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Behind the Bar: A Thai Swizzle with Corndance Tavern

Leave it to Corndance Tavern to make the latest trend in Michiana drink culture even better.

When bartender Katie Oleson-Shackelford first created the restaurant’s bottled take on craft cocktails this summer, the process began with leftover lemongrass vodka from Corndance’s sister restaurant Evil Czech Brewery, aged for three months in a Journeyman Distillery barrel.

The aged vodka is mixed with a puree made from pear, bitter melon, fresh ginger and brandy. Add ginger and elderflower liqueurs and orange flower water, then bottle and cap.

When a server brings the cocktail bottle to the table, in the same way you’d serve a cold beer, the difference is in the elegance of presentation: a glass garnished with pears drenched in Unity Gardens honey, a splash of soda and round ice cubes frozen with edible orchids.

“Bottled cocktails are a trend we found on the west coat,” Oleson-Shackelford said. “It’s going to catch on quickly, but as far as I know, we’re the only restaurant that does them in the area.”

Corndance Tavern, 4725 Grape Road in Mishawaka, is always finding ways to stand out, and not only in the cocktail realm.

The restaurant has a location in Culver, a partnership with Journeyman Distillery in Michigan and collaborations with several local farms.

Owners George and Tammy Pesek also raise bison on Rooster Hill Farm in Culver and incorporate the meat into the tavern’s gourmet dishes.The couple started Evil Czech Brewery in Mishawaka this spring, and each of the ventures works alongside the other.

Spent grain from Evil Czech feeds the bison. Evil Czech provides Corndance Tavern with four beers, among other locals taps brewed within 100 miles of the restaurant. In turn, Oleson-Shackelford and general manager Joseph Lee developed the brewery’s cocktail menu before its March opening.

These collaborative processes are all part of Corndance Tavern’s philosophy: locally-grown food creatively served with an awareness of sustainability and respect for the land.

Oleson-Shackelford is the primary drink creator for the restaurant’s 20 standard cocktails ($8 to $9 a glass) and has been working behind the bar since the restaurant opened four years ago. But her love of cocktail creation runs a decade long – a practice that comes in handy for Corndance.

She arrives before opening each day to experiment for the “Sip of the Night,” a daily cocktail which allows her to play around and create a unique drink for the night.

“It was just something I stumbled upon,” Oleson-Shackelford said. “Now I get to be creative every single day.”

Featured summer cocktail:

Thai Swizzle

  • lemongrass vodka
  • pear, bitter melon, brandy and ginger puree
  • orange flower water
  • ginger liqueur
  • St-Germaine elderflower liqueur
  • splash of soda

Garnish with honey-drenched pears and frozen edible orchids. “The honey adds a sweetness,” Oleson-Shackelford said.

The secret to a perfect cocktail: Balance is most important. A lot of people over-sweeten their cocktails, but I can pull any whiskey from the back bar and balance with heat from the alcohol, acidity from juices and a bit of sugar, and you don’t have to even be a whiskey fan — you’ll like it. It’s a process of layering. We taste every drink before it goes out with a little Dixie straw, so we know it’s something we’re proud to stand by and serve our customers.

For summer in a glass: I love using elderflower, cucumber vodka, ginger syrup or summer sangria with rose, brandy and Journeyman whiskey. We get produce from Wakarusa Farmers Market once a week and I research what gets brought back to me to see what will go best in drinks.

Best perk of being a bartender: I wake up every single day ecstatic to come to work; it was the best decision I ever made. It was falling in love with the customers that kept me bartending. I love learning from them. I learned from old cranky men how to make Manhattans, what they like. Customers are almost like family.

The worst drink you’ve ever made: I first made a Manhattan with cherry juice at my old job because an 80-year-old taught me he liked it that way, so I thought that’s how everyone made them. When I got [to Corndance], Joe schooled me on the right way. I never stop learning.

Overheard at cocktail hour: We had a couple that had met at the restaurant and came here on all their dates. When they got married, this was their first stop after the wedding. We made specialized cocktails for them and the bridal party, with raspberry and citron, house-made sour, and cranberry juice. They were tickled. 

What most people don’t know about bartending: This is my career and I never take anything for granted. I never thought I would be where I am today, managing a successful bar like this. I thought I would just be slinging beers and popping bottles, but it’s not about getting people wasted – it’s like an art.

Corndance Tavern is located at 4725 Grape Road in Mishawaka. Hours are Monday through Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 4 to 10 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

In case you missed it: last time on Behind the Bar, we visited The Exchange Whiskey Bar in South Bend.

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