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A Toast To Fresh, Festive Cocktails

I am no stranger to unnatural drinks. Pittsburgh's Panther Hollow Inn, home bar for Carnegie Mellon students, is famed for its Purple Hooter — made with vodka, citrus soda and a heavy dose of raspberry liqueur. I was famed for ordering them.

Let me get this out of the way: No cocktails are truly healthful. But there are certainly cleaner, more salubrious drinks than a pint glass of magenta slush that leaves you with a splitting headache in the morning.

If you know how many calories are in these kinds of drinks — citrus-bomb margaritas, creamy white Russians and dangerously sweet-and-sour Long Island ice teas — however, you may consider a healthier libation path in 2012.

Let me get this out of the way: No cocktails are truly healthful. But there are certainly cleaner, more salubrious drinks than a pint glass of magenta slush that leaves you with a splitting headache in the morning.

Cocktails are a simple combination of alcohol, citrus or juice and sugar. One fluid ounce of an 80-proof liquor, such as vodka, gin, whiskey or tequila, is around 65 calories. Most fresh citrus has from 10 to 15 calories per ounce. So added calories really come from the mixer sources.

As with all alcohol, the key is moderation. The good thing about the "skinny" and natural trends in mixology is that if you do indulge, you can do so with a bit less guilt. Bar tops now double as kitchens, increasingly crowded with organic produce, herbs and infusion jars loaded with fresh citrus peel, ginger and vanilla pods.

"There are lots of options for making healthier drinks," says Paul Sevigny, Florida-based beverage consultant and head bartender at the Florida Room in Miami. "Ingredients like freshly squeezed fruit juices and agave lead to better cocktails."

Citrus isn't the only star. Heartier fruits such as apples and pears are perfect choices for fresh winter cocktails that need little added sugar.

Mixologist Jason Strich lost 75 pounds by subscribing to a more natural diet, and applies the same philosophy to the seasonal cocktail list at Washington, D.C.'s Indian fusion hot spot Rasika. One cold weather favorite is his play on spiked cider: smoky mescal, a splash of citrusy ale and fresh apple cider (made from Honeycrisp apples, cinnamon, cloves and star anise).

Agave syrup is a popular natural sugar substitute, and now can be found in most grocery chains and health food stores. It is derived from the juice of the agave plant, and like maple syrup it's available in different grades. Light is best for cocktails. Agave has a low glycemic index compared with granulated sugars, and because it's about 1 1/2 times sweeter than processed sugars, you need less of it for mixing drinks.

If you want to cut sugar calories out entirely, consider the variety of no-calorie and low-calorie sweeteners such as stevia or Splenda.

At ReBar in Phoenix, bartenders have developed a menu of "naked" cocktails made with berries, citrus infusions and a dose of zero-calorie citrus soda made with artificial sweeteners.

"Anyone can order a vodka and soda," said co-owner Jackson Kelly, referring to many dieters' cocktail of choice. "You have to work to set your drinks apart. And it has to taste good."

At ReBar, that means muddling fresh fruit to extract maximum flavor. Kelly also focuses on vodka that is infused with natural flavors, versus added flavors and sugar. Instead of bottled lime juice and Triple Sec, his bartenders go through scores of fresh limes and oranges.

Global steakhouse chain Morton's last year launched a series of "spa-tinis" — drinks with fewer than 200 calories — as an experiment, but the drinks' popularity has made them a permanent fixture on menus around the world.

Morton's vice president of wine and spirits, Tylor Field, also incorporates unusual alcohol bases such as soju, a Korean spirit distilled from rice and comparable to vodka, and fruit lambics, which have higher alcohol levels than beer. Morton's mixologists also use sugar-free syrups and strive to make their lighter cocktails "beautiful," using blood oranges and serving drinks in delicate stemware with spice-dusted rims.

"You can't give someone a thimble of margarita and tell them it's a healthy choice. That's why our drinks are called 'spa,' not skinny. It's something you want to have in moderation. But you want to enjoy it," says Field.

Aromatics are key. If you don't like what you smell, it probably won't taste good to you, either.

Morton's loads up on cumin, cinnamon and freshly grated ginger for added floral elements. Sevigny tops many of his cocktails with herbs, especially basil, mint and rosemary, while also incorporating them into the liquids he's mixing.

Strich layers natural flavors for a cascading effect, such as using grapefruit and a house-made ginger-and-chili tonic in his gin and tonics. Keeping citrus presses and unusual ingredients such as whole kumquats, a Buddha's hand and fruit preserves on the bar — or in the kitchen — both encourages conversation and inspires new creations.

So when you next hit the market to pick up pears for that night's fruit crisp, buy a couple extra for your vodka martini. The olives will thank you.

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Jessica Strelitz