Cocktail Contessa Shares Her Secrets For Making Bourbon Cocktails
Heather Wibbles is a woman on a mission: to show the world that cocktails don't have to be complicated. In her new book, "Bourbon is My Comfort Food," Heather provides easy-to-follow recipes for delicious bourbon cocktails that anyone can make at home.
We had the chance to chat with Heather about her love of bourbon, and she shared some great tips for making crafty cocktails!
Kevin: Hey everyone, this is Kevin and Monica, and you're listening to the Pour N Play podcast, where the best bartenders and alcohol enthusiasts share their stories, so you can go build a successful profession or business in the bar industry. And hopefully, do what today's guest is doing at some point in your career.
Today, we'll talk to an award-winning mixologist and whiskey enthusiast. She's the Managing Director of Bourbon Women, a one-of-a-kind organization of strong women who are passionate about bourbon culture. She's a content creator and uploads amazing photos and recipes on her Instagram. She even creates content for different brands and media outlets such as Bourbon Plus American Whiskey Magazine and many more. She's also the author of the book “Bourbon is My Comfort Food.”
Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a warm welcome to Heather Wibbles, also known as the Cocktail Contessa. Heather, thank you so much for joining us today!
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
Monica: That's great to have you here with us, Heather; by the way, how did you get to be known as “Cocktail Contessa”?
Heather: Well, that's a fun story. When I was, just before I got into the board of directors of Bourbon Women, and you did a great introduction of Bourbon Women, Kevin, by the way. It's really an organization of women who love bourbon. They're passionate about whiskey and want to get together and have fun.
It's not really a drinking club; we're more about education and experience. But just before I was elected to the board of bourbon women, the board of directors, I was going to the founder's house, Peggy Noe Stevens' house, to help with an event, and I had made two custom cocktails.
At that point, I was doing custom cocktails for bourbon women and content creation for them, pretty much exclusively. It was pretty early on, and I walked in the door, and Peggy Noe Stevens said, “Oh hey! It's the Cocktail Contessa,” and I said, “Do you mind if I steal that? I really like that. She said, “No, no, that's fine.”
So that's where the name came from. I was always known in the organization as someone who had tiny vials of cocktails and samples in her purse, or I was always playing with infusions or syrups and trying to get other people to try them and give me feedback. So that's kind of the nutshell of how the Cocktail Contessa name all started.
Monica: Oh, that's amazing! Cocktail Contessa is a really great name!
Heather: I think so too. I love it!
Kevin: Contessa in Italian means Countess, right?
Heather: Exactly! Yeah.
Kevin: That's an amazing name! You're literally the Alcohol Royalty.
Heather: Exactly! Well, I would like to think of myself as that, yes! But you know, it’s always the journey, right? Where you start is not always where you end up, and at that point, I was just starting to do content creation for that organization, and that really gave me my leg into the spirits world and the whiskey world.
Kevin: That’s amazing! As we spoke earlier, I saw your LinkedIn, and you had many careers in the past, from a quality assurance manager to a licensed massage therapist. When did you know that you wanted to pursue mixology?
Heather: Mixology kind of fell into my lap. When I moved back to Louisville, I had lived in Nashville for about 17 years. I moved back to Louisville and started to get really interested in bourbon. And so one of the ways I started to do that was to do events with Bourbon Women and attend events.
They had a yearly contest called the “Not Your Pink Drink” contest because we don’t really want to fall into the assumption that women love girly pink drinks that taste really sweet. We want real whiskey cocktails as part of our organization, and I entered the contest and won three years in a row.
So after I won the third year, they said, “Hey, maybe you could just judge and not enter,” and I said, “Great! I can do that.” So that sort of steered me more towards actually creating content because they said, “If you want to create content for our digital channels or our website, you know we’d love to have your content.”
And at that point, I was pretty new to it. So I was creating a cocktail a month for them and doing a write-up, and they would post it on their social media channels. The way I kind of transitioned into doing this full-time was mostly through COVID.
COVID shut down my massage therapy business for most of the year because it wasn’t safe for me or my clients, and you know, I had worked in massage for 17 years at that point, and most of my clients were close friends and felt like family.
I wanted to keep them safe, so I needed a project, so I really started to focus more on cocktail content creation and also photography at that point.
Kevin: COVID did a lot to different businesses and stuff, right? I’m happy that you had other things to do aside from being a massage therapist.
Monica: Despite of COVID.
Kevin: Yeah! Despite of COVID, a lot of businesses, even here where we are in the Philippines, a lot of businesses stopped working, a lot of people stopped working because of it.
Heather: And it did really impact the bar and hospitality industry, too, especially in the US. I mean, we shut everything down, so there were a lot of people who at that point had to pivot into content creation, you know, photography, cocktails, and we are just trying to get through the week or the day or the month.
And you know, one of the things that I think has happened with COVID, one of the benefits really has been that people have converted to being okay with doing virtual experiences with brands or with spirits brands or with beverage brands.
And I think that really broadens the reach of the entire industry to people who maybe normally wouldn’t have gone to an event to try new spirits or, you know, gone to an activation for a particular marketing campaign. So I think it opened up a lot of doors in the industry for people to reach consumers, for brands to reach consumers in new ways.
Kevin: That’s really true.
Monica: Yeah. So in the early stages of being a mixologist, what were your struggles when you were still learning from different recipes and developing different bartending techniques, and how are you able to overcome those challenges?
