Corey Drake believes you can travel without ever packing a suitcase. A really good cocktail, he said, has the ability to take you away.
This is Drake’s model for Cerulean’s cocktail menu: drinks with flavors from around the world that will transport customers in their barstools.
As the Winona Lake restaurant’s primary cocktail creator, certified sommelier and one of three bartenders, Drake has had a passion for drink even before starting at Cerulean, 1101 E. Canal St., in 2011. Wine is his first love, Drake said, but he “inherited the bar” after former barman Jason Bodley (now of Oak & Alley) left Cerulean.
Though the restaurant had been open since 2006, Drake started when the bar did.
“Before we started the bar three years ago, it was illegal in Winona Lake to serve spirits,” said owner Caleb France. “You could only serve beer and wine, so we had to get ordinance to change the law.”
France made a commitment, he said, to only carry spirits the staff would feel comfortable drinking, stocking both the indoor and outdoor bars with imports and bottles from microbreweries and small distilleries, such as Journeyman Distillery in Michigan.
“If we can educate the customer to something better, they will try it and say, ‘What have I been drinking for the past 30 years?’” France said.
The restaurant now serves a rotating cocktail menu, with 10 original drinks from $8 to $12. When Bodley and Drake worked together, the two used to wipe the menu clean after a year and start all over again. Now Drake makes small changes with two or three new cocktails every few months.
“Wine still informs a lot of my cocktails,” Drake said. “But I started to learn about spirits. I have a passion for beverage in general and the best part is when drink has the ability to transport you.”
Featured summer cocktail:
Sangria Rosado Punch
- Spanish rose sparkling wine
- Fresh honeydew, juiced
- Strawberry simple syrup
- Jalapeño simple syrup (first roasted, with seeds removed)
- Macerated strawberries, blueberries, jalapeños
“The sangria was new for summer in May,” Drake said. “Lots of people in Spanish add Tabasco to their cocktails, so I wanted to play with that. It’s fruity and spicy, refreshing with some complexity. We remove the jalapeño seeds so it doesn’t burn your mouth.”
The secret to a perfect cocktail: “In studying for my (sommelier certification) tests, I practiced a lot of blind tasting skills, which transfer to drinks overall. In a restaurant, you want flavors to complement the food. There’s also a tried and true formula when studying classics; you can riff on your own, but understanding the back bar and spirits is most important. If you don’t know the spirit you want to feature in a drink, you won’t know how it will react with the modifiers and it won’t be good.”
For summer in a glass: “We added three summer drinks in May and three in July, using lots of fresh herbs and seasonal fruit. Our gage punch has black plum, made with a plum drinking vinegar that has a bright flavor. Another drink called the Buddhist Monk is made with Thai basil from our garden out front — little things like that. We try to highlight the seasons because the palette changes.”
What’s in a name: “I usually play into the elements for drink names. The Buddhist Monk cocktail uses chartreuse, which is made by monks. The recipe has been around since 1605, and it’s one that only monks know. The Gwyneth Paltrow has black pepper for her character Pepper Potts (in “Iron Man”). It’s a little sweet and spicy.”
Best perk of being a bartender: “Every drink has a sense of place, the idea that someone made this. I love to do stuff from all over the world because in a drink, you’re kind of able to travel. What makes a good drink is if it takes me away.”
What you wish you didn’t have to deal with: “The challenge is being in the Midwest and trying to push people’s comfort zones. We encourage people to try things they aren’t used to. I’m not afraid to put a new drink in front of someone. There’s a bit of a shock factor sometimes, but it helps people have an open mind.”
What most people don’t know about bartending: “Lots of people ask me, ’What do you really want to be doing?’ People imagine you make rum and Cokes, but I could talk about the history of this bottle for five minutes; it’s constant learning.
People don’t view bartending as a profession, but there’s a real community out there. When people come, they’re out to be with people they love, to commemorate a special event or just take a break after work, and I take pride in being the person who can be hospitable, take care them. That’s really valuable. When I think about the times I’m on the other side of the bar, my best memories are over a drink or a meal.”
In case you missed it: last week’s Behind the Bar featured Main St. Grille in Mishawaka.