Food

How to Have Your Drink and Drink It, Too

Summer Trend: Session Drinks (Photo by Slim Aarons)

Today, Erin Geiger Smith, who writes a series on wine, beer and cocktails for Cup of Jo, explains a trend in the world of spirits that we’ve been curious about: session drinks.


At the beach last summer, my friend Kara asked if I wanted a white wine spritzer, and I thought she’d mistaken me for her 75-year-old aunt. But when she pointed out how refreshing they are and how you can enjoy them for hours without feeling overserved, I was completely on board.

It turns out that Kara’s go-to drink — white wine or rosé with a splash of soda and a squeeze of lemon, over lots of ice — is totally of the moment. You can’t talk to a cocktail connoisseur or brewer this summer without hearing them sing the praises of so-called “session” cocktails and beers. These lower-alcohol drinks allow you to sip your way through a longer time period, or session, than you’d ordinarily be able to without getting tipsy…

I spoke to Erick Castro, one of the country’s top bartenders and a big proponent of session cocktails, to get the lowdown. Erick creates delicious low-alcohol drinks at his bar, Polite Provisions, a soda-fountain-inspired spot in San Diego.

According to Erick, session cocktails are perfect for day drinking: when you’re at a brunch but need to drive afterward; if you’re going to an outdoor event and will spend hours imbibing; or if you just want to feel like you’re part of a party but not like you’ve partied. They usually have just enough alcohol to make you feel jovial.

Drinking session cocktails and beers has always been part of the culture in Europe, I learned, where it’s not unusual for someone to have a tipple at lunch before returning to work. They’ve seen a recent resurgence in the U.S., thanks in part to the new popularity of aperitifs like Aperol, a frequent ingredient in session drinks. Session beers, which generally have 5% or less alcohol by volume, have followed the same route across the pond. Here are some to try:

If you want to order a session cocktail at a bar or restaurant, keep in mind that you may not see a clearly marked section on the menu. Erick says they’re sometimes listed as “patio drinks” or even “low octane,” but, if not, look for something that relies on lower-proof spirits like Campari, sherry, champagne or liqueurs like Pimm’s, instead of hard alcohol. Most drinks called spritzers also qualify as session. When in doubt, the term session is recognizable enough that you can just ask your server what’s available.

If you’d like to make a session cocktail for your summer barbecue or picnic, allowing your guests to drink a few without turning a festive gathering into a swinging-from-the-chandelier rager, here are three recipes Erick likes…

Recipe: St. Germain Cocktail

You can mix a pitcher of St-Germain cocktails, which are based around an artisanal French liqueur made from flowers. They look pretty and taste fresh and bright.

Recipe: St-Germain Cocktail

1.5 ounces St-Germain liqueur
2 ounces champagne
2 ounces club soda

Squeeze in a slice of lemon or garnish with a lemon twist. Stick to the same ratio to make enough for a pitcher.

At his bar, Erick mixes the East River Defense, a tart, quenching cocktail.

Recipe: East River Defense

3 ounces Manzanilla sherry
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
2 dashes of grapefruit bitters
A pinch of salt

Shake the ingredients together. Serve in a tall glass, garnished with a slice or twist of grapefruit.

One more option he recommends trying at home is the Lady Stoneheart, a savory and crisp drink.

Recipe: Lady Stoneheart

1/2 ounce of Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth
1/4 ounce simple syrup
4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Add all the above ingredients to a glass flute, then top off with champagne and garnish with a slice or twist of grapefruit.

Would you try a session drink, or do you already have a favorite?

P.S. Wine etiquette, and what to wear on vacation.

This post is part of a new series about wine and cocktails by Erin Geiger Smith.

(Poolside photo by Slim Aarons; photo of St-Germain Cocktail by Kelly Davidson.)

  1. My goodness, that gorgeous picture at the top is in mid-century Athens! Look at the Acropolis in the background. My home town! What a stylish place it was, and what a cool place it still is! <3

    • Oh my goodness I didn’t notice the acropolis right there! So awesome!!