Heather: Those are really good questions. You know, I don't have formal training as a bartender, so everything that I have really done has been learning on my own, and a lot of it naturally comes from being a whiskey drinker. A whiskey drinker always delves into the flavors and the mouthfeel and an evaluation of whatever you're drinking.
Mixology does the very same thing except with cocktails, so you know one of the challenges when you first start playing around with cocktails at home is how do you know what flavors go well together, and one of the things I learned from doing so much with whiskey and doing whiskey education is that if two things smell really good together, they're likely going to taste really good together and so that's one of the things that I really cover a lot in my book, “Bourbon is My Comfort Food.”
Bourbon is my Comfort Food Book Cover - Image by cocktailcontessa.com
In that book, I really talk about using your nose to develop cocktails, to think about flavors, to think about pairings, and so those kinds of experiential learning you can do at home. It is something you can develop at home. Is it easier at a bar where you have a back bar full of 100 or 200 liqueurs and cordials? Absolutely it is, and in a bar, you'd have somebody kind of guiding you and teaching you. You know, walking you through maybe historical cocktails and basic cocktails and so on and so forth, but I really think that once, you know, it's like anything if you're passionate about it and you have a real interest in learning about it. Learning isn't a chore; it's fun.
Monica: Yeah! Everything will be flexible.
Heather: Exactly, exactly, and so I think one of the things that when you start out in mixology, if you're just trying to develop a flavor profile or things you love. Really taking the time to experience different spirits, getting educated by spirits brands is a really big thing for consumers because I think if you appreciate what a brand does or what a spirit does in terms of flavor profile, proof, heat, mouthfeel, I think if you understand that you can think about how to put that together into a cocktail.
Now someone who is working in a bar itself, you know, actually serving up hundreds of tickets a night, that I can't speak to, but I can speak to how to develop a palette, how to educate yourself on spirits, how to write about spirits and how to photograph cocktails because cocktail photography is not normal photography.
It is very much a specialty, and I didn't really appreciate that when I started. I thought, “Oh, I'll just pop a cocktail down on top in front of a black background, and it'll look great,” and so coming to terms with seeing what beautiful cocktail photography looks like and then trying to replicate it and finding out how light works with liquid and glasses and ice; it's pretty challenging. It’s definitely still a learning experience; I think anyone who does it would agree with that.
Kevin: Yeah, I see! Everything is a learning experience and with how you were speaking about whiskey, is there a specific reason why you’re passionate about it?
Heather: Part of it is because I live in Louisville, Kentucky, so I am in the heart of bourbon country in the U.S. You know, we used to say 95% of the world's bourbon was made in Kentucky, but now it's probably closer to 92 or 93. There's been a huge explosion of bourbon and whiskey across the entire us, and I get to kind of sit in the heart of it, and so I didn't really know that I was, that I had all these great teachers and great experiences in my backyard until I started taking advantage of it.
And I will say that I started with bourbon, but I will also say that now, I love rye whiskey, I love scotch, I love Irish whiskey. Just educating yourself on different whiskies can really help you appreciate the artistry that goes into making a whiskey. It’s not an insignificant investment in terms of time and aging.
I mean, something has to sit for 3 to 12 to 15 to 20 years before anyone can sip it. So it's a huge expense in time and effort for the people who are making it, and so I want to honor that by, you know, sipping responsibly, sipping, and evaluating very beautiful spirits. Yeah that's that's kind of why I love whiskey. It's in my backyard.
Kevin: To be honest, I've literally just started drinking whiskey. My uncle came over to my house, and he gave us a bottle of 12-year-old whiskey. It tasted really good; I couldn't stop drinking it.
Heather: What kind was it? Do you know what brand it was?
Kevin: I forgot the brand because after a couple of shots, for some reason, he took it back. I don't know why. Because I think we were all enjoying it, so he's like, “Okay. Can I have it back?” I’m like, “Okay,“ and he took the bottle with him. I wanted to know what it was. It was a 12-year-old whiskey. Tasted really good.
Heather: Yeah, you know whiskey is always better shared with friends, and it's something that whiskey hospitality and bourbon culture are always about. You're always sharing it with friends. That's one of the reasons that communities like Bourbon Women is so important because you really get to connect with other people with a glass of whiskey in your hand in a way you might not normally.
And whiskey, you know, if you go to a whiskey event, it's still largely men. There are women making it, there are women in the companies, but you know, there's more that we can do to get women more involved in the whiskey community and more women drinking whiskey. So that’s one of my passions. That's why I put this book together because I want to convert more whiskey drinkers, and cocktails are the gateway to whiskey. Quite frankly, if you start sipping whiskey cocktails and you start loving it, I can probably get you to sip whiskey neat.
Kevin: Yeah! I actually had the neat. Neat is when you drink it just with it, right?
Heather: With nothing else. So, neat is without anything else, and you know when you sip whiskey, you really want to evaluate how it looks, so the color of it. You want to evaluate the aroma, so pull it up to your nose. You've seen them sniff with a Glencairn glass, right?
So you want to evaluate the nose, and then you want to sip it a little bit just to kind of get your palate acclimated. And then you really take some sips of it, so you know, evaluating whiskey. Like I said, it's very similar to evaluating a great cocktail, right? You're evaluating nose, appearance, all of those things, and if something is beautiful and presented in a beautiful glass, but it doesn't have a great nose or a great taste, that doesn't really overcome everything. I mean, whiskey drinkers are looking for the whole package.
