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Atkins in a glass
The low-carb-liquor trend takes off
By the numbers*

ē Accel (Saranac): 2.4 grams of carbs, 82 calories.

ē Aspen Edge (Coors): 2.6 grams of carbs, 94 calories.

ē DAB Low Carb (Binding Brauerei USA): 2 grams of carbs, 92 calories.

ē Michelob Ultra (Anheuser-Busch): 2.6 grams of carbs, 95 calories.

ē Rock Green Lite (Rolling Rock): 2.4 grams of carbs, 92 calories.

ē Rhinebecker Extra Low Carbohydrate (Karlsberg Brauerei): 2.5 grams of carbs and 106 calories.

* Per 12-ounce serving.

ó CD

Three months before Dr. Robert Atkins took a nasty spill outside his New York office, the silver-haired swami of slim-down appeared on Larry King Live to evangelize about the belt-tightening benefits of his high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. By now, anyone whoís ever turned on a television knows the skinny on the Atkins philosophy: carbs are evil accomplices to everything from life-threatening diabetes and doughy double chins to after-lunch mental lethargy; too much bread, pasta, and sugar are bad; meats, cheeses, and veggies are good. So when Atkins sat down with the CNN host, one of the more nagging questions people had about the low-carb lifestyle, first asked by King and then echoed by a caller, concerned Americaís favorite social lubricant: can you drink on the Atkins diet? Point being, life without baguettes and linguini is imaginable; life without booze is not.

As Atkins explained on Larry King, curtailing carbohydrate intake doesnít mean becoming a teetotaler. You can drink on the Atkins diet, as well as on the similarly low-carb South Beach diet, once you get past their initial 14-day introduction periods. If youíre really strict about following Atkins or South Beach, you should realize that booze postpones weight loss because the body burns alcohol before it burns fat. But if you donít mind putting weight loss on hold, both diets allow certain kinds of alcohol (consumed in moderation, of course): red wine, vodka, rye, Scotch, whiskey, tequila, clear rum, gin. Unsweetened booze not only doesnít have any carbs, it has no fat or cholesterol, running an average of 97 calories for one ounce of 80-proof liquor. So a vodka martini not only gets you drunk faster, but also packs only around two carbs per serving. A glass of red wine? On average, red wine has only about two carbs. Clear rum and Diet Coke? No carbs at all.

But you donít have to be an Atkins disciple or a South Beach believer to want beer without the belly. Anheuser-Busch realized this before anyone else, releasing the marketís first low-carb beer: Michelob Ultra, a thin lager with 2.6 grams of carbs and 95 calories. It was a huge success, helping to boost Anheuser-Busch to record sales in 2003. As the low-carb trend ballooned and other notoriously unhealthy indulgences began to offer low-carb products ó Entenmannís now sells Atkins-approved low-carb pastries, Hood produces low-carb chocolate milk, and even Burger King encourages customers to order the Whopper sans seeded bun to avoid unnecessary carbs ó more brewers acknowledged the market demand with their own low-carb imprints.

Of course, low-carb beers arenít meant to be taste-tested against their fuller, belly-expanding counterparts. Their selling point isnít their full-bodied flavor or their malty aroma, but the number of carbs in each bottle. And like golf scores or clothing sizes, the lower the number, the better. In March, Coors released Aspen Edge, a light golden low-carb lager thatís dry and smooth with no aftertaste. With 2.6 grams of carbs and 94 calories, itís substantially lower in carbs than Coorsís other light brands, Coors Light (5 grams; 102 calories) and Keystone Light (5.1 grams; 104 calories). Thereís also Accel, a brand-new Saranac brew, with a label suspiciously similar to Michelob Ultraís; it has only 2.4 grams of carbs and 82 calories. Even lower is Martens Low Carb Beer from Belgium, an imported Pilsner-style beer with 2.1 grams of carbs per bottle. One of the lowest-carb beers available is DAB (Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei) Low Carb, a straw-colored German import first developed for diabetics, in 1978. Overseas, itís still called DAB Diat ("diet" in English) and promoted, strangely, as "the beer of world fame." One of the more flavorful low-carb beers on the shelves is Rhinebecker Extra Low Carbohydrate Brau, another German import with malt and an edge of hops, with 2.5 grams of carbs and 106 calories.

Given that restaurants are also tailoring their menus to include low-carb offerings, breweries are anticipating that this trend will stick around longer than, say, the "ice" beer fad. So some bigger brewers arenít simply adding low-carb specialty beers to their product lines, but replacing their light beers with lower-carb versions. Rolling Rock, for example, supplanted its Rock Light with Rock Green Lite, a lager with 2.4 grams of carbs. And other companies have invariably felt the pressure to defend their light beers against the low-carb incursion. Miller Liteís advertising compares its beerís 3.2 grams of carbs to Bud Lightís 6.6 grams. And Amstel Lightís marketing campaign nearly ridicules the low-carb frenzy, by illustrating just how negligible the difference between an Amstel Light, packed with 5 grams of carbohydrates and 95 calories, and the average low-carb beer (2.6 grams) is: the same as three baked beans, or two pretzels, or one mouthful of clam chowder.

Even flavored malt beverages, typically sugary-tasting libations, are bowing to the trend. Mikeís Lemonade is planning to release a lighter version of its summery namesake, one with only 84 calories and 2 carbs. Already on the shelves is Skyy Sport, a malt-beverage collaboration between Miller Brewing Company and Skyy Spirits thatís a clear, carbonated, foaming liquid with 15 grams of carbs and 160 calories. The drink of choice for bikini-clad snowboarders and chiseled boxers, if you believe its sexy marketing campaign, Skyy Sport is a tangy, tasty citrus beverage with a hint of cranberry. Thereís also Thin Ice, a carbonated lemony drink with a single gram of carbs and 90 calories per bottle. Sweetened with Splenda, the artificial sweetener recommended by the Atkins diet, itís the lowest-carb offering on the market ó but it tastes more like Sprite or a melted sugar-free Italian ice than actual lemonade.

Some local restaurants, though, wonít defer to the low-carb craze. "Weíre not kowtowing to the trend," says Michael Ahearn, a bartender at Bomboa, a restaurant famous for its sweet mixed drinks. "Just drink vodka and seltzer ó thatís as low-carb as you can get."

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com

Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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