Long before Shannon Healy opened his own cocktail lounge and restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, he concocted a tonic formula that would one day spur a new business. Alley Twenty Six, which was a James Beard finalist for Outstanding Bar Program this year, has packaged its line of tonics and syrups, and although retailers, such as wine shops, are its primary target for B2B sales, restaurants are also buying up the mixers.
“We sell a lot more cocktails, so when we put something on the menu, all of the modifiers have to be made in bulk,” Healy says. “Restaurants may not need as much; they still want to do something cool, but they don’t have the wherewithal.”
Healy, an award-winning bartender and restaurateur, first created his tonic recipe when he was behind the bar (and later the general manager) of Crook’s Corner in nearby Chapel Hill. The tonic’s popularity only grew when he struck out on his own.
“When I first opened the bar, I had tonic syrup and people asked me all the time … ‘Can you sell me this?’ And I said, no, which is this terrible answer when you’re selling things for a living,” Healy says. “I can make something here and sell it to you as a dine-in, but if I want to put it in a package, it’s a different ballgame.”
So in 2012, Alley Twenty Six began bottling its tonic, and three years after that, it began selling to restaurants and retailers. It proved a mutually beneficial arrangement; operators could elevate their beverages with minimal labor, and Alley Twenty Six could expand its brand presence thanks to menu shoutouts.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that Healy and his team had time to expand the bottled options beyond tonic. Now the line includes core syrups, like raspberry, strawberry, blood orange, pomegranate, and passionfruit. (Multiple flavors have taken home top honors at the N.C. Specialty Food Association’s annual contest).
Healy continues to experiment with new mixers, whether they’re seasonal varieties sold only on-site (like pineapple demerara and summer tonic), or permanent additions primed for mass production, such as ginger, which he’s currently perfecting.
“I want the viscosity to be the same, the vibrancy of flavor to be the same. I want all these things to be the same or better,” he says. “I’m always willing to improve, but I’m not going to sacrifice something for scale.”