How Low Can You Go?

Finding cocktails with fewer calories is an obtainable goal

A beer gut is a beer gut—not a whiskey gut or a vodka gut—regardless of what tasty beverage helped cause it. Whether the association is deserved or not is beside the point: Beer has become synonymous with weight gain while liquor has, for the most part, avoided similar connotations.

Yet considering a margarita can pack 600 calories, perhaps it is time to develop a name for the doughy mass that can grow where your abs used to be. Maybe we should start referring to that lost battle of the bulge as “margarita muffin top.”

Tropicana beverage director Todd Kunesh began a quest for a “cool pool drink” two years ago, and the path led him to the Skinny Beach. The seven-ounce, 100-calorie concoction is widely credited as being the first low-cal cocktail in Las Vegas.

“We started talking about what was going to work was something that wasn’t going to make everybody bloat up,” Kunesh says.

Comprised of TY KU liqueur, key lime, fresh-squeezed lime juice and a splash of club soda, the Skinny Beach appeals to those who want to watch their weight but not give up drinking altogether.

Initially, Kunesh didn’t know if his customers would embrace the cocktail or stick to more familiar (and high-calorie) drinks on the menu, but he says the drink was an instant hit.

“When I put it on the [drink] list, I was kind of [scratching] my head, going, ‘Ah, is this going to work?’ But it ended up being the No. 2-selling drink of [Mandalay Bay’s] whole pool season,” he says. (Prior to joining the Tropicana, Kunesh worked across the street as food and beverage director.)

Between 22 and 26 percent of adult Nevadans are obese, according to a July 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control report. While it is relatively easy to identify caloric missteps at mealtime, the same cannot be said about beverage choices.

The average 80-proof distilled spirit (vodka, rum, whiskey) has about 100 calories per ounce-and-a-half pour, but when you start adding flavor syrups, mixers and soda, many frosty beverages quickly approach Big Mac territory. Perennial pool favorites such as the mojito and piña colada are bona fide calorie bombs, with about 250 and 650 calories per six-ounce glass, respectively. Even the seemingly innocuous gin and tonic can pack 200 calories per seven-ounce glass, thanks to the surprising amount of sugar in the tonic water.

Calorie counts

(one ounce)

  • Grey Goose vodka, 69
  • Captain Morgan spiced rum, 57
  • Patrón, 69
  • Jägermeister, 103

(eight-ounce glass)

  • Mojito, 196
  • Lime margarita on the rocks, 280
  • Strawberry daiquiri, 120
  • Long Island iced tea, 467
  • Piña colada, 616


“Everybody wants more natural; everybody is becoming more health conscious,” Luxor beverage manager Nick Kabetso says. When he created a low-cal cocktail program for several of the casino’s lounges, including Liquidity and Aurora, it was less about being bikini-ready and more about being in line with the organic food movement.

His drink menu also makes good use of TY KU, and he substitutes soda water for tonic water and a squeeze of fresh fruit juice instead of sugary syrups to keep many of the drinks less than 100 calories.

Like his contemporary at the Tropicana, Kabetso thinks many patrons don’t realize how many calories they’re drinking. “I think [people] know they’re not the healthiest thing for them, as far as calorie count, but people don’t really look into them,” he says.

For resort bartender Darby Kelly, that haze is oftentimes a fog that obfuscates both sides of the bar. “I don’t see any bartenders who actually know what they can do to make a low-calorie cocktail,” he says.

Kelly recommends making simple syrup out of Splenda instead of sugar to cut calories, but he doesn’t think there is a demand for diet options such as that, or that low-calorie cocktails have much staying power in Las Vegas.

“I agree that people need to be paying attention to the calories they’re putting into their body, and I can understand when people want a cocktail that’s low-calorie,” he says. “But for us, we need to show them what that actually is.”

The proof, it turns out, is actually in the proof: Calorie count increases as the percentage of alcohol goes up. Ethanol (beverage alcohol) is metabolized as calories, so the higher the proof, the higher the calorie count.

You only need to go so far as the beer fridge to see the difference: A bottle of Amstel Lager has 132 calories and Amstel Light has 95 calories, and Miller Genuine Draft has 143 calories compared with MGD 64, which, of course, has 64.

While it’s generally true that darker beer has more calories than lighter beer, the color of a spirit generally has no correlation with its calorie count: Absolut Kurant has 69 calories, while bourbon has 65 calories.

A lot of people mistakenly think so-called “neutral spirits” such as vodka contain little to no calories, says Christine Bergman, associate dean and professor of the food and beverage management department at UNLV. “I don’t know where people get this stuff from,” she says. “It makes me laugh.”

The solution? She suggests avoiding pre-made mixers and instead using diet sodas, sparkling water or asking for spirits on the rocks.

Of course you can cut back and simply not drink as much, but let’s face it: The chances of that are about as likely as … well, you tell me!

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