Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Lighter, Cheaper Drinks

Sweet readers, this originally appeared in July 2008, but I waned to re-post for St. Patrick's Day. There'll be a new one up later today. And also! A special note to Weight Watchers: A 12-ounce bottle of Guinness (not a can) is only two points! Drink up.

Top o’ the mornin’ to ye, my fellow Irish, part-Irish, and Irish-on-March-17th-only. I raise a pint of Guinness to you, since today, of all days, today calls for a drink.

Alas, alcohol is expensive, and certain beverages come with calorie counts you’d expect only from a Double Whopper. So, how can one quaff without ending up as nutritionally and financially bankrupt as 70s-era Meat Loaf? Read on…


For starters, to chop your caloric intake, avoid these 13 drinks:
(Note: all serving sizes standard)

Regular Beer (140–180 calories)
Malt beverages (Mike’s Hard, Bacardi, etc.) (190-240 calories)
Melon Ball (~300 calories)
Sex on the Beach (~300 calories)
Mai Tai (~350 calories)
Rum and regular Coke (~350 calories)
Mudslide (~ 400 calories)
White Russian (~400 calories)
Chocolate Martini (~450 calories)
Hurricane (~600 calories)
Pina Colada (~600 calories)
Frozen Margarita (~700 calories)
Long Island Iced Tea (~750 calories)

And drink these 13 instead:

Bellini (~65 calories)
Mimosa (~80 calories)
Light Beer (95-110 calories)
Scotch, vodka, gin, or bourbon (~100 calories)
Red, white, or sparkling white wine (100-120 calories)
Bloody Mary (~110 calories)
Rum and Diet Coke (~115 calories)
Tom Collins (~120 calories)
Sloe Gin Fizz (~120 calories)
Vodka Martini (~125 calories)
Guinness (12 oz = 125 calories)
Mojito (~160 calories)
Cosmopolitan (~160 calories)

Once you’ve got that memorized, try these tips, some of which (nursing, drinking water) coincide nicely with the whole “save money” thing:

Plan ahead. Before going out, spend some time researching the nutritional aspects of certain beverages (and yes, the term “nutritional” is being used loosely here). Dottie’s Weight Loss Zone and Recipe Circus both have comprehensive calorie-per-serving listings that'll give you a good idea of what you’re guzzling. For even more information, check the source listing at the bottom of this article.

Know your ingredients. If you don’t have time set aside to research (and really … I understand), keep these in mind:
  • To better your chances of scoring a low-calorie mixed drink, watch out for milk, coconut milk, heavy cream, Red Bull, Crème de anything, premade mixes, regular soda, lemonade, sugar, and full-sugar fruit juice.
  • Instead, look for diet sodas, diet mixes, club soda/seltzer, ice, tomato juice, champagne, prosecco, cava, and fruit purees.
Establish boundaries. Give yourself a pre-set limit and stick to it. No more than two beers at a picnic, three glasses of wine at a wedding, etc. To make this strategy doubly effective, enlist a partner and help each other keep track.

Order a bigger drink. I don’t know about y’all, but I can knock off a standard-sized Cosmo during a commercial break. If that’s your situation as well, it might help to choose a larger, lighter beverage with less alcohol content. A 12-oz Beck’s Premier Light (only 64 calories) can take a full hour to imbibe, which contrasts nicely to those three-minute martinis. Speaking of…

Learn to nurse. Note: A beer, not a baby.

Hit the web. If you’re preparing drinks at home, look for websites that specifically cater to light beverage seekers. Hungry Girl is good for this, as are Cooking Light and the Weight Watchers boards.

Embrace agua. Sipping a glass of water between drinks will:
A) keep you hydrated,
B) keep you sober, and able to regulate your cash flow better,
C) chop your caloric intake in half, and
D) chop your spent dollars in half.

Flip a brain switch. Try to think of liquor as a treat (like ice cream or bacon) rather than an everymeal event (like water or vegetables). With practice, the distinction could become a habit, saving oodles of calories (and cash) in the long run.

Ignore peer pressure. Dude. Drinking is not a requirement for social events. If you like soda better, that’s completely fine. Get down with your teetotaling self.


Of course, price is another matter entirely. Unless you’re drinking it out of a king-size plastic flagon (Which … no judgment. Been there.) hooch costs add up quickly – especially if you’re sating a party. These tips should help to slash some costs.

Go bargain hunting. Look for happy hours, drink specials, and brunch menus with drinks included. Sites like Unthirsty and Happy-Hour are great resources, and folks in metro areas can Google some pretty decent city guides, as well. Always remember, though: if you can’t afford to tip the bartender/waitress, you can’t afford to go out.

Keep it simple. Mixed drinks are sometimes priced by their degree of prep difficulty and/or the amount of alcohol contained within. Fortunately, lots of lighter drinks are fairly unfussy that way. So, next time you’re deciding between a made-from-scratch Frozen Strawberry Daquiri and vodka with club soda, go with the latter.

Mix intelligently. Don’t use or ask for high-quality alcohol in mixed drinks. Stuff like Macallan is meant to be savored on its own or with very little enhancement. Combining it with lesser liquor misses the point.

Purchase wine wisely. According to studies, the vast majority of vino chuggers can’t tell the difference between a $6 bottle of Trader Joe’s Cabernet and a $50 jug of the upscale stuff. Ask the clerk for his/her best lower-range suggestions, and when in doubt, go for the less-expensive (but not bottom-of-the-barrel) brand. I find that Cavit, Fetzer, Indaba, Ravenswood, Yellow Tail, Veramonte, and Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) are all pretty reliable, fairly economic labels.

Abandon your brand loyalty. Dropping your allegiance to certain labels opens up a whole new world of bargains and flavors. Why? Well, oftentimes, the stuff you like won’t be on sale, but a similar-tasting item will be. Give it a shot, and you might be pleasantly surprised. (Note: This doesn’t mean you have to forgo Smithwicks for Schlitz. It means that if there are two six-packs of similar Hefeweizens, and A’s on sale for $2 less than B, choose A.)

Buy in bulk. Almost without fail, alcohol is cheaper in bigger packages – beer especially. What’s more, certain wine and liquor stores give 10% case discounts, so don’t forget to ask the cashier. (Of course, some may argue that having so much booze lying around might tempt you to drink more often. If that’s the case, please only buy in bulk for gathering-type situations.)

Order online. Sites like and My Wines Direct offer a wide selection of highly-rated, deeply discounted wines that can be shipped anywhere. Look for Clearance or Under $20 sections, and be sure to check RetailMeNot for bargain codes before purchasing.

Go beyond the norm. Beer barns, airports, Trader Joe’s, breweries, and wineries are just a sampling of the locales where intoxicants can be purchased at a less-than-soul-crushing price. Next time you pass one, step inside and consider.

Stay at home. If you’re really looking to get your drink on, consider inviting a few friends over instead of going out. Bars and restaurants make mad cash on alcohol, and tippling at either can cost you 500% more than if you set up shop in your own kitchen. If you do head out to an eatery, consider one with a BYO policy.

And that’s it. Readers, do you have any suggestions on either the health or cash front? What are your favorite low-cal drinks? How do you save a bundle when buying liquor? Bring it!

Sources for calorie information:
Calorie King
Divine Caroline
Dottie's Weight Loss ZoneFitSugar
Men's Health
Recipe Circus
Washington Post

(Photos courtesy of Guinness, Stuff Educated Latinos Like, and Wine and Words.)

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