Kevin and Monica: Yeah.
Kevin: I agree!
Monica: So when you won the Bourbon Women's Not Your Pink Drink Amateur Contest in 2015, what was your winning cocktail and how did you come up with it? What was your inspiration behind it?
Heather: The first cocktail that I won with was called the French Quarter Manhattan, and if you ever go to or you all may have been to New Orleans. In New Orleans, one of the things they have, one of their traditional foods is a praline, and it's a sweet made with a little pecan, a sweetened pecan. It has this like candied pecan sugar all over it, and they come out. They look like little round. They're almost like round cookies in some cases, sometimes they're covered in chocolate, and sometimes they're not, but this flavor really came through when I used a rivulet pecan liqueur.
So the cocktail itself is very simple: two ounces of bourbon, an ounce of pecan liqueur, couple dashes of chocolate bitters. That's it! It's not anything complicated; you can easily batch it. You can put it together with ingredients you can find at any liquor store, and I think one of the reasons that it won was it still highlighted the whiskey in the cocktail.
So one of the things that Bourbon Women always love is to be able to taste your whiskey through the cocktail, and sometimes that's more possible, and sometimes it's less possible, but we tend to like those where we can really highlight the whiskey and the flavors.
So one of the things we try to do and what I try to do when I make cocktails, especially for people who are already Bourbon Women, is make sure that you can taste the whiskey and make sure that the whiskey ties to the other flavors in the cocktail.
Kevin: When me and Monica were talking last week when we were formulating all these questions. We looked at one of your recipes: Addictive Chocolate Manhattan.
Heather: That’s a good one.
Kevin: I really have a sweet tooth. I’m close to Diabetes at this point. I want to make this. I asked my wife. I’m like, can we order bar tools here so that I can make this? She’s like, sure. So we ordered one, it hasn’t arrived yet. I really wanted to try this before we talked to you.
Kevin: Looking at the pictures, I'm like, “Oh my god, this tastes so,” from the pictures already, I could say that it tastes good.
Heather: Right! Well, you know, when you do content creation like you guys do, Kevin and Monica, when you're doing digital content creation, the only way you can get to people is through vision, through appearance, right? So stuff has to look really good for them to want to try it.
Kevin: That's true.
Heather: Or for them to want to read the article or for them to want to click on, you know. So sight is always how we engage with digital content, and I will tell you that you could, if it's a Manhattan, you could just make it with a jar like just a regular mason jar with a top on top of it. Just use the top to strain out the ice.
So, if you don't want to wait for the mixing glass, you can go ahead and make it. Just make it in a jar that you can strain the ice out of.
Kevin: I'm gonna do that this weekend, I swear!
Heather: You better, and you need to tell me how it goes, what you think.
Kevin: I'm gonna message you in your Instagram.
Heather: Please do, please do. I get all kinds of messages from people who try my cocktails all the time. Either you know, they're working on something, it doesn't taste quite right, if they need like a, what would you call it, a substitution for something they can't find in their area. Those are the kinds of messages that I get all the time.
Kevin: Yeah, I think I'm gonna message you because there are things here that’s not available locally for us here and where I am right now.
Heather: Yeah, well, let me know what you have, and I'll help you figure out how to make it with what's available.
Kevin: Ah, thank you! That's so amazing. By the way, earlier, you were talking about your book, Bourbon is My Comfort Food. Can you tell us more about it?
Heather: Oh, sure! Well, the book just came out. Officially released on May 3rd, and it's really a book that's designed to help people who are either bourbon lovers who don't know how to do cocktails or people who love cocktails who just want to know how to mix with bourbon.
And you know, the book really has two different audiences either the people who already love bourbon, and they want to talk friends and family into drinking more bourbon, and the way to do that is through cocktails, honestly.
Cocktails are how I've invited and gotten my entire family hooked on bourbon and whiskey. And you know, it's also very much a cocktail book for people who are new to bourbon or new to cocktails, so I do go through cocktail basics, but it is focused on bourbon and whiskey, and it is, you know. When I looked at what kind of books were in the market already, there were a lot of books that talked about the history of bourbon cocktails or just a list of bourbon cocktails. I really wanted to create something that gave guidance on developing your palette on how to pick whiskies to go with into the cocktails you're creating.
I really wanted people to understand how to use basic cocktail templates to create their own variations on a cocktail. So you know, I love the cocktails that are in the book. But I love it even more when someone says, “I didn't have this, and I substituted this other flavors, and it was even better.” That just makes me happy because that means that someone has taken the information in the book, and they're actually using it to develop their own palette and develop their own cocktails.
Kevin: And took it to the next step. Maybe elevate the taste or something like that.
Heather: Exactly, exactly.
Monica: Well, for sure, behind your book and everything you do, of course, there are a lot of inspirations on it. So we are so curious; what motivated you to write your book?
Heather: Well, you know the book came about because Bourbon Women was 10 years old in 2021, and we were having a big celebration. We have a Bourbon Women Conference in which you can. We're in the process of planning it for this year if you want to look it up on bourbonwomen.org.
Image by Bourbon Women
It's called the Siposium. S-i-p, as in your sipping whiskey, not a symposium. But at this conference every year, we celebrate women in bourbon and have brands come in to educate and run workshops. It was going to be our 10th anniversary of the organization.
