If you sit down at Carl Busch’s bar and order a Cosmo, he’ll make one for you. But first he’ll try to talk you out of it.
It’s not that he has anything against Cosmopolitans. He’d just rather make you something original - not one of the same five or so drinks he said bar patrons order over and over again.
“My goal is to get them to try something different,” he said.
If people don’t like what he makes them, he’ll make their original drink order. But they’re probably in good hands with Busch, who won Top Mixologist at this year’s Iowa Restaurant Association
bar tending competition.
Busch, 32, tends bar at upscale Cedar Rapids steakhouse Winifred’s
, 3847 First Ave. SE.
“I’m totally elated for him,” said David Meyer, Winifred’s executive chef and general manager. “Carl’s been working hard on a lot of drinks.”
Busch took three of those drinks - all his own recipes - to compete against five other winners of regional bartending competitions around Iowa. For him, mixing a good drink takes artistry.
“You can go anywhere and have a decent drink. I want people to say, ‘I want one of your drinks,’” he said. “I’m working on the wow factor.”
To get that wow factor, he makes as much as possible from scratch. A drink is more than liquor after all, and for Busch, the whipped cream, syrups, fruits and vegetables that go into a good cocktail should never come from a can.
One of his favorite tools is the Winifred kitchen food dehydrator,which he uses for things like strawberries and jalapeńos. After drying the produce, he grinds it in a coffee grinder. Strawberries are combined with cream for his “Strawberries and Dreams” dessert drink. Jalapeńos, meanwhile, are ground and combined with salt for his “Not So Bloody-tini.”
That drink, a tomato juice-free take on a Bloody Mary, was one of the three winning drinks he created for the contest.
He crafted it after hearing again and again from people who like the taste of Bloody Marys but not the heaviness of tomato juice. To solve the problem, he infuses vodka In giant mason jars, with sliced tomatoes, jalapenos, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and other common Bloody Mary ingredients. The startlingly spicy result is strained and combined with a splash of homemade basil simple syrup in a jalapeńo salt-rimmed glass.
“If you have a good cocktail, it should be complex,” he said.”It should be a journey, like with wine, with front notes and back notes.”
If you told him 10 years ago he would one day win a crystal martini shaker trophy - now displayed proudly behind Winifred’s bar - he said he would have called you crazy.
The Muscatine native started working for Winifred’s Catering and at sister establishment The Flamingo three years ago, occasionally helping out behind Winifred’s bar. The more bar tending he did, the more interested in it he became.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to drinking than this,’” he said.
He started watching other bartenders on YouTube, especially mixologists from Europe or from cities like New York. He researched different liquors and the things they combined well with. He experimented, testing different combinations and trying to make old drinks in new ways.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“Just like Thomas Edison found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb before he was successful, that’s how I was with drinks,” he said. “It would take me three or four weeks before I got a drink just right.”
Last year, he also entered the mixology competition, but didn’t grab the title. This year he went in feeling more confident and ready to have fun.
The mixologists were judged on both their drinks and their ability to entertain and interact with patrons. That banter is part of what Busch said he loves about his job.
“We have one of the coolest jobs ever. We make drinks, get people hammered and talk to them,” he said. “As long as you don’t talk about politics or religion, it’s awesome.”
So after you’re named state champion, what’s next? Busch said his goal is to open his own cocktail lounge-style bar in Cedar Rapids, with all custom-created drinks on the menu.
A shorter-term goal is creating a cocktail to pair with every item on Winifred’s menu.
“People pair wines and beers with food,” he said. “Why not cocktails?”