Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Alcohol goes on a health kick

Drinks are suddenly brimming with antioxidants, garden-fresh vegetables and organic spirits, catering to well-heeled tipplers with a taste for indulgence and, perhaps, hypocrisy

By Alex Williams  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Samba Juice, a healthy drink at Sushi Samba in New York. Samba Juice is made from acai juice, passion fruit, guava juice, banana liqueur and rum.
WARNING: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

On Monday around 9pm, three young Brooklynites stopped into Counter, a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. Laughing and chatting, they sampled organic raspberries, poached pears, fresh pineapple and strawberries.

That this bounty was found not tableside but at the bar, where the restaurant's menu of organic cocktails has been steadily expanding, only heightened the appeal.

"It's the same thing as top-shelf liquor," said Nick Guffey, 28, a massage therapist with an ink-black shag haircut, referring to drinks like his red-wine-and-poached-pear organic cocktail. "You can drink a tonne and not wake up with a hangover."

Ellen Pugliese, 24, a publicist friend next to him, agreed. "It's better than drinking soda or something with syrup," she said.

Ayn Teigman, 24, a legal assistant, went further. "I drank my dinner a couple of times. I'm kind of proud of that," she said, rattling off a few of the fresh ingredients she has used, like pomegranate and strawberries. "And muddled cucumber," she added. "That's a vegetable, right?"

In an era of "natural" cigarettes, trans-fat-free chips and low-carb beer, it is probably no surprise that that last guilty pleasure, the cocktail, is trying to atone for its sins. And it isn't just vegan restaurants serving more vitamin-rich vodka mixes and slinging vegetable gardens in a glass.

Whether absurd or merely inevitable, the idea of healthier tippling has started to catch on among those who have embraced things like organic food and low-sugar diets. Always ready to pounce on a fad, mixologists at trendy bars, restaurants and clubs in New York and Los Angeles have begun creating concoctions from organic fruit and vegetable purees and vitamin-filled sports drinks instead of gooey syrups.

At the same time, a new generation of liquor brands built around herbal extracts and antioxidant-rich ingredients like green tea, pomegranate and the Brazilian acai berry (the current "it" fruit) have hit the market. Sugary cosmopolitans, apple martinis and mojitos have started to look as dated as Sex and the City reruns. A more contemporary alternative would be a drink like Vitamin Dj, mixed from freshly juiced organic carrots, Granny Smith apple juice, elderflower liqueur and vodka, which was introduced a few weeks ago at the Midtown restaurant Django.

Going green

"Everybody seems to be getting healthy," said Mark Murphy, the executive chef at Ditch Plains, a surfer-inspired restaurant in the West Village. Or at least healthier. Murphy recently created a line of cocktails mixing vodka with low-calorie, sugar- and aspartame-free airforce Nutrisoda-brand sodas - each containing a day's dose of vitamins C, E, B6, and B12 - as a more health-conscious variation on the Red Bull and vodka.

The idea that even alcohol could be more beneficent represents a collision of broader trends, said Frank Coleman, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council. As people have become more health literate and corn-syrup-phobic, labels like green and organic have become faddish, and the culinary shift toward farm-fresh, locally grown ingredients has crossed over from kitchen to bar. "All of these epicurean issues are coming together in a martini glass, as it were," Coleman said.

The healthful-cocktail concept received an imprint of credibility in April, when researchers at the US Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with Thai colleagues, reported that adding alcohol to strawberries and blackberries increased their antioxidant capacity (although alcohol still causes some cell damage, some scientists cautioned).

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