Sexy Seltzers

BY Amy Antonation


Sexy Seltzers

The menu at Breckenridge Distillery is a bit misleading. In addition to situating its buttered baguette under the heading “Vegetables,” the drink menu has a section labeled, “Billie’s Seltzers.” That’s nottechnically incorrect, but the simple description of the low-ABV drinks doesn’t hint at the sippers’ sheer gorgeousness. 

Rather than pouring a basic glass of sparkling liquid from a can (or a tap), bartenders mix every seltzer to order. In addition to Breckenridge vodka, bourbon, or gin, the concoctions include juice, whole fruit, and all-natural sweeteners. Billie Keithley, the distillery’s “liquid chef,” avoids highly refined sugar in general. The products she uses to impart sweetness—fresh fruit, honey, raw cane sugar, or monkfruit sweetener—brings spirit flavors forward in boozy beverages, and result in light, refreshing, and perfectly (not overly!) sweet low-alcohol cocktails. “I’m really choosy about sugars,” Keithley says. “I have used coconut and date sugars. Honey is a wonderful sweetener. Monkfruit sweetener tastes very sweet, but it has zero calories.” 

To Keithley, balance is crucial not only in the drink recipes she develops, but in the menu as a whole. “I want the whole menu to be in balance,” she says. “I like having the variety of low-alcohol and low-ABV drinks; classic spirit-forward cocktails; some that are sweeter. Everyone has a different palate and I want to cover all the guests that I can.”

Breckenridge’s seltzers are low in both calories and alcohol; they ring in at about 100 calories each. While Keithley demurs when asked about the average ABV, she notes there’s just one-half to three-quarters of an ounce of liquor in the drinks. Of course, guests can skip alcohol entirely by ordering them without the booze.

Keithley’s creative process is slightly different when writing recipes for stiff drinks than it is for sober ones. When creating a cocktail concept, she says, she picks the base spirit first, and captures ideas that come to her at any hour. “Like a writer or songwriter, I carry a notepad with me—a lot of bartenders do. I’ll have a thought at 3 a.m. and write it down. I’m inspired by seasonal stuff: pear, blood oranges, even pineapple right now. I love working with nuts and vinegars. I love textures: smoke, fire, bubbles, suds, different mouthfeels, different kinds of ice. I love whimsical.”

With nonalcoholic drinks, naturally, the spirit doesn’t come first. Instead, she relies on the wide variety of ingredients the distillery already uses. An n/a version of the distillery’s Genever Juice uses just mixers; mules are made by mixing ginger beer and juice; punches don’t need booze to pack one.  

“It’s just like cooking,” she says of the process. “You don’t use the same oil or vinegar all the time…and if I’m not making guests happy, I’m doing it wrong.”

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Amy Antonation