The Sherry Cobbler low-alcohol cocktail from Dinah Sanders' book, The Art of the Shim.
"More drink, less drunk," is the promise of Dinah Sanders' The Art of the Shim, a book chock-full of lower alcohol drinks that don't sacrifice cocktail complexity for the sake of lower-proof libations.
So, what's a shim? Why are they lower in alcohol, and, most importantly, do they really go with breakfast? I talked to Dinah this week to get the inside scoop on this intriguing style of cocktail.
But first, a couple of notes on the book itself. Sanders begins by explaining why she became interested in what she now calls a shim. Cocktails are a fabulous point of social connection; sipping a good drink slowly at a bar with a friend is a lovely way to catch up and to savor the taste of something good. As Sanders says:
We drink to connect. The connection made is not only with our fellows— be they on our side of the bar or serving us across it— but with our senses and our sense of self.
But unless you have a truly hard head, or are willing to brave a hangover, there is a tight limit to how long an evening at the cocktail lounge can last before you switch to soda water or something less interesting. Sanders wrote this book to explore a middle way — cocktails that have all the complexity and history of the classics but that won't make you, as she says, "stupid, sad, or sick."
She ties the art of the shim into hospitality, too, saying:
A good host— whether at home or in a professional setting— should be able to provide the same pleasant experience of the perfect beverage for a guest anywhere along the spectrum from ‘straight, no chaser’ to teetotaler. As bartender Kitty Gallisá of Nopa said, “It’s always good to know where guests are in their evening. Is it a first cocktail? First of many or just one? Maybe you’ve been drinking for awhile and need a little break but not necessarily have to sip on water. Low-alcohol cocktails are an excellent way to excite your taste buds, be social, and explore the plethora of mixing ingredients available.”
I love that. And I can certainly relate to wanting to try just one more drink, out of curiosity and for pleasure, but not to get drunk. So far I'm so enjoying this book, which offers over 50 cocktails and a rich selection of quotes and advice from professional bartenders. The photos deserve a special mention, too; they're gorgeous, with a depth and clarity that shows off the drinks beautifully.
Talking Shims with Dinah Sanders
Q: So, what’s a shim?
A: Shims are low-alcohol cocktails with no more than half an ounce of strong spirits—and by strong spirits I mean anything 40% alcohol by volume or above, so things like gin, whiskey, rum, stronger liqueurs. Other than that alcohol-content distinction, shims range just as widely in style and flavor: bitter to sweet, dressy to casual.
Q: You came up with the word “shim” for these low-alcohol drinks, right? Why this word?
A: Yes. I love cocktails, but they're hard on the body, so about ten years ago I began collecting recipes for less hard-hitting drinks which would allow me to extend my evenings out. What surprised me was that though these drinks are hugely significant in the history of cocktails and represented in pretty much every style of drink, there was no existing term which was anything other than a long definition based on what they aren't ('lower-proof cocktails') or else merely represented a subcategory ('wine-based drinks').
My mother did a lot of carpentry as I was growing up so I was familiar with the term 'shim' for the small bits of wood used to keep everything level (as when framing a door or window). Even more delightfully, the same word is applied to the little wedges restaurants use to keep tables from being wobbly. Perfect for the kind of drink that helps keep you level!
Q: Are there certain shims you think would be particularly well-suited to breakfast? A weekend omelet, for instance?
A: Well, first we have to acknowledge the two strong camps in the realm of brunch drinks: the Mimosa and the Bloody Mary. The Mimosa is already a shim. There are several ways to go for a shim in the style of a Bloody Mary, but I like the Michelada best. It's got the spiciness you want plus the savory bubbles of beer—and if tomatoes aren't your thing, they're completely optional.
Outside of those two big favorites, though, is a world of wonderful options. I'm especially partial to Shaher Misif's Epiphany with its bright cucumber and grapefruit flavors. Picking up a traditional morning ingredient like grapefruit or berries is a wonderful way to find compatibility. A Champagne Julep, for example, could be a great fit.
Q: When stocking the home bar for shims, are there three or four bottles that are especially important?
A: I'm a big advocate for building your home bar drink by drink: find a starting point—something you've had in a bar, a lower-proof relative of a strong cocktail you like, a recipe that sounds like your kind of drink—get the ingredients for that and learn to make it. Then see what else you can make with those ingredients, building out bottle by bottle into new territory, but always based on having immediate, tasty options for home hosting. The book has both a section on setting up your home bar and on angles for explorations—by mood, by kind, by ingredients, and by era.
An example might be a Manhattan fan who decides to try the Cherry Mixture Cocktail and buys Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, aromatic bitters, and real Maraschino cherries. From there they might explore another spicy and stimulating drink like my Fire-Breathing Devil (which also uses Carpano Antica), or another spirituous sweetened cocktail like the Chrysanthemum (which also uses dry vermouth), or something also from the Prohibition era like the Diplomat (which has maraschino liqueur and further explores vermouth).
That said, once you've found some favorites, you're very likely to find that you'll always have at least one bottle of vermouth, sherry, and amaro on hand at all times.
Thanks so much, Dinah!
(Image credits: Kelly Puleio)