With the American cocktail craze continuing to push its way into the home market, and a great number of consumers interested in making bar-worthy cocktails at home, the alcohol industry has increasingly diversified in terms of cocktail paraphernalia and ingredients. Just a decade or so since the time when you’d be lucky to find any bitters in a typical package store other than Angostura, those same stores now have shelves lined with celery bitters, mole bitters and more. We’ve seen products designed to service each level of customer participation—from ready-to-go, bottled old fashioneds and manhattans to a new wave of customizable simple syrups and mixers. Unsurprisingly, this emerging field is highly variable, in terms of quality.
As such, I was both curious and a little bit apprehensive when I first saw a bottle of Proof Old Fashioned Cocktail Syrup at a local package store in Atlanta. Sold in three different flavors (“Traditional,” Pecan and Maple Bacon), it promises to more or less simplify home old-fashioned making in particular—just use your favorite rye or bourbon (preferably high-rye) and 20% Proof syrup, and you’ve got yourself a complete drink. It couldn’t be any simpler; the question is whether the product can hold up in the taste department compared to making an old-fashioned the more traditional way, with sugar, bitters and possibly fruit.
The funny thing is, if I had known at the time that the product was originally created by local Decatur, GA cocktail bar The Pinewood, I would have immediately felt more confident. The Pinewood is an ATL-area cocktail hub that, although successful, is still very underrated as a cocktail destination. It may very well be my favorite place to get a cocktail in the city where I’ve now lived for two years, and I have high expectations for anything they’d put their name on.
With that in mind, I set out to taste and review each Proof syrup. I first tasted each of them individually in an old fashioned. Then, on a different date, I mixed three miniature old fashioneds with each syrup to taste them side by side. Let’s get to it!
Note: In each case, I used the same basic whiskey (Evan Williams B.I.B. 100 proof) and the same ratio/amount of bitters. I used no ice or dilution, wanting to taste their profiles as clearly as possible.
As the name would no doubt imply, Proof Traditional is meant to yield a fairly traditional old fashioned, with influences of citrus and bitters. That it does, although the balance might not be entirely ideal. On the palate, you get definite lemon and brown sugar sweetness, and then tons of Angostura-like aromatic bitters character. It’s a big hit of spice and almost winey red fruitiness that comes through very strongly, and some might perhaps say too strongly. Of the three miniature old fashioneds I made with Proof syrups, this was demonstrably the sweetest on the palate, but also the brightest and the most “lively,” if that can be quantified. It’s all about big, bold flavors, but at the same time is probably the least complex of the three.
This syrup creates a cocktail that is certainly not lacking in character, but it’s both sweeter and more overtaken by the flavors (but not the bitterness) of the aromatic bitters than I’d likely want in an old fashioned, most of the time. I expect that the next time I use this one, I’ll cut down on the ratio slightly in seeking the most harmonious balance between whiskey and bitters. That, or I’ll simply use ice in its construction.
Wow. This syrup isn’t just a slightly altered version of the Traditional, but rather a completely different product with completely different intentions. That should be obvious while simply pouring it out—rather than the bright red Traditional (because of the bitters, presumably), the Proof Pecan pours a much lighter gold. On the nose, it’s quite a lot different—you don’t get the prominent note of bitters, and instead get much more character from the base spirit, i.e. the whiskey that you used, with a bit of spicy complexity.
On the palate is where this syrup really shines. One immediately notes that it’s significantly drier than the Traditional, although there is a touch of more mellow sweetness—almost marshmallow-like, very soft and velvety. The nuttiness is likewise subtle—you probably wouldn’t taste something like this blind and identify that it had been made with roasted pecans. That isn’t to say this is a bad thing; rather, a drying nuttiness and toasted impression begins to build slowly and pleasantly at the end of each sip. The aromatic bitters are dialed back significantly here as well. The resulting old fashioned is drier, more balanced and nicely subtle. Next time I use this particular syrup I may actually use slightly more of it, as an inverse of the Traditional. But regardless, I think this is the best of all three syrups, although it demands a little bit of discernment. But it definitely makes the most subtle and complex drink.
I must be honest: I fully expected this to be the worst of the syrups. Like any sane individual, I love bacon, but I’ve always found bacon-based gimmickry in the food world incredibly annoying. No, I don’t need bacon ice cream, any more than I need bacon breath mints. Contrary to internet meme culture, bacon doesn’t automatically improve everything. Often, it’s the contrary.
And indeed, the first time I tasted this syrup in an old fashioned, I thought it was not bad, but a bit much. The smoke in particular was slightly overpowering, and I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy the miniature old fashioned I later tasted in comparison to the other two syrups. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
I suspect that the ratio of whiskey to syrup was slightly higher in that miniature old fashioned, and it made quite a lot of difference. Here on the nose, you get definite smoke, but it’s nowhere close to over the top. On the palate, this old fashioned has become richer, smoky, a bit saltier and yes, even a little “meaty,” while still being less purely sweet than the Traditional. However, it’s significantly closer to the Traditional in execution than the Pecan, with the aromatic bitters influence returning, but they’re actually tempered somewhat by the bacon. I think the key to this syrup, even moreso than the other two, is that the ratio has to be dialed in just right, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. In trying it multiple times, I eventually came around on the concept—this actually makes a very tasty, unique drink, when used correctly. It strikes me as something I’ll pull out during parties to have people sample the unusual old fashioned it can make.
Each of these Proof syrup bottles are 16 ounces, and retail for roughly $22. Given that they suggest making each old fashioned with 2 oz of whiskey and .5 oz of syrup, that makes for 32 drinks per bottle, or 69 cents per drink. I can imagine that some drinkers might balk at the idea of paying more than $20 on a bottle of flavored simple syrup, but on a per-drink basis it strikes me as fairly reasonable. If you’re the kind of home mixologist who enjoys batching drinks for parties, it could be an excellent way to simplify the process or incorporate some unique flavors.
Proof Old Fashioned Cocktail Syrups can be found at liquor stores around the Atlanta area, but can also be ordered online via the product’s official website.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer and whiskey guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.