As the “more is more” philosophy of drink-making recedes to make room on menus for lower-proof ingredients and traditional aperitivo drinks, a new breed of cocktail is starting to emerge. Enter the modern low-ABV cocktail, a category that proves that lessening a drink’s boozy impact doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing flavor or complexity.
In Atlanta, these drinks have come to be known as “Suppressors” (the term coined in 2010 as a way to refer to cocktail recipes that “suppress” booze), and one group of bartenders is making it their mission to create a canon of drinks that are meant to rock steady. Led by local legends Greg Best (formerly of Holeman & Finch) and Paul Calvert (formerly of Pura Vida and Paper Plane), the Suppressor crew’s call to arms was the ubiquity of strong and layered drinks that have a tendency to pack a “punch,” as Calvert says. “It’s a beautiful punch… but I’m kind of tired of being punched in the face.”
Suppressors, on the other hand, are by definition cocktails constructed without the use of any spirits or ingredients bottled at standard proof, except, perhaps, a few dashes of aromatic bitters here and there. “The Suppressor, to me, is something with delicacy and nuance,” Calvert says. “They kind of just coast.”
Many of these drinks are born out of a less-is-more approach to drink-making: Calvert says he draws inspiration for creating low-proof cocktails from what’s not available, rather that a standard arsenal of bottles. “It’s amazing, the inspiration that comes from limitation,” says Calvert. “Where I really find the challenge is in staying firm that the higher-proof shit really just can’t be in there… You have to think about what you can do to bring body and find it other ways.”
This kind of self-imposed minimalism has also informed Calvert and Best’s new endeavor, the forthcoming Ticonderoga Club. The bar-restaurant (opening in partnership with Regan Smith, David Bies and Bart Sasso) will feature a small, edited menu of food and drinks that Calvert hopes will become house classics—all created using the bar’s intentionally limited back bar. “We love being forced to think within the box.”
Turns out, it’s a pretty delightful box. Together Clalvert and Best have recently inaugurated The Courier, or Suppressor #1766: a fresh amalgam of Spanish red vermouth and sherry amped up by coffee liqueur and orange bitters, garnished with an aromatic cardamom leaf. It joins six of our other favorites from the Suppressor canon, like Best’s #1, an herbal, earthy low-proof riff on the julep that marries Dolin Dry, Cocchi Americano, PX sherry, lime and bitters and Calvert’s #4 (Cocchi Americano, vermouth, pineau des Charentes, port, lemon) and his deceptively simple #21 (Barolo chinato, Cynar, amontillado sherry).
In the #7, Andy Minchow of Ration and Dram embraces the purity of fewer ingredients, tossing together Pommeau de Normandie and Cynar and topping them with sparkling wine for a bitter, fall-ready aperitif.
Chris Molnar takes a similar route with his #M, which features a powerhouse duo of madeira and moscatel sherry brightened by the gentian-tinged French aperitif liqueur, Salers, and sparkling for a throwback spritz, while Lara Creasy infuses vermouth with chai and pairs it with wine, orange juice and bitters for a cold-weather riff on mulled wine in the aptly named Winter Suppressor #246.
For home bartenders inspired to get into the low-proof recipe-development game, Calvert recommends starting with a drink they already enjoy and making some replacements. The endlessly riffable Manhattan, for instance: “Ditch the whiskey,” Calvert instructs, and start playing with what’s left. Lengthen the drink with tonic or sparkling wine; add a twist; swap traditional vermouth for madeira or sherry. Riff on, and riff often. The beauty of working within the low-ABV box is being able to go the distance.