Seriously. Do low-cal cocktails taste any good?

on 04/04/11 at 5:58 pm

Spirits

Want skinny? Drink water

For years, dieters have had to swear off minty mojitos and tequila-kissed margaritas. Sure, they could swill light beers or mix their rum and cokes with diet colas, but the holy grail of cocktails — fabulous mixed drinks with little umbrellas — were taboo.

That’s changing. Pre-mixed “skinny” cocktails are popping up on store shelves, thanks in part to reality television star Bethenny Frankel’s line of Skinnygirl spirits. Now major restaurant chains including Applebee’s, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s and Cheesecake Factory have begun offering reduced-calorie cocktails for those who like a drink or two but don’t want to pour 250 or more calories down their gullets at once.

With the U.S. diet industry topping $68 billion in 2010, it’s a smart marketing move. But the real question is, how do these cocktails compare to the real thing?

The first major restaurant chain to offer low-calorie cocktails was Applebee’s, which offers a 90-calorie mojito, a 100-calorie margarita and a 110-calorie Long Island iced tea. Applebee’s spokeswoman Stacy Griffis says the SkinnyBee drinks were introduced in January 2010, along with a series of entrees that were 550 calories or less.

Earlier this month, the Cheesecake Factory began offering its own lower-calorie Skinny-Style drinks and cocktails, including margaritas, mojitos, Long Island iced tea, cosmopolitans and red sangria. Each has 150 calories or less. The restaurant’s traditional drinks run about 300 calories.

It comes down to personal taste and, in the end, how much having a half-the-calorie cocktail matters to you when you’re out for dinner and drinks with friends.

  • Margarita: Applebee’s signature and perfectly tart Perfect Margarita (243 calories, $5.75) nips at the back of the mouth and finishes cleanly. There’s a dramatic flavor difference between the original and its SkinnyBee cousin (100 calories, $6.25). The very sweet Skinny version is missing the acidity, so it tastes more like sugar-water, and the sweetness lingers on the palate long after the last sip.
  • Long Island Iced Tea: One of the restaurant’s most popular drinks, the Top Shelf Long Island Iced Tea (171 calories, $7) is made with Tanqueray gin, Bacardi rum, Smirnoff vodka, orange liqueur, sweet and sour mix, and cola. In the SkinnyBee Long Island Iced Tea version (110 calories, $6.25), the gin is omitted, the cola is now diet, and the sweet and sour mix is a SkinnyBee version. The result is sweeter than the original, but it’s a winner in the “closest to the real thing” sweepstakes at this restaurant.
  • Mojito: Even the original Applebee’s muddled mint mojito (170 calories, $6.25) is sugary and overpoweringly sweet. The SkinnyBee Mojito (90 calories, $6.25) is almost undrinkably so, with a sugary flavor that lingers, like the rest of the low-calorie cocktails.
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