And the founder and the first president said, “You know, we really think we need to have a book to go with this 10-year anniversary,” and so they said, “We think you should write it. You have cocktails, right?” And I said, “Yes, of course, I do.”
So that’s how the book kind of came to be but really putting together the actual content and making it less of just a cocktail recipe book and more of an education tool. That is something that I think is important because if you can teach people how to play with templates and how to play with flavors, they can create anything at all. I mean, it's magical.
Kevin: Yeah, that's true. That's really true! So of all the cocktail recipes in the book, you mentioned that you have like a couple in the book. I know there are a lot in the book; what was your favorite?
Kevin: That's a lot!
Heather: Yeah, so we kept saying 140 recipes in the marketing materials, and someone messaged me she says, “Are there exactly 140?” and I’m like, “Hang on, let me count.” and so I counted through all of them and including the infusions and syrups it's at least 154.
Heather: Oh yeah, so it's a lot. But I couldn't tell you one favorite cocktail that I have right now. I am playing with new cocktails every day and every week, and it’s something that I just do constantly. I couldn’t even pick one favorite. I have templates that I return to over and over. Like, I love a Black Manhattan. So a Black Manhattan, have you all had a Black Manhattan before?
Kevin and Monica: Not yet.
Kevin: Both me and Monica are starting to get into cocktails, but we really don’t know the names. I’ve had a White Russian. Then my wife made it with peanut butter. I don’t know; it tasted really good in the end. It was a hot cocktail as well.
Heather: Oh, it’s hot? Interesting.
Kevin: Yeah! It’s hot. It’s actually nice. Then she also let me try just last weekend, she let me try. She mixed it with chocolate syrup. Uh, I forgot the other. I don’t know because she’s the one who makes it for me. I just drink. Because, to be honest, I haven’t gotten drunk, and I always challenge her. I’m like, “Can you make me a drink that will get me drunk?” She still fails every time.
Heather: That means she’s doing something that’s so good that you don’t need more than one.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s true!
Heather: That’s true. I mean, let’s think about it because you know the purpose isn’t always to get intoxicated. Sometimes the purpose is just to enjoy the flavor combination.
Kevin: That’s true.
Heather: Yeah, so well, a Black Manhattan is whiskey or bourbon. I usually use bourbon or rye and then about an ounce of amaro which is an aromatized fortified wine that usually comes out of originally from Italy, but now they make it. It's not designated that you can only call it Amaro if it's in Italy, so you can really get it from across the world.
But it's a bittersweet liqueur; it's not really a liqueur. It's just a bittersweet element that you can use in cocktails, but it focuses on the bitter flavors. So it's either used as something to help aid in digestion or something to stimulate the appetite before you actually start a meal.
And so it's a little bit of that with some whiskey, and then you stir it over with ice for about 30 seconds to chill it down, and then you serve it in a chilled coop. Sometimes people put bitters in it; sometimes they don't. The amaro that you put in that, that makes it the black manhattan, it's a very dark spirit, usually dark brown or black, and so that turns the whole cocktail, and instead of being this light whiskey-colored cocktail, it is a much darker cocktail.
Kevin: I want to try that.
Monica: Me too!
Kevin: I’m going to a bar here this weekend; I’m going to try that. I hope they have that here.
Heather: You need to. If they don’t (have the drink), just ask for a good manhattan because the good Manhattan can be absolutely wonderful. Now a Manhattan is sweeter than a martini, but it’s not going to be as sweet as the chocolate drinks that I think your wife’s probably making for you.
So they’re going to be a little bit more spirit forward. A little bit more bitter-heavy, but you’ll have a lot more complexity to delve into as you taste it.
Kevin: I’m getting excited for the weekend. Can Saturday come sooner?
Heather: I know! It’s only Tuesday.
Monica: So for people with a sweet tooth like me, what cocktail would you recommend from your book?
Heather: Well, there’s a whole chapter on dessert cocktails, and there’s one that I really like. That is called a; what did I call it? It’s a Bananas Foster Cocktail. So it has banana liqueur and a little bit of caramel liqueur and a little bit of whiskey, and you combine it together with some chocolate bitters, and it makes this really lovely Manhattan.
I also have a really sweet; there’s a sweet peanut butter cocktail in there. There’s a couple that are milkshakes. So you snake them, and you combine the actual. There’s a really good one that is just whiskey and vanilla ice cream and a little of like vanilla or ginger syrup, and you blend it together to make a little milkshake.
And if you have a sweet tooth, it’s absolutely fabulous because with that much cream in it, you don’t get a lot of the bourbon flavor in it, but you do get a lot of the vanilla and the caramel and the oak (flavor) altogether. So it’s a lovely combination.
Kevin: Oh, that’s a perfect drink! That’s like sweet heaven for me.
Heather: You would be in heaven, actually. You absolutely would be in heaven.
Monica: I think I’m craving right now.
Heather: You know I have the book out. I ought to look in here and see what else is in the dessert chapter. Well, you all get to the next question. We got plenty - oh! There’s a really good Hot Buttered Rum Recipe in here where you make your own buttered rum spice butter, and you add just a little bit of caramel liqueur to it and just a little of apple cider.
And it makes this fabulous like a hot buttered rum but with bourbon. It’s really good. Here’s the picture. You see that? (Shows picture to the camera)
Kevin: Oh, that looks amazing! Oh, why isn’t it Saturday yet!?
