Get to Know Carl Busch an Iowa Mixologist
They say, “Find a job you love, and you won’t work a day in your life.” How long did it take you to figure out what you love to do? Have you even figured it out yet? It took me about 32 years to find a career path I enjoyed, and it took another year to realize I was good at it.
I was in my early 20s when my daughter was born. My ex and I moved to Dubuque, IA, to be closer to her family, and we worked hard to maintain our little family. My son was born 6 months later.
While we were raising our children, I was working odd, dead-end jobs to pay the bills and keep food on the table. For 7 years, I labored in retail, satellite TV installation, and a variety of other trades jobs.
During this time, my relationship with my kids’ mother crumbled. Neither of us was happy, and it wasn’t a relationship we wanted to role model for our children. After we split, I moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
mindless job choices
I continued working random jobs, never really thinking, “I can see myself doing this forever.” I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but just needed a job to pay child support and have a roof over my head.
Then, I applied for a catering job advertised on Craigslist, which required absolutely no catering experience. I did have experience in the fast-food industry and thought how different can this be? (Spoiler alert… VERY different).
starting a career you never knew
I started working for Winifred’s Catering, and within a year, I was the go-to guy for all of the catering events I worked. I coordinated with clients and made sure their service met the highest standards.
I also oversaw catering staff and helped train new employees. This work came naturally to me, and I realized it is because I love talking and getting to know people and operating in a leadership role.
This was when I started bartending. While working at the catered events, I was often needed to operate bartender. I would pour wine and mix your basic “and drinks,” like vodka tonics, Jack & Coke, and so on.
It came naturally to me, and I started to realize that I was really good at this. At making sure people were having a good time. After about 18 months of catering, the owner of Winifred’s asked if I wanted to bartend at their steak house.
So I walked into Winifred’s Restaurant, having never been to this or any restaurant like it. I never went to fancy, high-end restaurants growing up. It was and continues to be open Monday through Saturday, 4 PM to 10 PM.
The lighting in the building is low, the atmosphere is intimate, and dark woods and colors contribute to an old-timey feel. The bar area is small and tight and only seats about 16 people. About 50 guests can be seated in the dining area.
am i where i should be
Needless to say, I felt like a fish out of water on my first day. The thought of expecting to pay more than $100 for dinner for two, which is about the average on any given day, was dumbfounding. And then I found out that they offered bottles of wine that cost more than $300.
We haven’t even gotten to the liquor selection. My guess at that time was they had a collection worth more than $8,000 wholesale of single malt scotches, high-end vodkas, tequilas, and more. I was intrigued.
After a couple of months of working a few nights a week, the other bartender left to pursue her dreams. So, they asked if I would work full-time, all 6 nights. Why not? The money was good, and I didn’t have to wake up till 3 PM!
So I started bartending. I was continually making the same classic cocktails. “Give me an Old fashioned,” or a Cosmo, Dirty Martini, or something of the sort was my bread and butter.
Occasionally someone would order one of the cocktails the chef had found online to put on the menu. There was nothing wrong with these cocktails, and they were well made with the best liquors. But Winifred’s didn’t really focus on this part of the business because the restaurant did well.
They offered cocktails because it is customary and because they needed something for people that didn’t want wine or beer.
the first go at craft cocktails
Monotony set in, and I get bored with the mundane, so I asked the chef if I could try to experiment with the cocktail list. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I had watched a couple of YouTube videos about drinks at restaurants in different cities.
So, being the cocky and creative person I am, I thought, “This can’t be that hard. Why can’t our cocktails match the high level of food and service we are already providing?”
After 6 months, I had created my first full craft cocktail list. I even designed the menu. It took some persuasion to get people to try something new, but after a short time, the unique cocktails were a hit with our regulars and people coming into town on business.
They were allured by the craft cocktails. In 2011, when I started, craft cocktails in Cedar Rapids didn’t really exist, and a mixologist boom was just beginning to take root.
I entered Iowa’s Best Mixology contest sponsored by the Iowa Resturant Association for the first time in 2012. I learned a lot the first year, and took second place in the regionals and went to the finals in Des Moines, Iowa.
I didn’t place, but I did build connections, made friends, and learned a lot from other bartenders competing. I caught the bug, and I knew I was going to enter again.
In my second year, I placed first in the regionals, again securing my spot in the finals. Yes, I know it was only regionals, but it felt great. Honestly, who doesn’t like being validated by leaders and peers in your industry? It was also humbling because I knew everyone else was working hard to hone their skills and create their cocktails.