  2. Susan says...

    Also, I forgot to mention: a LOT of people there would just have a glass of tonic water. I got hooked. It’s awesome!

  3. Susan says...

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE these ideas. First of all, alcohol can be a slippery slope so just having a touch is better than 2 glasses of wine! In Spain last summer, we discovered several options:
    Summer wine: 1/3 wine + 2/3 orange fanta. trust me

    or a Clara-sounds weird but is AWESOME: 3/4 tonic water 1/4(or even less) beer. it is cold refreshing and not sweet.

    They also have teensy tiny glasses of beer to accompany lunch-think 4oz pilsner.

    Cheers everyone!!

    • Keely says...

      Lol! Love tinto de verano – cheap, quick sangria!

  4. I call it “day punch”. I usually mix cava or another sparkling wine with frozen fruit (raspberries, strawberries and peaches work well) and a mixer like orange juice, pineapple juice, ginger ale, etc. and then top with a little soda water and mint.

  5. Danielle says...

    I have been making white wine spritzers for myself and guests for daytime parties the past two summers and everyone is always in awe of how great they are without making you feel like a lush. My go to recipe is Sauvignon Blanc, Sprite {or 7up}, and a splash of… Capri Sun {yes, the juice pack}. Perfection.

  6. Drop some raspberries or sliced strawberries into that St.-Germaine cocktail and you’re extra golden … Delicious!

  7. kelly says...

    we spent a few days in germany recently and while we were drinking ALL DAY LONG at these gorgeous outdoor beer gardens i never got drunk — just nicely buzzed — because i was drinking “radlers” all day. they mix beer with lemonade and it was SO REFRESHING and delicious. it’s my party plan for the summer!

  8. Lisa says...

    Never heard of the term session drinks either, but this is pretty damn common in my world. Especially for summer, when you want something refreshing without getting hammered in the sun. Fanta/Rosé, White wine/soda, or a not so strong Sangria would be the most usual ones. My tip is to skip the hard liquor and just go for something like a schnapps/liqueuer, some lemon or lime and top with soda. Making cocktails is actually very easy if you think “Booze – Sweet – Sour”! Sometimes booze is sweet, then you top with maybe sparkling water and a fresh lime.. Sometimes you use vodka and sour fruit, then you top with something sweet like orange soda.. ENJOY!

  9. I think the author should note that Europe is pretty big and consists of some 50 countries, so to say that “we Europeans” drink lower alcohol percentage IPAs and session drinks is highly overrated. In Norway we don’t drink either. In many southern European countries where wine is made and therefore readily available, they have created different drinks that let them consume their national drink without getting tipsy, especially popular at lunch time.

    In the north, we tend to drink like fish and get terribly drunk. We have traditionally drunk domestic beer and never made a bottle of wine — we tend to not see the point in diluting alcohol. In many northern European countries, like in Scandinavian, it is frowned upon to drink during work hours. In the GB, by comparison, this used to be quite common, but is less so nowadays — let’s face it, a person is not very efficient after having consumed a couple of pints of beer.

    Of course, I’m generalising here as well, but you get my point; Europeans are not one and the same and the drinking habits vary widely across the continent.

    And now I’ll go and purchase the ingredients for a wine spritzer, as those sound just lovely! And I promise not to get drunk. ;-)

    Anett | Tall Girl’s Fashion

  10. Stacy says...

    I can vouch for the 21st Amendment IPA…so good! They also make a great seasonal wheat beer called Hell or High Watermelon that is perfect for summertime barbecues and beach days. Very refreshing!

  11. Katie says...

    I made the East River Defense last night with my boyfriend and we loved it! Perfect amount of alcohol and sweetness for the summer. Thank you for the recommendation :)

  12. Awads says...

    Funny, my husband just returned from a wedding in Utah and could not stop talking about the lower-alcohol IPAs. We both love good beer, but he is a faster drinker than I am and would benefit from the slowing effect of these “session” drinks. Me? i’m good with the high alcohol :-)

  13. CM says...

    I have been drinking that St. Germain Cocktail for several years now, just eyeballing the quantities (by the way–St. Germain is elderflower liqueur.). I also substitute Lillet white or Rose for the Champagne. Sooo tasty!

