They might sound eerily hush hush, but Suppressor cocktails are actually liquid harbingers of the revival (or -vival, really) of Atlanta’s craft cocktail scene. “Six years ago, there really was no craft cocktail movement in Atlanta,” says No. 246 Mixologist Lara Creasy. Now not only is there a movement, there’s a coordinated movement, a cocktail cabal quietly advancing the local scene, creating new cocktail types along the way.
Creasy is among the small roster of Atlanta bartenders currently stirring up Suppressors, a term—and category—coined by Holeman & Finch mixologist Greg Best. Unlike Revivers, their nominal opposites, Suppressor cocktails are restrictively low-proof, intended to supply a niche market with a craft drink that’s easier on the liver, and the driver’s license. If one of the worst things about Atlanta is its public transportation system (and subsequent driving imperative), “one of the best things is the culture is very cooperative,” says Pura Vida Mixologist Paul Calvert, a newbie Suppressor-maker (Suppressor-er?). “It’s really non-competitive,” which is why Creasy, Calvert, et alia can daydream, improvise, and even launch a new cocktail type in late-night, post-shift utopian creative tandem.
Whence the “Suppressor”? It all began with a late-night conversation between Best and fellow mixologist Miles Macquarrie at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Georgia. “We were talking about how amazing it would be to come up with low-octane cocktails, so people still get a great complex drink, but aren’t getting knocked out of their seats,” Best explains. “A regular at both of our bars over heard us talking and said, ‘It almost sounds like you’re suppressing the alcohol,’ and it hit. ‘Let’s do a family of drinks called the Suppressor!’”
The name works in part because it’s descriptive—we should say accurately descriptive—in a way many cocktail types aren’t (Cobblers, Flips, Slings, etc.), and also because it posits itself as the “antithesis of the Reviver family” (though not quite the antithesis: if the Reviver is the epilogue to your epic Night Out, the Suppressor is the denouement). Then, of course, you have the utter chutzpah of launching a new cocktail category in a profession built on de facto historic adulation. “This is the first time in god knows how many decades that anyone’s rolled out a new family of drinks,” says Best, making Atlanta the little cocktail market that could.
Part of why it works is the city’s relative inexperience, coupled with close ties. “If Greg or Paul ask me to participate in something, I rarely say no,” says Creasy, whose Winter Suppressor No. 246 is like a cocktail gateway drug for wine drinkers, marrying a 12.5 percent (ABV) Montepulciano with a roughly 15 to 18 percent chai-infused vermouth, orange juice, honey, and aromatic bitters. In fact, many of the (admittedly few) Suppressors we’ve seen draw on the wine/vermouth/amaro categories, because that’s where proofs stay nice and low. At Pura Vida, Calvert serves a Suppressor No. 21 (named for March 21, his bosses’ wedding anniversary) that combines equal parts amontillado Sherry, Cynar, and Cocchi Barolo Chinato, a Nebbiolo-based aged spiced wine and Old Country digestif. “I designed mine to be an after-dinner drink,” says Calvert, “something people can enjoy while they’re still talking, laughing, having fun with their friends” (i.e., before the weeping and accusations begin).
Indeed, if the Reviver is an old school high-proofer meant to ease you into the blur of the morning after, the Suppressor is its mild-mannered cocktail step-brother, chivalrously escorting you into the remainder of the civilized night before. But Suppressor-makers are quick to note that going lower on alcohol doesn’t mean going lower on flavor, or fun. “Herbs and botanicals and bitterness!” says Creasy (with Wizard of Oz giddiness) of the low-proof options at her fingertips. If anything, the low-proof restriction seems to breed some tasty invention. At Holeman & Finch, Andy Minchow served us his Suppressor No. 7 (naturally, Best gets No. 1), mixing Cynar, Brut Champagne, and Pommeau de Normandie, a 17 percent blend of apple must and 1-year-old Calvados. The result was like buoyant maturity in a coupe glass—straw, sparkle, and soft, flush apple flavors, anchored by the sinewy depth of Cynar. Nothin’ suppressed there.
Bartenders aren’t the only ones exploring. Best is already seeing proof of “an unexpected benefit” of the Suppressor style. “It’s really been opening people up to education on fortified wines” and their ilk, he says. “People are no longer relegating things like vermouth to the back of their liquor cabinets. They’re using them in cuisine and cocktails.” And with H & F Bottle Shop, Best is actually watching as the sales go up. “The sale of vermouth and fortified wines is really growing,” he reports, bartender’s glee entirely unchecked. And sales figures aren’t even the end of it. “What it’s ultimately gonna do is get the people that are producing fortified wines to take it very, very seriously, because they’re gonna see market growth.” Score one, bartenders.
Score one, customers, too. Since bartenders aren’t mixing quantities of single-barrel, small batch, or otherwise artisan spirits into their drinks, they’re able to keep costs down—useful considering the alcoholic-bang-for-your-buck mentality of cocktail commerce. So even if drinkers lose out on a healthy percentage of delicious alcohol (let’s plan a rain check in the tub later), they’re getting a creative low-cost option in return. “I base my price on the ingredients, then I roll it down a $1 or $1.70,” says Calvert. In the comparatively affordable cocktail terrain of Atlanta, that roll-down is significant. Creasy’s Winter Suppressor rings in at $8, while Minchow’s No. 7 tops the list at a meager ten spot. Part of this reflects the lower cost of many Suppressor-appropriate ingredients, but it’s also a marketing tactic—part of Atlanta’s push to get the Suppressor going. “I want people to buy it,” Calvert says. “They see an $8 cocktail on the menu and they’re like ‘That’s great. That’s affordable.’”
Low proof. Low cost. Low blood alcohol level. Nothing like going against the grain to get noticed. “The trend right now in cities with craft cocktail movements is stirred and boozy,” says Best, referring to mixologically mature cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where bartenders regularly wade into the deep-end of the spirits pool. But Atlanta is a malleable young market, ready to define itself as creatively—and cohesively—as possible. “Our goal is to come up with a basic package, a comprehensive spectrum of cocktails that we can turn loose on everyone,” says Best (we've got our glasses ready for the deluge). Or, as Calvert puts it, “we have an opportunity to create a Southern cocktail culture.” And the Suppressor is just one extension of that effort. “We wanted to create a new type of cocktail that would be synonymous with Atlanta, share that with each other, and, eventually, share it with the rest of the weirdos in the world.” We’ll drink to that, ATL. And then we’ll probably drive home.