Heather: I know! (Chuckles)
Kevin: So, what kind of drink would you recommend for first-time cocktail drinkers?
Heather: I would have to ask them what kind of foods they like and what kind of other drinks they like. In other words, if they’re someone who loves sodas, then maybe start with a cocktail that has a soda element in it, like a Collins or a High Ball. If it’s somebody who really likes coffee drinks, start with something with coffee in it.
So when I am trying to introduce people to cocktails and bourbon, I start with flavors I already know they love. And if I can add just small amounts of proof and small amounts of heat to them, people can drink them in a way that’s approachable, and it doesn’t overwhelm their palate and also, you know, it tastes good, right?
So it’s something that’s fun for them to drink; it’s approachable, but when I’m working with people who are new, especially to bourbon. I do not use whiskey that are over like 80. Well, whiskey has to be at least 80 proof, so not really over 85 to 90 proof.
When I make cocktails for me, I’m generally using 100 to 105 proof. So that’s 50 to, you know, 55% alcohol. So, for people who are new, 40% alcohol may be up to 42% to 43% alcohol. Nothing super high because you want to make sure that you don’t overwhelm their palette.
Monica: So before this interview, we checked out your Instagram, and we followed you as well! How are you able to create these wonderful shots?
Heather: A lot of equipment and a lot of spirits. So my house, I have, I’m looking over in my foyer, I have all kinds of spirits bottles all over the place. I’ve got a gin section and a whiskey section, and a rum section. But really, to create great images, the thing that you have to learn is to control the light and use the light to tell a story.
So you know, when we take pictures of people like at a party or in a group, you want to see their whole face. You want them very well lit. When you take a picture of something like a cocktail, you want to see a gradation of light across it, so your eye knows where to go.
So what your trying to do is create a path for the eye to know to go to. And so you want to create an image that the eye automatically knows what to focus on, and that makes it look very appealing and very enticing. So, It’s something that you want to reach in and grab and take a sip of, and doing that really requires control of light.
I originally started using continuous light, which is just having a light on a cocktail from one direction. Now I use speed lights which are like they’re sort of flash or strobe lights, and they’re much more powerful, so you can get a much clearer and crisper image. And you can also control the light a lot better. You can close down how much light comes in. You can block some of the reflections that are coming down on one side.
So a lot of taking a great picture of a beverage has to do with controlling light and making sure there’s a direction of light. There’s a direction that the eye follows when you look at an image. And you would know when you saw it, right? Because when you see a great cocktail image, you think, Wow! That makes me want to taste it.
Delicious Cocktails by Cocktail Contessa
Monica: Yeah, to taste it.
Kevin: Yeah, to take it out of the picture.
Heather: Exactly! But if you look at the picture and really look at what you see. What you’ll see is a movement of light through the image and a focusing of the eye towards the central focus, the hero of the image.
And you know, putting props in different places and using angles can really focus the eye in a place that tells the viewer what to do, what the hero is, what you want to experience, what you want them to experience, I should say.
Kevin: Yeah! Because, as I said earlier, I also have my own YouTube channel and stuff like that, (which) actually helps me a lot. When it comes to photos as well, lighting is everything. Right now, I don’t know; my setup is weird at the moment.
I have lights here; I have lights there, lights there, but I also had to tweak my camera. So it’s a bit weird. My skin (color) is all over the place. It’s really weird. I’m still learning that, and what you said really helps.
Like having the central aspect of the picture would teach or would tell your viewers what you’re looking at. Which is, for everyone listening, actually really good advice for not only cocktails but for anyone who wants to go into social media.
Heather: Yeah! Make it easy for people to know what the focus is.
Kevin: That’s true. That is very true. So yeah, you’re a content creator, you have your own website, you have your own book. You do a lot of different things; how are you able to balance all of this?
Heather: Well, since my book just came out, there's a lot of focus on the book right now. I also, as managing director of Bourbon Women, do a lot of that just on a daily basis, and honestly, I run out of time through the day to get everything done because I’ve got so much I want to do in every single day.
I led an event, a cocktail class at an event on Saturday. And I came home, and I thought, you know, I kind of want to spritz. So I got out a big wine glass, and I put in an ounce of Campari, about three-quarter ounces of ginger liqueur, and about three-quarter ounces of Limoncello, which is a lemon liqueur. And just put it over ice and topped it with a little bottle of rose prosecco that I had, and it was refreshing.
And you know, days when I could just come in and just make something I want to drink, That can be inspirational to me to create content for my own channels. But you know, Kevin and Monica, you guys both know this, when you create content for channels, digital content, you have to create things that people are going to search for. And sometimes, the trying that you make that interests you is not necessarily something that people will search for.
Kevin: That’s very true.
Heather: There’s kind of a balance that you have to do when you’re a creator. Between the things that you love and the things that excite you and the things that are going to get you traffic and the things that are the questions that people ask.
Like, with the book, you know a lot of people ask me, you know, how do I make a great Old-fashioned and so, I talk in the book about how to make a basic old-fashioned but then I also talk through an experiment that you can do to create your own palette to learn about bitters. So try bitters, different bitters, in the cocktail, one after the other.
And things like that, I think, are the way that you make people lifetime enthusiasts of something. You give them an experience, you give them a clue about something that’s a little bit something they wouldn’t have known to ask about, and then they’re intrigued, and they just want to run with it.