  14. Wine spritzers have always been a thing in Hungary! It’s a popular summer beverage. It’s called fröccs – pronounced frooch. Hungarians also invented soda water, so go figure. :-) Lemonades are also legendary in Budapest. Go to any beer garden. It’s a little bit different than what Americans think. More like a virgin citrus cocktail with splashes of various types of syrup – the more popular choices being elderberry, ginger, lavender. I’ve been living here for over 2 years now, and it’s something I’ll really miss when I move.

  15. yael steren says...

    I think these drinks sound great. Unfortunately at my age (36) I can’t drink and recover the same way I did back in the day, so this type of “light” alcoholic drink sounds like the perfect compromise!!! xo yael

    http://www.yaelsteren.com/blog/

  16. Lyubomira M. says...

    Great for the summer is mint liqueur 1 3/4oz or approx. 50gr. , squeeze of lemon and fill up the glass with soda or tonic water over lots of ice. I think it is very popular mainly here in Europe.

  17. Nora says...

    Last year, Hugo was all the rage in Switzerland: Prosecco, fresh mint, elderflower syrup, soda water, ice.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that sounds SO good.

  18. Marilyn V says...

    Great post! I will definitely be testing out one of these session cocktails this summer on the patio. :)

  19. Erin says...

    Many (most) regular beers are 5% or less aren’t they? (Asahi, Budweiser, Corona, Guiness, Heineken, Labatts, Pabst …) Advertising a 5% beer as low alcohol just seems like a marketing scam.

    • Helga says...

      In the craft brew world where most beers are higher in alcohol (often 12% and up to 20%) the term ‘session beer’ refers to something with a low enough ABV that you can drink a few rounds with friends.

  20. Courtney says...

    I love white wine spritzers all summer long! Less alcohol AND less sugar.

  21. I wish someone would invent a session Mohito ‘cuz they are so damn good but so intoxicating! Any ideas how to make them “light”?!!!

    (=’.’=)
    -Lauren
    adorn la femme

    • Olivia says...

      Lauren, here is my never-fail, healthified mojito recipe: start with one part rum to three parts soda over ice. Then, instead of using high calorie sugar or lime syrup, simply crush up a few cubes of watermelon with a little mint using the back of a spoon. Mix the two together (in a cocktail shaker if you’re feeling fancy) and enjoy! The watermelon gives just enough sweetness without being overpowering and the whole cocktail is so refreshing- a guaranteed summer hit!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that sounds amazing.

    • I’m sheokcd that I found this info so easily.

  22. gillian says...

    I LOVE this article and LOVE Polite Provisions.
    We live just down the street and often stop in…at least once a week!

    Thanks for sharing!

  23. Trish O says...

    BEST beach drink EVER. Totally use the big ol jug of wine. Works great. Not even kidding, you can drink these bad boys all day (well, maybe on a kid free beach vacation). With all the kids around you may FEEL like you need it all day…but I guess better not.

  24. Sarah says...

    Grand Rapids native here – love Founders! The All Day IPA is a classic.

  25. Here in the deepest north of Italy, the Hugo is all the rage:
    Prosecco, elderflower cordial, soda. Wedge of lemon and a mint or melissa leaf. Pure refreshingly awesome heaven.

  26. Shay says...

    I studied abroad in Italy and I often saw my Italian friends water down their wine if they were getting a little too tipsy or we often drank beers watered down with lemon soda or something of the sort during the day. These days I love rose with sparkling water, in a glass filled to the top with ice… all. summer. long!

  27. Sharon says...

    Sangria in my mind is the mother of all summer session cocktails. I’m pregnant but I plan on sneaking some very, very weak sangria – that way I can stretch a tablespoon of wine into an actual, delicious drink that doesn’t feel like a Shirley Temple. Don’t judge, American ladies – it’s ok!

    • jen says...

      We are drinking sangria with sliced oranges crushed in the glass and squeezed over the top, lots of ice.

