We all have different ways of celebrating Valentine’s Day. Some of us will be toasting a trusted loved one over Champagne, the rest of us will be tucked away in our isolation tanks listening to whale song. But if confidence, love, or just really good medication finds you comfortably entertaining some serious Hallmark worship this weekend, you’ll likely be confronted with the obligatory red, egregiously sweet, cocktail.
Don’t do it. Buy marshmallow hearts and $6 greeting cards that play the one non-depressing Adele song (oh wait, there is none). But don’t subject you and yours to any oversyrupped, hyper-juiced, candy apple-red drink specials. Cocktails can be red, pink, even purple without having to taste like a can of Strawberry Fanta went to hell and back.
Just how do you get that lovely ruby hue that makes imbibing on a largely invented holiday seem so deliciously naughty? It’s actually pretty easy, and rarely involves too much sugar. Think fruit (strawberry, pomegranate, grapefruit, blackberry), Italian apertifs, and yes, Clamato. (Trust us.)
None of these drinks are devoid of sweetness. They’re just balanced, some closer to the savory side, some more floral or even berry-tart. Refreshing, repeatable, like a good date night or just a really awesome personal bathtub session with soft jazz.
Grenadine is a common cocktail red-i-fier. Not that the goal of grenadine (which in French means “pomegranate”) is painting your drink blush. Grenadine’s tart and sweet, used to great advantage, in moderation. “Mama” makes her own—it’s not that tough, especially since there’s pomegranate juice basically everywhere these days, and you might prefer it to the sometimes too-medicinal Rose’s Grenadine. The muddled fresh thyme and lemon juice give the ruby drink an unexpected, refreshing herbal edge.
The surefire way to get a rich red cocktail that doesn’t taste like cherry frosting: The Bloody Mary, made with ingredients (raw horseradish and Worcestershire) that seem more at home in some hulking beef sandwich. The Rum Caesar (a Canadian proxy Bloody Mary) ups the savory “suck-it-sweetness” ante with ingredients like roasted garlic, fresh basil, and even Clamato (that’s clam juice-infused tomato juice).
We’re chucking this one in on a technicality: no, the drink itself isn’t particularly reddish (the only color it really gets is from the year of age on a reposado tequila) but it is served in a hollowed out, ruby-red bell pepper. Which, we assume, you absolutely devour after finishing the drink, since it’s full of vitamins and probably soaked up some booze. As the name suggests, the drink is all about herbal and vegetable flavors: cilantro, jalapeno, cucumber, fresh, bright and hot—which, if we’re being real, might just spark up some Valentine’s Day smoochin’. Or arm wrestling, whatever.
A recipe written by a guy who wrote the book on savory cocktails (literally, it’s called Savory Cocktails), this one pits the bracingly bittersweet flavor of Aperol against the heat of joven tequila, with club soda and even a pinch of salt (which can play up the grapefruit bitters and actually create more rounded, seasoned palate).
OK, so this one looks like it’s going to explode in your mouth with the cloying fury of a wad of cotton candy, but it’s actually very moderately sweet, with nothing more than freshly pressed strawberry puree adding a pretty damn delicate hint of fructose. The only real danger of over-sugaring is the sparkling wine you choose. Avoid something sweet and you’ll get all the flavors of ripe red strawberries brightened by fresh lime juice and, yes, lovingly poked through with delightful alcoholic bubbles.
Dammit, this one does have a bit of sugar in it, but only as part of a tart rhubarb simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar to water). And even then it’s tempered by a potent Margarita backbone (tequila, Cointreau, lime juice) and and jacked up with yet more jalapeno—a solid foil for sweet, bit of salt or heat. Sparkling water stretches the drink, and any lingering sweetness, out, so you’re left with something bubbly, tart, mildly sweet and spicy—just like you.
You can’t do Valentine’s Day anymore hard core than this. Don’t let the ruddy hue fool you: this is an unapologetically potent variation on the Boulevardier—a classic cocktail, like a Negroni made with bourbon (or rye) instead of gin. Here, white dog, aka white (or unaged) whiskey makes for a hot, woozy backbone rounded out by sweet vermouth and currant-red Campari.
Pomegranate makes its second appearance here in the form of pomegranate molasses (which you can find at stores or DIY). But the star of the show is the mezcal. No better way to say no to a candy sweet drinking than dosing your cocktail with the char-rich peppery green smoke of mezcal. Not as intense as a salty, smoky peated Islay Scotch, but smoky and plenty nuanced, with lime juice and ginger beer keeping the sip refreshing. So you can drink more and, ideally, grow confident in your dance moves.
Another hit of fresh herbs to brighten up a potentially too-berry-sweet cocktail. Fresh blackberries may not be in season yet, but thaw some frozen, muddle away, and we think you’ll do just fine. Lemon thyme simple syrup gives the drink that garden, floral sunniness while muddled blackberries (never too sweet) will bleed a rich purple-pink into the vodka, seltzer, and lime. Easy to batch, if you’re doing a group V-Day dinner, Gallentine’s Day or Palentine’s Day. Or Kristen Schaalentine’s Day. Again, whatever. Mostly this whole holiday’s about eating breakfast chocolate, right?