Kevin: Yeah, talking to you right now, Heather. I really want to go downstairs and make a drink.
Heather: I won’t judge you if you do that. I won’t judge you at all! (Laughter)
Kevin: Thank you!
Monica: We know that you’re a busy bee. What is your routine in your daily life? Doing all these things seems remarkable, but it must take up a lot of your time.
Heather: Yeah, you know, kind of what I said before. I do spend a lot of time doing different things, but even if I am working on cocktails or working on photography, I’m always learning. So I would say that even though I’m doing lots of different things, the one thread is that I’m always learning something new.
It’s either learning something new about flavors or maybe if I’m going to develop a cocktail. I want to look at other cocktails that have a similar base, and so I might, you know, spend time doing research about that. But while I’m doing that, I’m looking at pictures of other creators and seeing what’s good, what’s bad, what would I do different.
And you know you have to focus on something that interests you, and cocktails have been something I’ve been interested in for years. It’s just now that I actually get to work on them with people. And so it’s kind of, it’s different, it’s lovely. I love it, and you know the book, really for me, is not just about cocktails but also about educating people on bourbon. And I’m serious when I say that I’m creating whiskey drinkers, one cocktail at a time.
I seriously want the whole world to be able to sip on whiskey in an approachable way and be able to love that spirit because I think it’s something that is unique. And it’s done by different countries in different ways, but it’s also something that can be enjoyed neat or in a cocktail. I don’t see a reason you just have to sip whiskey neat.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s great! So you do a lot of things. You create content for not only for yourself but also for different websites, for different stores, different brands. Have you ever been burnt out? If yes, how are you able to go back to creating content? But if not, how are you able to avoid this?
Heather: I haven’t yet because I’m still relatively new, I would say. I’ve only really been doing this 100% of the time for probably about a year. So, you know, in my previous careers, well, some of my previous careers, I probably did suffer that earlier on. But there’s so much creativity in this (Mixology) that if I can carve out time to do those fun pieces or make those little fun parts of what I need to do a part of my daily basis, I can prevent that, right?
Because if you have something you enjoy and you get to do it every day, maybe five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or just scrolling through feeds and looking up different flavor combinations, that can really feed your excitement and keep you from becoming overwhelmed with what else you know with everything on your plate.
Kevin: That’s really true.
Monica: You know it’s really scary to try new things, but it’s normal. But based on my experience, when I get to try on new things, it doesn’t mean your incapable.
Heather: Oh, exactly.
Monica: Since you’re an award-winning mixologist, where do you see yourself in the next few years?
Heather: I have no idea! Because if you had told me three years ago, I would have a book and be doing this full-time, I would never have believed you. I would’ve thought you were crazy. So I don’t know what the next three to five (to) ten years hold for me. I really don’t.
I like the path that I’m on. I’m having fun. I’m enjoying, you know, being able to be with people again. Because we can now have in-person events, and that’s something that we’ve missed in the past two years. And people are hungry for connection right now, in a good way, I would say.
But it’s something that, you know, I have no idea. I hope I’ll be on book in five years, I hope I’ll be on book three or four, and I’ll be, you know, my website will be wildly, insanely popular, and Bourbon Women will have thousands and thousands of members across the U.S. And I mean we are getting there. We’re just not at ten thousand, you know.
But all of those things that I want to do, I don’t know where I’m gonna end up, but I know that I really like the path that I’m on.
Heather Wibbles Making Cocktails - Image by cocktailcontessa.com
Kevin: I know you’re gonna be great. Please say hi to us in a few years from now.
Heather: I will! You guys definitely need to message me when you make cocktails and then ask me questions and just keep connecting because the great thing about the spirits community and the whiskey community it’s just the way it is. You connect with people, and I might not talk to somebody for a while, but I’ll see them on social media, you know, once or twice a week. And when I see them in person, it’s like, we’ve been talking the whole time.
I mean, I think social media is not necessarily something that creates disconnection. I think it can really create connections and maintain connections between people who are in different areas.
Kevin: I agree; I 100% agree. But I will take you up on that offer. I will message you one of these days.
Heather: Please do. I am 100% sincere. Please do.
Kevin: Thank you, Heather. So me and Monica know, and I bet the whole audience listening to this right now know, that you’re going to be big in the next few years. Even now, you’re already big, as your name is already well known, but how about the bar industry? In the future, where do you see it going? Do you see any trends in the industry right now that will stick for a long time?
Heather: Yeah, I will say that I think the push towards more diversity within the spirits industry, especially the brand and hospitality industry, has got to continue. I don’t think we’re going to go backwards on that, and we can’t. There's too many talented people of different shapes and sizes and people.
The thing about the spirits community is in order to enjoy a spirit, I think, you really have to see yourself in the spirit and so by brands and venues and bars and hotels and everyone involved in the spirits industry by them, including more women and people of color and LGBTQ folks. By them becoming more inclusive in who makes and represents their products, they also bring in those consumers because I see people like me making the things that I enjoy, and I think that long-term, that will not go away. I don’t think we can. I think there will be a very much a continued focus on sustainability that has happened a lot in the last three to five years.
That is going to continue to be a big big deal even the spirits brands who are larger heritage brands are now starting to recognize that those kinds of initiatives and those kinds of programs to really make their process and make their businesses sustainable are wonderful because they not only help their own bottom line but they also help the community. And when you can connect with people and say, “This is how I’m helping your community.” It also makes you a part of that bigger picture.