  28. ashley says...

    campari and soda with an orange slice FOR THE WIN

    • Daniela says...

      BIG YES

  29. Kate says...

    Love IPAs, especially Founders! Delicious on a hot sunny beach day.

  30. Kate says...

    Love Founders beer – especially all day IPA. In fact, I think it is time to crack one right now!

  31. I had a tasty drink in Austria last month that I’ve been enjoying ever since: Pilsner beer mixed with Orangina. It sounds a little odd if you think about it too long, but it’s delicious on a hot day!

  32. Love that he has a cocktail called Lady Stoneheart! I went to Polite Provisions and they also have a Mance Rayder <— Only Game of Thrones fans will appreciate this :)

    • Woot– a North Park shout out on CoJ! Love Polite Provisions. Will have to go back and try the Mance Rayder! (and then get meatballs afterwards of course)

      Love me some spritzers too… elderly women rock, so I’m okay being associated with them ;)

  33. MFree says...

    My fav drink right now is a session drink, Aperol spritz!

  34. as a French girl, drowning wine with club soda sounds very weird BUT we do have some kind of light drinks that can drive us ’til dawn. One is just plain rosé wine with a lot of ice and the other one is called a “piscine” (swimming pool) which is drinking champagne (usually a quite cheap one) with… lots of ice. But the latest is not very popular (it is served in disco clubs where champagne is expensive).
    love your new design and your enriched team by the way !

  35. Katy says...

    I make what I call “cheater sangria” and totally qualifies as a session drink. It’s just red wine + Italian soda (lemon, lime, and grapefruit have all been good) + a couple dashes of angostura bitters (totally optional) over ice. Extra points if you think to freeze some wine in ice cubes so as not to water down the drink, but not a deal breaker. This drink is so refreshing, I keep a bottle of wine and a bottle of fruity Italian soda in the fridge all summer!

    • CM says...

      Great idea—I am going to try that this weekend!

  36. Samantha says...

    I love All Day IPA! I live in Grand Rapids and was thrilled to see you mention Founders. :)

  37. In Spain we always had tino de verano, which is “table wine” (not a great glass of wine, usually) with orange or lemon soda. This is like the grown up version of that!

  38. Emma says...

    I love a good French 75 as well as Campari and Soda.

  39. what’s the difference between sangria and spritzers, besides the soda? I had a realllllyyyy refreshing ice cold sangria with fresh blackberries, strawberries and apricot from a farm stand near by, while sitting by the pool on sunday afternoon. it was perfection. easy sipping and not super strong.

    • Katie says...

      I believe Sangria is made with vermouth, which is not usually in a spritzer.

    • Nina says...

      Sangria is, typically, deceptively strong. I’ve only made it with wine AND another alcohol usually schnapps. It is delicious. I like margaritas made with beer but doubt they’d be considered a session drink ;)

  40. My baby is due August 7th. I will be bookmarking this page for August 8th ;-)

    • mrsjpruitt says...

      My due date is July 12 and I am right there with you! I can’t wait to try these come July 13. :)

  41. Jodi says...

    Also have not heard of this term before, but am very familiar with this type of drink! Over in Austria we often have “Weisswein gespritzt” (white wine spritzer” which is essentially just white wine with mineral (soda) water. They are SO good, light, refreshing, and yes you can have quite a few and not get as tipsy as you would if it were 100% wine. Also I love a “radler” which is similar to a shandy – you mix beer with lemonade. If you don’t like IPA for a session beer, try Stiegl Radler – it’s Stiegl beer mixed with grapefruit juice. They are amazingly delicious and you can enjoy quite a few thanks to the low alcohol content! xx

  42. I really like to drink like this, just kind of coast all day without getting too tipsy. I love Pimms! My boyfriend and I served Pimm’s Cups at our last summer party. The fruit and cucumbers make them a big hit.
    I’m not into IPAs but Shandys are so refreshing during the summer! Curious Traveller is my favorite. Leinenkugel’s grapefruit shandy is great too!

    • Cindy says...

