Pa. consumers developing taste for low-calorie alcohols

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A wave of low-calorie, low-alcohol wines and spirits — with names like Ohh La La and Be. Flirty — are elbowing their way onto shelves at state liquor stores, mostly fed by consumers' thirst for healthier drinks.

Throughout the world, drinkers are shifting to lower-alcohol wines, according to a 2013 study by Wine Intelligence, a wine marketing and consulting firm.

In the United Kingdom, the government is promoting low-alcohol beverages with tax breaks on products that have 5.5 percent alcohol or less.

But in the United States, experts say it's all about healthier living and staying sharp when you need to remain in control.

“There is certainly a growing interest (in these products), and the issue has been to be able to create the kind of wine that really still tastes like wine when it's low in alcohol,” said Jon Fredrikson, owner of Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates, a wine industry consulting firm.

The lighter wines are selling in Pennsylvania, but not at the level of full-alcohol wines, said Jim Short, former marketing director for the state Liquor Control Board.

A look at the Skinnygirl line of low-calorie wines, a brand developed by reality television star Bethenny Frankel, shows the company's white blended wine sold about 40 percent of what the LCB's top-selling, full-alcohol white blend sold in a 12-month period.

Skinnygirl white wine (alcohol content about 12 percent and about 100 calories per 5-ounce serving) sold 2,300 cases, compared with Menage a Trois White's (13.5 percent alcohol and 120 calories per 4-ounce serving) 5,900 cases, according to LCB records.

The Wine Intelligence study found that 38 percent of wine drinkers — about 80 million — in eight countries consider themselves low-alcohol buyers, seeking wines that have 10.5 percent alcohol or less. American and German drinkers topped the list.

In the past two decades, wine alcohol content has crept up to as much as 17 percent, propelled by drinkers' preference for bigger fruit flavors. White wines tend to average 10 percent to 12 percent alcohol by volume while reds average 13 percent to 15 percent.

Give and take

Flavor is what critics believe is lost with low-alcohol products.

“It just so happens that how you make alcohol light in calories is to strip the alcohol out,” Short said. “I think when you got into the core wine and spirit products, consumers aren't ready to sacrifice flavor (or) certain characteristics of wine.”

Alcohol is extracted from wine by complex mechanical methods or by harvesting grapes earlier when they contain less sugar that can ferment into alcohol. With light spirits, it's a matter of diluting them with water or flavorings.

The issue of taste is front and center as the industry throws big bucks at developing methods of lowering calories and alcohol while retaining a rich flavor.

New Zealand, a top wine exporter, has started a $13.8 million research initiative to find ways to achieve lower alcohol levels naturally.

Browsing the aisles of the wine and spirits store near Westmoreland Mall, Joanne Caffrey, 61, of South Greensburg said she's never tried light wines, but she decided to try three for a card game night with friends.

Typically, she said, “If I'm looking to trim down, I'm trying to avoid alcohol all together.”

But she said she'd serve Skinnygirl California White alongside a full-alcohol Fat Cat pinot grigio to see which her friends like best.

Hit and miss

Some winemaking giants have moved into the light wine business.

E. & J. Gallo, one of the world's largest wine producers, jumped into the market in May, developing a drink for those who want something lighter in style and lower in alcohol than traditional wine, said Tim Cannon, marketing director for company's Barefoot Wine and Bubbly lines.

Gallo began offering Barefoot Refresh, a “slightly spritzed” wine with about 9 percent alcohol-by-volume that has proven especially popular with millenials, or those born after 1980, Cannon said. Typical Barefoot wines range from 11 percent to 14 percent alcohol, he said.

Pennsylvania state stores carry three varieties of Barefoot Refresh, and the LCB voted to add a fourth, Crisp White, during its most recent meeting.

But the low-cal, low-alcohol craze isn't limited to wine.

Frankel's line of Skinnygirl pre-mixed cocktails realized enormous popularity a few years ago. Forbes estimated Frankel received $60 million to $100 million when she sold the product line to Beam Inc.

Skinnygirl mixed drinks were a “huge success” in state stores, but the company's light vodkas and wines didn't fare as well, mostly because of the “thinner taste,” Short said.

Unity resident Nan Brady said she tried Skinnygirl's plain vodka because of the word “skinny,” but it was no match for her favorite, Absolut Vodka.

“I absolutely hated (Skinnygirl),” Brady said. “It has no taste to it at all.”

But some lower-alcohol spirits have proven very popular, including flavored vodkas and Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored whiskey.

While regular 80-proof vodka has a bite and burn, the flavored varieties, usually 60 or 70 proof, offer “flavors that are a lot richer, more pronounced” without the burn, Short said.

Fireball, at 66 proof, is “sweet, flavorful, and, because the alcohol level is a bit lower, that flavor is really pronounced,” Short said. The LCB sold about 55,000 cases of Fireball in a 12-month period.

“That is just setting the world on fire everywhere,” he said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or

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