So things like sustainability, things like diversity, we’re not going to go backwards on those. Those are going to continue to develop, and I think, you know, right now, we in bourbon country, we’ve long said that this bourbon boom is here to stay. And there are always people who say that they think that bourbon is going to have a bust, right?
It’s going to have a cycle where it’s not popular. And some other spirit ascends like vodka was in the 80s, and maybe that happens, and maybe it doesn’t. But I do know that many of the people who love bourbon right now are immersed in the culture of it, and that is something that you don’t really just step away from.
It’s something that will always be there. So I think many of the bourbon fans and the whiskey fans that have joined, you know, the long-term lovers of whiskey over the past 10, 15, well, pretty much 20 years, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I don’t think they’re gonna turn away from whiskey anytime soon.
Kevin: I agree, and with this book that you made, I think it will increase the whiskey lovers in the world. Not only in the U.S.
Monica: I agree.
Heather: I hope so. That’s my goal is just to make more whiskey and bourbon drinkers.
Kevin: And it’s gonna happen. You already created two of us here.
Heather: Yey! I love that.
Kevin: I’m gonna buy a 12-year-old bottle, like maybe tomorrow if I’m not busy.
Heather: Yeah, or if you get to the liquor store and you don’t know which one to get. Take a picture and send it to me and I’ll tell you which one to get.
Kevin: Yeah! I’ll take that offer. Thank you, Heather!
Heather: You’re welcome. What were you gonna say, Monica?
Monica: So when you decide to retire from your profession, what legacy would you see yourself leaving behind?
Heather: Oh, Lord! I hope that’s not anytime soon. But I would hope I leave behind people who are passionate about whiskey, who are passionate about sharing that with other people and the hospitality culture behind it, and people who love to experiment with flavors and learn what they like themselves.
Kevin: That’s a great legacy, and from how your career is right now, I’m sure that will happen.
Heather: I hope so.
Kevin: As I said, you created (whiskey drinkers) just by talking to you, learning about your life, like learning who you are, after doing research about you. I swear, we want to try your cocktails. We want to try more whiskey. I don’t know if I talk to other guests, I’m going to be like, “No, I’m all for bourbon now.” (Laughter)
Heather: Well, you know, as you pull in other guests, it would be really fun to pull in people who specialize as brand ambassadors with different spirits, and so you guys really delve into. Because every spirit has its advocates, right? And you know, spirits like bourbon or tequila or brandy, they are so regional, and they’re so focused on a particular area that there’s a lot of community around that particular love of that spirit brand.
And I think that’s one of the things that you all could celebrate with this podcast is not just the people who are the bartenders and the mixologist making drinks but also the ways that they connect with the communities that support them.
Kevin: I agree. So do you have any tips for people who are trying to create their own unique cocktails at home? What can you say if you’re starting out? What advice would you give them?
Heather: First, I would advice them to get my book because that will help if they like whiskey or it will help them like whiskey. But I think when you’re first starting out playing with cocktails, find a cocktail that you love at a bar and ask them for the recipe. Sometimes, it’ll just be a classic recipe like an Old-fashioned and ask them specifically what’s in it.
Then come home and change one element. Either if it's an Old-fashioned, which is bourbon and bitters and a simple syrup. Change the simple syrup that you use. Maybe instead of regular simple syrup, you use brown sugar simple syrup, maple syrup, cardamon, or cinnamon-infused syrup, right?
So change one thing and see what that does to the flavor and then change another thing and see if you like what it does. You know, add the chocolate or the peanut butter liqueur a little bit. Add some bitters to brighten up the flavor.
So when I talk to people about how to make their own cocktail, I basically tell them to start with the template that they love and just change one element at a time. Or they could do what I do a lot of times, which is have a dessert or a flavor or a food that I want to make into liquid form.
Like my mom makes a banana bread that has bananas, and it's a sweet bread. It’s got some baking spices, it’s got cinnamon, and it’s got a little bit of vanilla, and then usually she does walnuts in it. I tasted a whiskey that really tasted like bananas to me, and I thought, “I wonder if I could make an Old-fashioned that tasted like banana bread.”
So I added banana simple syrup to this whiskey, and I added black walnut bitters. And the whiskey itself already had some of those vanilla notes. It already had some cinnamon in it, and when I put those flavors together and I think I garnished that one with just a cinnamon stick, something simple.
When I put all those flavors together, it was like sipping a piece of banana bread. And so you know, you can either start with a template that you tweak, or you can start with a food or flavor profile or dessert that you love.
In your case, I know you guys both love sweet things. So Monica, what’s your favorite dessert?
Monica: My favorite dessert is blueberry cheesecake.
Heather: Oh! That would be so good. So yeah, I mean, you could do so much with that. With cheesecake, you know you’ve got that creaminess, so you could do like a cream-based drink, and you can add a little blueberry liqueur in it. Maybe a little blueberry syrup and then a little bit of tartness. Maybe some limoncello. Probably not lemon juice because it would be a little bit acidic. A little bit of limoncello or some lemon bitters in there, and so you’d have something that kind of reminded you of a blueberry cheesecake.
Monica: I’m so excited to try that on weekends.
Kevin: That sounds so amazing.
Heather: Kevin, what’s your favorite dessert?
