Mixing it up: Local mixologists shake things up


Lori Casper PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL


Tori Curoe PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY


Nacole Meyer, a bartender at The Driftless and Fine Cocktail Catering, is working on a cocktail book with Dubuque artist Andonia Giannakouros. Photo by Jessica Reilly. PHOTO CREDIT: PHOTO BY JESSICA REILLY


Kendra Shaw PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

In the 1980s, a New York bartender named Dale DeGroff became enamored with a 19th century cocktail book written by a bartender named Jerry Thomas.

Dubbed “King Cocktail,” DeGroff is credited with a cocktail renaissance of sorts, bringing back the fancy drinks often served in city bars during the early 20th century and coining the term, “mixology.”

Mixology, the craft of creating mixed drinks that taste wonderful and look beautiful, is a passionate pursuit for those bartenders who are intrigued by the science of alcohol.

There are quite a few up-and-coming female mixologists in Dubuque who not only create those drinks but throw in a dash of entertainment, conversation and familiarity to present an experience that brings their customers back again and again.

Lori Casper, Q Casino and Hotel Sports Bar

The pandemic hasn’t stopped Lori Casper from continuing to create.

“I’ve been mixing drinks for friends,” said Casper, 49, of Dubuque. “It’s become a big thing. I invite a few friends over, and I mix drinks.”

Lori’s Driveway Diva Bucket is a drink she created specifically for her friends, who have dubbed their gatherings Lori’s Driveway Bar.

Casper has been serving drinks at Q Casino and Hotel’s Sports Bar for 14 years, and it’s a job she came across by accident.

“I was working a job I didn’t really love, and my sister-in-law worked at Q,” she said. “I wanted to get into customer service, but they didn’t have anything open at the time. I started working in the poker room, taking care of the poker players. Then, they opened the sports bar, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Casper said she learned on the job and quickly fell in love with it.

“I’d never really been interested in mixing drinks, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it,” she said.

Casper cares for her handicapped mother, Linda, so she said the bartender hours have fit well into her lifestyle.

“I can get all my stuff done during the day and go to work at night,” she said. “I work nine- or 10-hour days, and then have three days off, which I love.”

Casper said besides the mechanics of mixing drinks, she’s learned to be a good judge of character and has gotten to meet a lot of people throughout the years.

“I have a lot of regular customers. If I’m gone for the weekend, I’ll hear about it,” she said. “It makes you feel good that people want to come and see you.”

Tori Curoe, Riverboat Lounge, Hotel Julien Dubuque

Tori Curoe, 31, started tending bar at college hotspots in Ottumwa, Iowa, near her hometown of Fairfield, when she was 18.

“When I moved to Dubuque about seven years ago, I got a job at Riverboat, and it paid for my college for the most part,” she said.

At the time, Riverboat Lounge had a reputation as a college bar, and the beverage manager wanted to re-brand. He brought in bartenders from Bittercube, a cocktail bar in Milwaukee, Wis., to train his staff.

“Bittercube was a lot of my formal training,” Curoe said.

She added that her beverage manager, Bryan Anderson, and fellow bartender, Rob Cousins, have become her work family.

“We love each other to death,” she said. “And it’s great to have a family at work.”

Curoe said one thing she is proud of is pushing for Iowa draft beers.

“We have only Iowa beers on draft,” she said. “Once in a while, if we find a really good regional beer from Illinois or Wisconsin, we’ll use it, but 99% of the time, it’s Iowa beers.”

Curoe admits her motivation in beginning to work as a bartender was to make money, but it has become much more than that.

“We do seasonal brainstorming and try different things and see what we can come up with,” she said. “Having the freedom and ability to be creative is really exciting for me.”

Curoe said the social aspect of her job has allowed her to meet people from all over the world, and the bartending community has garnered her some close friendships.

“Within six months (of starting my job), I knew every bartender and bar owner on Main Street,” she said. “Six years later, some of those people are still my best friends.”

Nacole Meyer, The Driftless and Fine Cocktail Catering

Nacole Meyer has dived headlong into the mixology landscape, working hard at perfecting and creating, educating herself both formally and informally, writing a book and starting a business.

“It has become a career,” said Meyer, 46, of Dubuque.

Meyer said becoming a member of the Smokestack, in downtown Dubuque, really kick-started her passion for mixology.

“That’s when things kind of shifted into the mixology factor of it, the actual crafting,” she said.

Meyer worked as a Montessori preschool teacher for five years, then worked in the Dubuque Community School District for a few years.

While pulling double-duty as a teacher and part-time bartender, she got her Bassett on-site and off-site licenses, as well as the Iowa I-Pact. These programs train and educate bartenders in alcohol serving and compliance.

“Eventually, the bartender money outweighed my profession,” she said. “I always had the bartender job for the extra money, but eventually, my love of it and my love of people outweighed the (teaching) profession.”

Meyer has been working with Dubuque artist Andonia Giannakouros on a cocktail book, which will contain 30 drink recipes and feature Giannakouros’ illustrations.

She has enrolled in the business specialist program at Northeast Iowa Community College to help her grow her catering business, Fine Cocktail Catering, which provides bartending services at weddings, pop-ups, holiday parties and other events.

And if that wasn’t enough, she continues to work at The Driftless and is hoping a mixology class that she is teaching at Convivium Urban Farmstead, postponed in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will launch soon.

“I have an absolute love and passion for the community aspect of what I do,” she said. “When I’m talking to somebody, my personality and persona are very much engaged with the customer. I’m really giving them 100% of what they came for, which is to feel good and have that attention.”

Kendra Shaw, Wicked Dame

Kendra Shaw works by day at The Friedman Group, an insurance agency in Dubuque. But by night, you’ll find her behind the bar at Wicked Dame, mixing drinks and entertaining customers.

“I love bartending,” said Shaw, 25, of Dubuque. “It’s kind of nice to get out of the office and meet new people and socialize that way.”

Shaw has been at Wicked Dame for two years and has two drinks on the menu, with plans to create more.

“I’ve really gotten into the science of it,” she said. “Kim (Hackett, the owner of Wicked Dame) encourages us to be creative and come up with the recipe and even brainstorm the names of the drinks.”

All of Wicked Dame’s drinks are named after women in history. The bar’s newest drink is one of Shaw’s creations, the Georgia O’Keeffe, after the artist whose best-known works are of flowers.

“It’s a very floral drink served in a martini glass,” Shaw said.

She also loves the social aspect of her job.

“You get to know what the customers wants without even talking to them,” Shaw said. “It’s really nice to connect with those people. We have lots of regulars. It’s always nice to come into work and hear, ‘Hey, somebody was asking about you.’ It’s just a nice feeling.”

Shaw has been bartending since she was 18 and doesn’t picture a time when she won’t be behind the bar.

“I think it’s going to be a part of my life always,” she said.

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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