Behind This Wall bar in Mare Street, Bethnal Green. “It’s not the alcohol we’re addicted to, it’s the sugar.”

Instead, everything at the basement bar is produced in-house or carefully selected to exclude artificial additives and unnecessary sugar. So, freshly squeezed grapefruit is mixed with raw honey, cardamom and ginger as a base for Negroni and Sidecar, and black strap molasses are used in place of the classic caster sugar syrup. High in B-vitamins, iron and calcium, this gloopy black sugar cane syrup is actually low in sugar due to the way it is extracted and boiled during processing.

”Years ago it was natural to use small batch spirits from artisanal producers and fresh ingredients in drinks, and you’d be able to enjoy them with a less of a hangover,” says Alex, whose cocktail menu changes every three months to reflect what’s in season.

Planning a cocktail garden on the bar roof this summer, to grow herbs, tomatoes and beetroot for super local Bloody Mary, Alex believes the healthy cocktail trend is just an extension of what’s happening with food.

“First it was organic wines, then it was the craft beer movement, and with people getting into more natural diets, local produce and grass-fed meat – and thinking more about what they put into themselves – it’s only natural that this transfers to cocktails,” he says.

Fitness first

So how about an asana with your alcohol? Last year, Behind this Wall offered Voga (a yoga and 80s fashion mash up) with a post-class dose of cocktails – and the fitness bar bug seems to be catching on. Last summer, Drake & Morgan launched a morning yoga class, and at Tanya’s Café in Chelsea – dubbed ‘Europe’s first superfood cocktail bar’ – there’s monthly health talks, ‘fitness brunches’ and collaboration with local fitness brands.

But can healthy living and healthy drinking ever really co-exist?

“Any conscious effort to make a healthier choice should be commended,” says nutritionist Angelique. “But you’ve got to ask what actually makes a cocktail healthier? Is it just that a fancy sounding superfood has been added to an otherwise high sugar, high alcohol mix? And while agave sounds healthy, it is still sugar! It’s a question of balance and staying informed.”

For Jay at Drake & Morgan, it’s everything in moderation.

“People are much more focused on drinking better than drinking more these days – it’s all about quality over quantity.”

Originally published in Square Meal, 2016