Kevin: Anything sweet, but if I were to choose, (it would be) a cheesecake as well. Cheesecake with chocolate on top.
Heather: Oh, that would be a good one! You all might like to look at cream-based dessert drinks first. Something like a Brandy Alexander has that. Actually, Kevin, you would probably love a Brandy Alexander because it has a little bit of chocolate in it and it has some cream in it, has some brandy.
And Monica, you could make one that was very similar but use blueberry instead of chocolate and see what you thought so. And the other thing you can do is actually infuse your spirits with fruit or spices. So, Monica, you could actually infuse a brandy, or you know, you could actually infuse a vodka very easily with some blueberry, and it’ll give you this beautiful dark blue color.
And so you know when you put in with the milk and the cream, it’ll make this kind of light blue colored drink probably. I’m just thinking through this all in my head. But so that’s kind of when I talk to people, and I want to make them interested in spirits or cocktails, I turn it back to them, and I say, “Well, what’s your favorite dessert?” or “What’s your favorite drink that you already drink that you already drink that’s non-alcoholic?”
And I tweak things because, say, it’s somebody who likes mango lassi, right? So that has the tartness from the mango, and the sweetness from the mango has. That cream from the yogurt, sometimes it has cardamon spices, sometimes it has cinnamon in it. So those kinds of flavors in there, you can build those flavor profiles using spirits or infusions to make something that has that same sort of idea or flavor but’s a little bit boozy and has a little bit of that alcohol in it.
Kevin: Oh man, I wish the weekend was tomorrow.
Heather: It’s not soon enough.
Kevin: Yeah! It’s not soon enough. I think I’m gonna try the Brandy Alexander, but I wanted to try your cocktail first. The Addictive Chocolate Manhattan. I think I’m doing this first. Then I’m doing the Brandy Alexander next.
Heather: I did one a couple of weeks ago that was a Peach Manhattan. And I had gotten as a sample a great liqueur and pop the top, and it just tasted like you were sipping peaches that had been sitting in syrup, like peach syrup. And I used that to make Peach Manhattan.
It shocked me how good it was because the ingredients that I used were so, they melded so well together. It made a cohesive cocktail that was just that fantastic. And I’ve tried it with other peach liqueurs, and it’s good, but it’s not as good as with that one peach liqueur that I had used.
Kevin: Being in the cocktail industry or like in the bar industry and stuff like that, you learn a lot of things. Right now, I’ve learned a lot from you, Heather, to be honest.
Heather: Good! I’m a cocktail educator. It’s just natural when I talk to people.
Kevin: Like I said, I keep saying this, I can’t wait for the weekend. I really just want to lie down and drink cocktails for the weekend.
Heather: (Chuckles) Well, be careful. Don’t drink too much, and make sure you hydrate while you’re drinking.
Kevin: Yeah, of course!
Monica: So, since we know that you've come this far, definitely you have a lot of tips or stories to inspire us. What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a mixologist?
Heather: I would just give the advice to start mixing. Start putting yourself out there. Start creating and start taking chances. Start taking risks and keep learning new things. I mean, with mixology, what’s so important is that you really have to have a great palette, and you have to continuously develop your palette.
You cannot stop working on your palette; you have to continually develop it. And to be really good at mixology, you know. If you’re not working in a bar, it’s flavor development. If you are working in a bar, it’s taking into account how expensive the drink is going to be. How quickly you can make it. Can you pre-make or pre-batch any of the ingredients to make it fast for service?
So, you know what I am looking for when I talk about mixology is a little bit different in terms of because I do more education, I do more working with people on specifics. If you’re going to be behind the stick, working at a bar, you really have to develop that skill along with a lot of skills that make you very good at customer service.
Very good at taking what someone says about what they like and converting that to something that you have that you can make that they will enjoy to drink. So I think, for me, it’s one set of skills for somebody who’s going to be working behind the bar or as a brand ambassador. Or, in these large volume venues, it’s a different set of skills, but you still have to know those basics of flavor and the basics of putting things together to make something that tastes delicious.
Kevin: Yeah! Heather, thank you very much for joining us today. It was such a pleasure to talk to you, and we appreciate you doing this interview with us.
Heather: My pleasure! If I can just tell people that my website is cocktailcontessa.com. My Instagram handle is cocktail_contessa, and on Facebook, you can find me at Cocktail Contessa. Don’t forget my book is available online. Its Bourbon is My Comfort Food by Heather Wibbles, and it's pretty much available everywhere with major retailers and also available through independent booksellers as well in the U.S.
Kevin: I can’t wait to buy that! I’m just gonna buy it over Amazon. I’ll check the bookstores here. If it’s available here, I’m definitely getting a hard copy.
Heather: I don’t know if it’s made it across to you guys yet since it just came out on May 3rd but thank you both for having me today! This has been a lot of fun to talk cocktails, and just to you know, just chit-chat about cocktails and all the fun that you can have mixing flavors together.
Kevin: Thank you, Heather! We learned a lot; I learned a lot. Thank you!
Monica: Thank you, Heather! I learned a lot too!
Heather: You’re very, very welcome!
Monica: So for everyone listening, make sure to check out Heather's website: www.cocktailcontessa.com. You can also check out the links to reach us and Cocktail Contessa in the show notes. Thanks, everyone! Bye!
Kevin: Thank you, everyone! Buh-bye!
Heather: Bye-bye, everyone!