As people begin to get into the holiday spirit, they may be looking for holiday spirits; after all, eat, drink and be merry is the unofficial motto of this time of year. And in Atlanta, Black drink makers are helping to fill cups this season.
In the United States, alcohol is a $197 billion industry, according to Statista. But a very small share of that goes to Black Americans. According to Pronghorn, an Alpharetta-based, Black-led firm that aims to increase representation in the spirits industry, Black Americans represent 12% of alcohol consumers, but just 2% of industry executives.
Dia Simms is the co-founder of Pronghorn and a veteran of the spirits industry who helped develop the Cîroc vodka brand. She said she understands just how challenging of an industry it is to break into.
“It’s not an industry where you can kind of just be talented enough to be great,” Simms said. “You can have the most incredible gin you make in your garage, but if you don’t understand the regulatory whiplash … it can be quite challenging.”
So, Simms and her two co-founders launched Pronghorn in 2021 to help Black founders and alcohol enthusiasts navigate the tricky spirits market. Ultimately, they hope to create a template for how to diversify any industry.
“If we can be effective in this wildly nuanced and specific industry, then it’ll be easy to pull and place for other industries,” Simms said.
Pronghorn is backed by industry giant Diageo, the parent company of brands like Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray, Guinness and Smirnoff. Simms did not disclose how much Diageo has invested in the business but noted that it’s a 10-year anchor investment for Pronghorn to fund Black-owned spirits brands, mentor them and help facilitate internships and jobs in the industry for Black Americans.
The company is based out of a corner office at the Avalon community in Alpharetta. Simms said she wanted the founders in her portfolio to envision their brands one day being stocked in the high-end shops and restaurants there.
Four of the 23 brands in Pronghorn’s portfolio are Georgia-based: Anteel Tequila, Greenwood Whiskey, Island Jon Vodka and Red Hazel Whiskey. They can be found in stores and some restaurants across the state.
Credit: NATRICE MILLER
Credit: NATRICE MILLER
Pronghorn has also had a partnership with The Gathering Spot (TGS), a networking hub and co-working space, for about two years and its brands are stocked at the bars of the Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles TGS locations.
“Pronghorn is doing the work to forge a path for diverse representation in the spirits industry and we’re proud to play a part in that,” Jade Carter, director of partnerships at TGS, wrote in an email.
Surveys suggest that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, people drink more — for some, twice as much as what they drink the rest of the year, according to UCLA Health.
But not everyone wants to drink alcohol during the holidays, though they still may want to enjoy a fancy beverage. A Gallup poll from August suggests that a growing number of Americans think that even moderate drinking — one or two drinks a day — is bad for your health.
While fancy, non-alcoholic drinks are popping up on more and more restaurant and bar menus, there are a few Black drink makers in Atlanta dedicated solely to non-alcoholic beverages.
Credit: Mirtha Donastorg
Credit: Mirtha Donastorg
Tucked in a converted warehouse in Castleberry Hill, the Sober Social offers people a place to drink and be merry alcohol-free. On offer are mocktails like the Socialite (hibiscus, fresh lime, agave and alternative tequila), non-alcoholic beer and wine.
Sober Social also is experimenting with canna cocktails that add a hemp-derived Delta-8 mixture to the drinks and coffee. Certain types of THC that can come from hemp exist in a legal gray area in Georgia, since state and federal laws don’t explicitly ban it, unlike the Delta-9 THC that is found in traditional marijuana.
Aja Wolfe, owner of the Sober Social, opened the bar in January this year and says people come in for a variety of reasons.
“What I hear a lot is ‘Alcohol just doesn’t do me the same. I want to be out, but I just can’t drink it’ or ‘I just don’t want it,’” she said. Her customers include men who are not drinking in solidarity with their pregnant wives, people who want to get out of the house to get work done but need their head clear or people who are sober-curious.
This holiday season, Wolfe will be selling a bourbon-inspired, non-alcoholic “oatnog” for customers to enjoy at home as well as some of her other drinks. But she expects “Dry January,” a trend where people give up drinking after holiday excess, to be very busy for her.
Luther Ocasio also creates non-alcoholic herbal and cannabis drinks in Atlanta at his botanical Altered Bar, a pop-up in the immersive design gallery the Bardo in the West End. Ocasio started the bar to help provide an alternative social experience for people.
“We only do the botanical bar, which is part of the immersive experience,” Ocasio said. “We’ll design the drinks based upon what mood we want to promote in the space for the type of event that we’re having.”
But from zero-proof to stronger fare, Black Atlantans are helping lead a new generation of drink makers.
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