In line with standard practice, I took the same three drinks from the regionals to the finals. The finals were only four weeks after regionals, and I still felt like I was underprepared.
the perfect three cocktails
This year, we were assigned three different liquors to create three various cocktails. These liquors were Jim Beam Honey, Pearl vodka in any flavor, and a tequila brand that never really took off here in Iowa, and I honestly can’t remember.
I didn’t want to just create 3 quality drinks. I wanted to create a concept in which all 3 cocktails tied together and took you on a journey. Working at Winifred’s inspired me to make that journey a 3-course meal: appetizer, main course, and dessert.
My appetizer was a fresh pineapple puree with muddled jalapenos, tequila, fresh lemon juice, and simple syrup. This drink was my way of introducing an explosive flavor profile that left you wanting more. Unfortunately, I have no idea what I called it, but I think it was called “Spice of Heaven.”
The main course took me almost 6 months to perfect. This recipe and still is one of my favorite cocktails. The “Not So Bloody-tini” is a 22 ingredient infused Pearl vodka martini. It is a 4-ounce vodka martini that tastes like a bloody mary without the tomato juice and is garnished with a jalapeno salt rim. I cannot even tell you how many people who abhor Bloody Marys have loved this cocktail.
My dessert feature is an oxymoron. It was one of the simplest to but make but has the most complex flavor profile of any of the cocktails I have made. The Bazinga is equal parts St. Germain and Jim Beam Honey with an orange peel twist. That’s it. This drink is not too sweet but hits the palate smooth and satisfies that sweet craving after a fantastic meal.
I wouldn’t go into this much detail if I did not place in the competition. If you haven’t guessed yet, I was lucky enough to win the 2013 Iowa’s Best Mixologist award. It was a great experience, and my life did change after that. For the next two years, the Winifred’s bar was busier than ever, and the owners were shocked by the revenue my cocktails and clout generated.
And as a side note, the title was a successful pick-up line, which led me to meet the awesome woman I am still with today.
This was 2013 and 2019 Iowa Mixology Contest.
success can come at a price
The rollercoaster was a great time, but sometimes you have to step away. I had been with Winifred’s over 6 years and started to get burnt out. I was working 6 nights a week and going out every night and living an unhealthy lifestyle.
On top of all of this, my kids were growing up and starting to participate in extra-curricular activities. One was entering middle school, and I was missing a lot. So I stopped doing what I loved because I needed a change.
I needed to change my lifestyle to see my kids do what they loved. So I hit the RESET button.
reset after another career choice
Fast forward 4 years, several career paths, and other adventures, I returned to Dubuque with my girlfriend. We chose to move so I could live in the same town as my kids, see them more, and be more involved with raising them.
Their mother is amazing and deserves so much credit for doing the majority of the work, I felt it was vital that I be closer for her and them.
The move wasn’t easy, and I was apprehensive because my previous experience living in Dubuque didn’t necessarily end positively. I
had become accustomed to a particular lifestyle, which included craft beer, craft cocktails, and good food, all of which had been lacking in Dubuque when I moved away. But I didn’t let that deter me.
7 hills brewing = open doors
After the move, I worked on some other hobbies. It was then that I meet Keith from 7 HILLS BREWING COMPANY. He opened the brewery in 2016, just a month after we moved to Dubuque.
They had fantastic food and beers and was one of the few places that would provide my aforementioned preferred lifestyle. 7 Hills was a staple in my nights out with my girlfriend.
Keith found out I created cocktails during one of our conversations and asked if I could help upgrade their cocktail list. So I cooked up some purees, syrups, and made a batch of Not-So-Bloody-tini for him to sample.
Keith enjoyed the cocktails and put one on the menu right away. After that, he and my girlfriend strong-armed me into picking up a part-time bartending job while I helped them build their new cocktail list.
So, I started working a couple of nights a week. In April 2019, we rolled out the new cocktail menu that I helped create.
40 years old and doing what i love
Fast forward to today, January 2020, and I am the Marketing Manager and mixologist for 7 Hills Brewing Company.
I definitely glossed over those hobbies that I previously mentioned, but they include building websites and social media marketing. This is how I got a full-time gig with 7 Hills.
I love my job and the people I work with. It is really crazy to think I am creating cocktails again. I honestly thought that after my “reset” I would never do it again. Keith has allowed me to thrive, and I am working hard to make the most of it.
From my personal experience, my unsolicited advice is to try everything. Most of us don’t know right away what our passions are, so we have to explore so we can find the things that we love.
Try the new beer, the food you might be intimidated by or think you won’t like, and experiment with new hobbies. Talk to those strangers at the bar. You never know what you love and could love without trying.
Shit, like me, you could even find your wife because you put yourself out there!