      Leinie’s grapefruit shandy is amazingly refreshing! the ginger shandy mixed with the summer shandy is also delish! I keep buying 12 packs of the shandy sampler to stock up before they are gone for the season…
      Another one I love is Leinie’s cranberry ginger shandy (it was seasonal this past winter) and still have some 12 packs in my garage for this summer!

  43. KT says...

    I’ve never heard the term “session” cocktail, but these drinks all sound like apertifs or apertivos, which is how they’re commonly listed on menus. Or is there a difference between an apertif and a session cocktail?

    • Erin Geiger Smith says...

      Hi! You’re right that there is a lot of overlap – that’s a great tip to look to that part of a drink menu. Historically, aperitifs are considered to be a drink one has before a meal, so a session drink can be an aperitif, but it doesn’t have to be. Also, I don’t *think* aperitifs necessarily have to fit in the low alcohol category. I often hear Negronis called aperitifs, and the ones I’ve had definitely aren’t low octane! -Erin

  44. S says...

    I had aperol spritz across Italy last summer, they were so delicious and refreshing! Inspired to branch out and try some of these ideas!

  45. Well, for me it’s either a properly prepared Pimm’s Cup with all the trimmings or a Campari mixed with a lemon flavored soda or freshly squeezed orange juice!

  46. I’ve never heard that term–good to know! Those cocktails sound delicious–though is the Lady Stoneheart an actual established drink or a reference to Game of Thrones? (She’s so creepy…)

  47. PIMM’s may be be considered a session drink, but it’s a dangerous beast ;). We serve it often in the summer and most people underestimate the potency…
    I second the shandy, but with good quality ginger beer!

  48. Sarah says...

    I realize most IPA’s have a higher alcohol content but does this not just put the alcohol content on par with most other beers and most IPS’s (at least in my opinion) aren’t really a refreshing daytime drink.
    The cocktail ideas sound great though!

  49. I love this idea of session cocktails! I’m definitely one who will sip at a white wine spritzer all evening, but I admit, they do make me feel like an old lady. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one pleased to see such drinks coming back in vogue. :)

  50. Joanna, have you tried a Hugo? It is sparkling white wine, sparkling water, elderflower syrup, and a few leaves of mint, maybe a squeeze of lime. Delicious!

  51. Allison says...

    I got hooked on a session called a spritz while in Italy last summer. Aperol, prosecco and seltzer mixed. So good!

  52. Meghan says...

    I’ve never seen a session beer that’s not an IPA, which I think are gross. For summer time day drinking, I love Shandys. I’ve always made them with lager or pilsner and lemonade, but recently I’ve branched out to freshly squeezed orange juice and grapefruit juice. I’ve also tried it with hefeweisen, which makes them even more refreshing!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      you’re right – i just googled a bunch of session beers to try to find one that wasn’t an IPA, but they all were. interesting. shandys sound delicious!

    • AmyB says...

      Same here! Can’t stand IPAs…I know, they’re very hip and all the cool kids love to talk hops content, but the reality is that they don’t taste good (at least to me). There are several commercial shandies available, tho, and hard cider is another great option. I’d love to find a session beer I like tho…

    • Tori says...

      Any light beer with a lower alcohol content is a session beer. The idea is that you can drink several without getting too full, or too drunk. Pilsners, Kolsch, American Pale Ales, these are generally all session beers.

      Because IPAs are very popular, but also usually have a higher ABV%, there has been a new trend in producing “Session IPAs”. They give you the bitterness and hops of an IPA without the 7% alcohol content.

      If you’re looking for a refreshing session beer, try a German Kolsch. They’re light and crisp, and generally less bitter than a Pilsner.

    • Lauren E. says...

      My friends and I love shandys! We’ll buy a giant bottle lemonade, pour half into an empty pitcher and fill both the pitcher and the lemonade bottle with beer and head off to the beach. Bonus points: you can drink it in public and no one knows it’s alcoholic.

    • Cindy says...

      Great idea, Lauren E.! I am definitely going to do that this summer for get togethers! Thanks!