So, What Makes a Craft Cocktail?

Thom Fountain, photos by Andrea Paulseth

A lineup of cocktails at Roble Tacos + Tequila
A lineup of cocktails at Roble Tacos + Tequila

Let’s cut to the chase here: We’re going to spend a lot of time here just talking about booze. But booze plays an important role in our culture. We gather in bars to watch sports and talk politics and go on first dates and celebrate our lives. So if we can geek out about local craft beer or geek out about local artisan honey, why can’t we geek out about booze?

Love it or hate it, it’s a trend that’s picking up steam in Eau Claire, but also around the country. With the advent of the “craft cocktail,” more and more bars are slowing down and focusing on more refined, complex-flavored drinks that go beyond (or sometimes even build on) the mixed drinks we all know.

“It’s the measurement, dilution, balance, and flavor profiles,” Jorja Vradenberg told me while sitting on the patio of The Lakely, where she leads the bar program. “It’s a cocktail made with intention.”

A lot of this growth comes from new establishments including The Lakely, the bars at The Lismore, The Local Lounge, and others, as well as distilleries like Infinity Beverages and the Chippewa River Distillery. It comes from locals stepping into new shoes, and in the case of Vradenberg, locals returning home with a breadth of experience and expertise from well respected cocktail programs across the country.

That’s not to say Eau Claire hasn’t always had great drinks and great drinkmakers, because we have. But this resurgence of classic cocktails (your Sazerac, or Negroni, or Aviation) and new creations is raising the bar of, well, bars in the community.

The biggest thing this shift does for the community at large is to bring more options to the table. It’s not about saying that you can’t enjoy your $2 G&T from your neighborhood dive – because most nights I’ll be right there next to you – but it’s giving options to expand your taste and give more opportunities to treat yourself to something you might’ve previously driven to Minneapolis for. It also helps to give Eau Claire unique advantages as more tourists from those bigger cities come and find us.

But what makes a cocktail “craft?” That’s pretty subjective. It’s the intention Vradenberg mentioned. It’s the quality of ingredients. It’s the experience of seeing it made. It’s all of these things without being gimmicky. And because of who we are, it’s all of these things without being pretentious.

So, yes, it’s booze. But it’s more than that: It’s all the things that make the Chippewa Valley great: dedication, art, and community.

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