Welcome to the Hops & Spirits Friday Five, where we ask five questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.
This week’s spotlight is on Heather Wibbels, an award-winning mixologist and Chair of the Bourbon Women Board of Directors. She’s a digital content creator and photographer creating whiskey drinkers one cocktail at a time. While she teaches private cocktail classes, her creations can be found in Bourbon Plus, American Whisky Magazine, Drickhacker, Insider, The Manual, Alcohol Professor, Food and Dining, and The Bourbon Review.
1) How did you get the name Cocktail Contessa or how did it come about? I believe it has something to do with Peggy Noe Stevens (whose been a guest on our podcast).
After I had won the Bourbon Women Not Your Pink Drink contest for the third time, they asked me to be a judge instead of continuing to enter, and shortly after that, Peggy Noe Stevens asked me to do a custom cocktail for an event at her house. As I walked in, she said, “The Cocktail Contessa is here!” I was just starting to think about creating a website, and it was the perfect name (Here’s the link: https://www.cocktailcontessa.com)! I really wanted to bring bourbon and whiskey cocktails to people mixing at home — just like I was when I started. I want to make bourbon cocktails fun and easy to play with because with the varied flavor profiles of bourbon you’ve got a huge opportunity to create different cocktails. And let’s face it, cocktails are the gateway to bourbon.
2) What drew you to making cocktails and what keeps you coming back?
Cocktails are fun! They can be as simple or complicated as you want to make them. And at the end of the day, a great cocktail is a flavor and taste experience. It’s a form of communication that a group of people can share with one another and share some great laughs in the process. Just changing out one or two elements in a cocktail results in a completely new experience. I love that look of surprise or sigh of contentedness someone makes when you hand them a cocktail that’s perfect for them. I think cocktails get a bad rap in the whiskey world, but if you think about it, most people get into whiskey via a great cocktail, not a neat pour. I want bourbon and whiskey drinkers to be able to get their friends and family into whiskey via cocktails.
3) What’s your favorite part about creating/crafting new cocktail recipes or spins?
I love playing with flavors and experiences. I love recreating flavors from a favorite dessert or meal in liquid form. I love the creativity and the flexibility that you have when working with spirits. One of my favorite things to do is take a non-bourbon recipe — something that traditionally uses a different base spirit — and make it work with bourbon. I have a favorite that I did last summer that was a whiskey version of Lemon Drop. It’s not the same drink, but it’s a much more interesting and creative twist on the traditional cocktail. But my absolute favorite part of my spirits job is creating a cocktail and having someone else find it online or in my feed and make it. They often tell me how they tweaked it or made a riff based on what they have at home. I always say in my newsletter that I love unsolicited DRINK pics and I do. I love getting tagged in photos where someone has built a cocktail I created. I hope to keep inspiring that kind of creativity with bourbon and whiskey in cocktails. I want everyone to love whiskey as much as I do.
4) You mention that you really enjoy teaching others about cocktails and bringing the bar home, why is that?
Cocktails are (for the most part) quick to make and easy to vary. Just doing an infusion of spirit, or changing out a fruit syrup, or adding different bitters radically changes the cocktail. When I first started making cocktails, I found it terribly intimidating, and I don’t want it to be that way to others. I want to encourage people to find THEIR perfect cocktail. Not just the Old Fashioned or Manhattan that’s my favorite. I want to teach people at home how to think about the elements at home so they can fix a cocktail that’s not where they want it. My perfect Old Fashioned will not be the same as yours, and I think experiencing building your own drinks at home really sells that point. And I love teaching people how to make a cocktail flight where they vary just one thing: the base spirit, or the bitters or the sweet element. It really blows their minds to be able to taste the difference in a series of drinks where just one element is varied.
5) You’re part of Bourbon Women (which is an awesome group). How did you become involved and what has that been like?
I’m now Chair of the Board of Directors of Bourbon Women, but I’ve been a member for 8 years, and as soon as I joined with my best friend, we started attending every event. I’m a superfan of Bourbon Women in the truest sense of the word. As I kept attending events and making cocktails, the board asked me to join, and then in 2020 to lead the board of directors. It’s a group truly dedicated to bourbon education and bourbon culture and the fun that women have when they gather with a glass of bourbon in their hands. I am continuously amazed by the events our membership gets to experience. Our events committee and our Branches (we have branches in 11 states/areas and 4 more in the process of forming) put on amazing, creative bourbon events with wonderful brands. And in the past year, we’ve really focused on how to create great virtual content that we can share with members across the country. It’s a completely different experience to be at an event where the majority of attendees are women and I love to share that with new women. I now far prefer events with women in the majority simply because of the approachability and sheer joy women have when they sip bourbon together. And I have to mention our yearly SIPosium conference is a consumer-focused spirits event that is my favorite weekend of the year — it’s part spirit conference, part girls’ weekend, and part family reunion. If you’re a woman who loves bourbon, whiskey, or any spirit, the conference is one of the best spirits events you’ll ever attend.
In addition to her creations, Heather is working on a book, “Bourbon is My Comfort Food: The Bourbon Women™ Guide to Fantastic Cocktails at Home”, that will be released May 2022. You can find her at www.cocktailcontessa.com, and @cocktail_contessa on Instagram. She also has a column in the next issue of Bourbon Plus on Fall Cocktails.