Craft cocktails are certainly not new. But in the Corridor, they’re making a comeback.
“Bars went kind of gimmicky for a while,” said Pig & Porter co-owner Will Monk, noting the flavored vodkas, energy drink cocktails and myriad martinis that were popular for years.
“Ten years ago, you’d try and sell an old fashioned or a Manhattan and people would look at you funny,” said Ryan Manka, bar manager at Black Sheep Social Club.
Manka tried to introduce craft cocktails at Jiamen — an Asian fusion restaurant that opened in 2009 and is now closed — but said the “area wasn’t ready.”
It wasn’t until he helped develop the bar at Cobble Hill with owners Carrie and Andy Schumacher and fellow bartender Josh O’Connel in 2013 that the movement really began to take off, he said.
Now, customers not only know what an old fashioned is, they’re saying, they’ve had it and want to try something new, he said.
“The general consensus is to move away from gimmicky cocktails and go back to the actual craft of making a cocktail,” Monk said.
“People want something different, but comfortable,” Manka said. “They want some of the flavors they know but also want to step outside the box — but not too far. So we take something they’re comfortable with and put a twist on it.”
In Iowa City, Clinton Street Social Club was one of the first to embrace the craft cocktail movement, owner Brian Vogel said.
Vogel, a Tipton native, lived in Los Angeles for 11 years and witnessed the movement gaining strength on the coast. When he moved back to Iowa in 2011, he decided to bring the “big city cocktail approach” with him, since Iowa is “generally three to four years behind big cities when it comes to trends,” he said.
Vogel opened the Social Club in 2012, not trying to “reinvent the wheel,” but focusing on old classics that had “died off,” he said. He wanted to “bring them back properly.”
“We’re constantly doing our homework, reading up on the history of spirits, referencing pre-prohibition bartending books and doing a lot of experimenting,” said the Social Club’s general manager, Tim Skinner, who started as a bartender when Vogel opened the business.
“We’re always trying to think of something new,” he added.
“Cocktails are kind of a rabbit hole,” Manka said. “You can study just whiskeys for multiple years and still not know everything there is to know about whiskey. And to say they’re all the same is like saying every peanut butter and jelly is the same.”
When creating cocktails, most mixologists agree the key is to balance the drink’s texture, alcohol volume, sweetness, bitterness and even savory components. Quality ingredients are important, too.
“Consumers are looking for less artificial, more natural ingredients that taste and feel better,” said Jenni Cannella, bar manager at Trumpet Blossom Cafe, a vegan restaurant in Iowa City.
Many cocktail bars in the Corridor are using fresh, local, in-season ingredients, house-made mixes and fresh-squeezed juice — approaching the bar just like their kitchens.
“Some people don’t realize it’s just like food prep — we’re prepping behind the bar days ahead to make the highest quality cocktails,” Manka said.
“We make everything in house,” Monk agreed. “Nothing’s coming out of a can.”
“We put a lot of care into creating cocktails,” Cannella said, describing her mixologist style as trying to find the balance between “approachability and interest” — taking familiar flavors and “taking them up a notch,” she said.
And creating cocktails is not always quick and easy. It may be a matter of days, weeks or even years to get a cocktail just right, Manka said.
One of his favorites — and a fan favorite at Black Sheep — is the “Praline Old Fashioned” that took him two years to complete, he said.
The process typically involves many taste tests from multiple bartenders to make sure “personal bias doesn’t get in the way,” Cannella said.
“You could nail a drink on the first try,” Skinner said. “But sometimes in order to make a good cocktail you have to make a bunch of bad ones first.”
Ultimately, the key to a good cocktail is to not take it too seriously, Manka said.
“We want people to experience all the flavors of their drink, but it doesn’t have to be complicated to be a great cocktail,” he said.
Trumpet Blossom’s Bitter Cherry Old Fashioned
2 ounces Cedar Ridge Bourbon
1/4 ounce simple syrup
A couple dashes of Angostura bitters
A dash of absinthe
Stir ingredients with ice and strain over one large ice cube. Garnish with orange wheel and brandied cherry.
Black Sheep Social Club’s Cucumelon Cooler
1.5 ounces Prairie cucumber vodka
0.5 ounce Hendricks gin
0.5 ounce fresh lime juice
0.5 ounce simple syrup
1 dash (6 drops) saline solution
2 watermelon ice cubes
Make watermelon ice cubes by blending watermelon (best if seedless) into a puree. Strain puree through fine mesh strainer and freeze juice in ice cube tray. Make saline solution by combining one cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a pot, boil with lid on for 15 minutes. Set aside until cooled to room temperature, then transfer solution into a glass jar or bottle. Combine all ingredients — except for watermelon cubes — into a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 25 to 30 seconds. Strain over watermelon cubes.
The Pig & Porter’s Pineapple Puaa
2 ounces Appleton’s estate rum
1 ounce pineapple shrub
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce grenadine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake, then dump in tiki glass. Garnish with mint, orange slice and tiki umbrella.
Clinton Street Social Club’s USS Iowa
Smith & Cross Navy Strength rum
Creme de cassis
Clinton Street Social Club declined to offer exact measurements and directions. Experiment away!