It’s fitting, in terms of etymology, to describe the ever-burgeoning cocktail culture as a revolution because aspects of the nation’s embrace of boozy concoctions and brown liquor have come full-circle in the span of a decade. Case in point: mixers.
Back in the early aughts, when the order of an Old Fashioned still typically met with a blank expression, most bars kept a battery of brightly colored commercial mixes in case someone asked for a whiskey sour, a daiquiri, or even a Tom Collins. Then, the mixology pendulum swung hard in the direction of freshly squeezed citrus and house-made tinctures. Recently, however, a few entrepreneurs have worked to salvage the mixer as a labor-saving device and still maintain their cocktail street cred.
The partners behind Decatur’s Pinewood Tippling Room—restaurateur Brooks Cloud, chef Mike Blydenstein and bar manager Julian Goglia‑along with bartender Kirk Gibson, began attacking this challenge last year. The result, launched this past February, is Proof, a line of bottled cocktail syrups designed for making Old Fashioneds.
“When we get home to unwind after an 8-hour shift, the last thing we want to do is mix up another cocktail,” says Gibson. “This was born out of our laziness.”
Perhaps, but, like other top metro bars, the Pinewood has become adept at producing many of its drink ingredients in-house, from offbeat bitters and ginger beer to recreating a discontinued French amaro. Bar syrups are easier to make and more versatile. So, without the benefit of market research, the Pinewood guys figured they could satisfy a public need by launching what they assumed would be a small side venture.
“More people want cocktails at home, but they don’t have the time to juice ginger, make a shrub, or age an infusion,” Gibson says.
Proof began with three syrups: a traditional Old Fashioned recipe that tastes of bitters and a hint of candied orange; a dry pecan variation; and—hipster alert!—maple bacon. Gibson, a vegetarian, explains that the last syrup is flavored, but not tainted, by pork belly.
“We made it as smoky as possible without containing any actual bacon,” he says, adding that the rendered meat was re-used in cooking, so as to produce no animal waste. Although the syrups were made with whiskey in mind, the team has produced a flyer with recipes tailored for gin and rum as well.
While the number of small-batch aromatic bitters began exploding a few years ago, the market for hand-crafted cocktail syrups remains decidedly unsaturated. The relative handful of lines that have been launched—Bittermilk from Charleston, Eli Mason out of Nashville and 18.21 Bitters, also hailing from Decatur as of last year—tend to be regional brands found mostly in boutique liquor stores.
Proof, which is cooked, bottled, and labeled during down time in the Pinewood’s kitchen, started out modestly, carried only by five local stores, including Decatur Package and H&F Bottle Shop, and at the Pinewood. But, as more vendors signed on and inventory sold out several times over, Gibson has found himself working almost exclusively on Proof while the others hold down the restaurant.
“Business has gone much better than we had ever thought,” he says.
So well, in fact, that, after just four months, the one-time side venture is poised for an exponential expansion. In June, United Distributors, a large liquor wholesaler covering Georgia and Alabama, will place Proof in more than 80 package stores, up from the 12 in which it’s now available. To meet demand, the partners have hired a couple of workers just to help make syrup, and recently bought a machine to affix the attractive labels to the 32-ounce bottles that sell for $22.
In the few hours that the Pinewood isn’t preparing for or recovering from the dinner rush, the Proofers experiment with flavors and ingredients for future syrups, but that may be awhile in the offing, says a harried Gibson.
“If I had to launch another product right now, I think I’d curl up and die,” he says.