As Proof's Craig Nelson proved with his winning entry in a recent cocktail contest sponsored by Bombay Sapphire, sometimes thinking outside the box requires thinking inside the bottle.

Nelson was one of 10 local bartenders invited to participate in a qualifying round of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild's national search for the "Most Imaginative Bartender." His riff on a Tom Collins earned him a trip to Las Vegas next month to compete against the winners from 28 other cities.

According to the contest's website, drinks "will be judged (on) modern, experimental techniques, ingredients, flavors, and expressions that enhance some/all of the 10 botanicals in Bombay Sapphire Gin." Additionally, the site stipulates "the method of preparation may not involve fire or flames."

Skipping the pyrotechnics, Nelson zeroed in on the gin's distinctive flavors, aiming to "kind of mimic the botanicals already in Bombay." He concocted a Collins syrup with Angelica root, black peppercorns, dried ginger and dried lemon peel; mixed with gin, lemon juice and soda, it produces a tingly, refreshing cocktail that amplifies Bombay's distinctive spicing. The Signature Collins is garnished with a torched cinnamon stick, referencing the gin's oft-noted cinnamon character.

Because the drink plays up the bitter qualities of Angelica root, which is usually used in gin as an earthy, grounding agent, it has a distinctive snap. "It has a shorter finish than the usual Collins," Nelson points out.

It was also the simplest of the 10 cocktails entered in the Charleston competition.

Competition rules require Nelson to use tweezers for garnishing and keep his hands off the lower part of the glass when making the cocktail. Needless to say, he's looking for excuses to practice before the Sept. 7 event. To help Nelson edge closer to the GQ promo cover reserved for the contest's top winner, stop by Proof and have a drink.

Proof is located at 437 King St. It's open weekdays from 4 p.m.-2 a.m., and on Saturdays from 6 p.m.-2 a.m. For more information, call 793-1422.