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.)