In the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel is a little place called Proof & Provision. Its barkeep is one Nate Shuman, a veteran of the Atlanta cocktail scene who's been around long enough to have opinions— good ones— on everything. Read on to find out what how he pairs drinks with dinner, why he makes his own ice cubes, and what he thinks about pumpkin-flavored cocktails and the term "mixologist."
Tell me about Proof & Provision.
I love it here. I've been working at the Georgian Terrace Hotel for just a little over a year now. They hired me upstairs at the Livingston to up their cocktail game a little bit. There were mentionings of a project they were working on down here, and as things started to get more defined, they started asking me about ideas and seeing if I would be willing to come down here and design the program. I love it. It's the first time someone has ever been like, "Here you go. Go crazy— go all the way crazy." I get to pick all these really crazy, fun different spirits that most people don't get to touch or play with all the time. They really welcome creativity; if I come up with some new ideas, I have many, many chefs to bounce them off of and get real knowledge and real feedback.
How's the scene changed?
It's like night and day. When I first started working in Atlanta, people wanted whiskey sours, they wanted cranberry and vodka. The beer thing was kind of going on, so people were into boutique, esoteric beers, but the variety of spirits that were available back then was nothing compared to now. The quality we get in Atlanta is infinitely better, there are so many more options. Eight years ago, if you'd ask someone if they wanted bourbon or rye, they'd have no idea what you were talking about, but now they know and they have a preference. You get a few people who come in and you ask them if they want bourbon and they say, "No, I just want whiskey," and you're like, "Okay, here we go."
But I try not to be egotistical about it. I take a lot of pride in my work, but I'm also more than fully aware that it's not rocket surgery. I'm putting things together, I'm dealing with flavors that pretty much everyone is aware of— strong, sweet, bitter— but I enjoy learning to balance them in an interesting way.
In the past two years, it's really snowballed big time with the opening of places like Victory Sandwich Bar in Inman Park, Joystick Gamebar, Miller Union, 4th & Swift, Holeman & Finch has been doing it forever, Muss & Turner's in Smyrna has been doing it for a while. There's even Seed now— you can even get craft cocktails out in Cobb County.
The cocktail program here is so focused on housemade everything. Why is that important?
For me, I know what's going in— absolutely— into a drink. I'm not making things with artificial flavors or unnatural, bizarre oddities. I don't carry weird stuff like Fruit Loop-flavored vodka or Absolut Whipped Potato whatever. That doesn't equate for me. I think as Atlanta continues to push more toward more advance tastes, I try to encourage people to change the way they're drinking from the way they were drinking in college. You don't need sour mix and insane shots with offensive names. I have a rule that we don't do bombs down here. I don't even have shot glasses— we do shots, and I'll mix things together for a tasty, wonderful shooter, but I don't like fake. I'm not into it.
What about ice cubes?
The Firm Handshake has an ice cube made from lapsang souchon tea. It's a smoked Chinese black tea that my friend Heather Hawkins turned me on to. You freeze it up and you have a smoky ice cube. I do lemon-infused ice cubes too— it's just a way for me to make the drink change over time. You get this lemony-citrus on the nose, you get all the botanical, sweet, liquor flavors on the mouth, and as you hang out with the drink, it slowly changes. It's also a point of discussion.
The size and shape of the cube actually came through necessity. The silicone ice molds I'd ordered hadn't arrived on the days before we were opening, and I had to get the ice program going. I saw these little plastic soufflé cups, and I was like, "Oh, shit, that's brilliant." Filled them up, froze them up, and then we had our opening party and everyone said they loved them, so they stayed. Besides the cube, it's all about surface area, contact with the drink. It keeps the drink cold without diluting it so much. I figured if it's going to dilute a little, I might as well put some flavor into it.
Was making things in house something you experimented with once you came here or had you always embodied that philosophy?
Actually Paul Calvert was really one of the first guys to really show me the way. I was playing around with handmade syrups and very basic things when I was at 4th & Swift, but once I went over to Sound Table, it was like cocktail boot camp under that guy. He's brilliant— I'd easily say he's one of the best bartenders if not the best bartender in Atlanta.
What will you make for someone who doesn't know much about cocktails?
It just depends on what they like. If someone orders, for example, a Red-Headed Slut, I'll say, "Okay, it sounds like you want something herbaceous and fun, why don't you try one of my cocktails." Like, almost every time someone asks for a Lemon Drop, I make them an Aviation. And 99% of the time it works. I want to be accommodating, you know, I want to give people what they want. At a point, they have no idea what they want. Sometimes I'll pick something extremely strange, and they'll say, "Oh, wow, I've never had anything that tastes remotely like this." There you go!
Are you a bartender or a mixologist?
I'm a bartender. I know the term [mixologist] has been around for a long, long time— people think it's a contemporary thing, but it's not, it's old school— but for me, it implies this kind of ego, a goggles and a lab coat kind of thing, and I'm not that. I spent many years swinging ones and twos, Jack and cokes, pouring beers, hanging out in lowbrow bars, and I love that. I love American drinking culture, I love being a welcoming bartender that knows what's up. I see you walking down the street, I know that you're coming in, I know what you want. I care about my regulars.
You're not a scientist.
I'm not a scientist! It is kind of a science, though. As I get deeper into things, and as I try different experiments with flavor profiles, and even more than that— there are some aspects of chemistry that I wish I'd pay more attention to that I could utilize. We tinker around with some minor flavor extractions with a chemistry set that we might or might not have on property? In those regards, there's some science and some canoodling going on, but I just don't like the term. It smacks of an ego that I don't carry.
What are the worst cocktail trends right now?
Whipped cream vodka. It's probably for personal reasons, but I hate pumpkin-flavored anything. I think people drink too much Red Bull everywhere. The taste of it so thoroughly off-putting, and I just don't understand it.
What's your favorite drink on the menu?
My favourite drink on the menu? Either the Professor's Speculation or the Firm Handshake. I really dig the Swedish punch. I could drink it alone.
How do you pair cocktails with the dinner menu?
That's one of the aspects that they approached me for. They wanted the food and the cocktails to work really well together. You do it just as you would with wine or beer, you know, you taste the food and you think about what you want to highlight in the dish. How can I boost this flavor or completely contrast it— it depends on what you want to do. With heavier dishes, you want something botanical and light, something to clean your palate. I also like to do it on a personal basis based on what I know people like. Once I've made a couple drinks for someone, they don't need to look at a menu anymore. I try to really focus on people's faces and getting to know what they like. People can really enjoy themselves and I can have fun doing what I do for them.
Do you kick people out often?
I've only had to bounce four people since I've worked here. For the most part, they were too drunk, and there was one person who got into a little scuffle upstairs. I was working upstairs one time and these two ladies— they were older ladies— were sitting there drinking for a while, and then one started talking some crazy shit about one of the other bartenders and me. We were like, look, ladies, you're just drunk. You can finish your drinks, but you might want to start thinking about moving on. Then she flips on the other bartender and we were like, okay now we're kicking you out. You can't finish your drinks, and security is going to come and cart you out. I felt so bad, because this was like someone's grandmother. Grandma should know better.