by Claire Cella • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
Walking back to the production room, Chris Harrison abruptly glances at the slender silver cup he’s holding. “I just realized I’m drinking coffee out of a cocktail shaker!” he says with a slightly embarrassed laugh. The mix-up seems funny at first, but for the cofounder of craft-cocktail-syrup-producer Liber & Co., it’s actually quite apropos.
The inspiration for the syrup business was born in late 2011, the result of a “collective light bulb” of Chris and two friends, brothers Adam and Robert Higginbotham. During their years as students at the University of Texas at Austin, the three often cohosted dinners and barbecues at their home—mixing simple drinks for their friends using herbs they’d snipped from their own backyard garden. As the trio grew progressively more curious about, and interested in, making authentic cocktails, they also became frustrated by the lack of quality ingredients available in liquor stores.
After graduating, Chris and Robert pursued careers in Kansas and Washington, D.C., respectively, while Adam remained in Austin. But the three stayed in touch and continued to swap cocktail recipes. It was Chris who stumbled upon a house tonic syrup used in a local craft cocktail bar in Lawrence, Kansas. Intrigued, he researched how to make tonic syrups, found the key ingredient to be cinchona bark and promptly ordered a shipment. He shared the information with his friends, and after months of nightly phone conversations—sharing the details of each other’s successes and failures making the syrup—they decided to try to bottle and sell this passion.
In 2012, the three convened in a steamy, crowded corner of a luxury hotel kitchen in Lawrence during dinner service—stirring their first official batch of tonic syrup. Chris’ neighbor was the executive chef at the hotel and had allowed them to use the space for production. They made about 20 cases of syrup that weekend, and christened the new endeavor with the name “Liber” in honor of the Roman god of viticulture, wine, fertility and freedom, and the patron deity of Rome’s plebeians. They flew back to their respective homes with the bottles tucked in their checked luggage.
The defining moment for the trio happened when Robert took a case of the syrup into P&C Market, a gourmet grocery importer near Capitol Hill. Armed with soda water, gin and their new tonic, he mixed a drink for the owner—explaining how their tonic could enable the re-creation of quality bar drinks at home. The owner wrote a check on the spot and made it out to Liber & Co.—an entity that didn’t even have a bank account yet.
Adam says there was never a discussion of whether or not to keep things moving but how, considering they all lived in different states. For consistency and quality control, they decided to reunite in Austin (Adam with Chris in 2013, and Robert joining in 2014) and brew, bottle, label and ship from their own production space. In addition to the inaugural spiced tonic, the brothers now offer five other essential and elemental cocktail staples, including classic gum syrup, real grenadine, pineapple gum syrup, fiery ginger syrup and Texas grapefruit shrub. Their syrups are made using the highest quality ingredients available, such as cinchona bark that can only be found in Latin America, Imperial sugar from Sugar Land, Texas, pomegranate juice from a family farm in California and grapefruit from the Texas Citrus Exchange in Mission, Texas. In a fortunate turn of events, as Liber & Co. has expanded, its path has run parallel to the renaissance of the cocktail culture, which includes a democratization of access to craft products; a focus on community building and savoring experiences; and a resurgence in consumer concern for the source, creation and quality of ingredients. In the beginning, the brothers had one simple mission: to make essential cocktail syrups that would allow hosts at home to mix cocktails as good as those at exclusive bars. But since bottling the first batch, and the thousands that have followed, they’ve realized that they have the ability to empower and educate well beyond the home mixologist. Their tonics can be used in bars, as well—equipping both the small everyman bars and the high-volume bars that lack access to staff knowledge, fresh ingredients and time, with the products to compete and contribute to the cocktail revival.
Increasingly, Liber & Co. is embracing this second educational mission aimed at mentoring and motivating a generation that cares about the quality of what it consumes. Quality mixers, Adam notes, are the staple ingredients for a good cocktail, and the company’s handmade and natural syrups support the caliber of the exceptional gins and small-batch, barrel-aged bourbons already seen in the industry. “What I would love to see,” Adam adds, “is people opening up their pantry or fridge, taking stock and being able to make something that’s not only good but maybe even creative, because they see the opportunity with what they have.”