One day a week, Austin Foster tends bar at The Diving Elk, serving customers numerous mixed drinks and beer behind the counter. Every libation served contains a secret ingredient only Foster and other experienced bartenders possess: passion.
It’s that unbridled passion for spirits which drives Foster to educate customers about what it is they’re drinking (or not drinking).
Last week, while I sat at the bar waiting to speak with Foster in between service breaks, my eyes and ears were fixated on the bearded bar man speaking with an older couple three chairs down from where I was seated. In front of them were glasses of craft beer, but they asked questions about whiskey. Foster was happy to inform, taking his time to explain each and every detail.
All the while, he tended to his customers’ every need. Refilling drinks and completing new orders whenever possible. In his hands was a cocktail shaker. He dipped a new straw into the mixture and placed a finger over the top to trap the liquid. He tasted the straw’s contents before pouring it into a glass.
It was for me.
DRINK #1: CAMERON’S KICK
Foster served me the drink -- a Cameron’s Kick. This particular cocktail has been around for many, many years. It was comprised of Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, orgeat and freshly squeezed lemon juice, all of which Foster meticulously measured with a metal jigger.
“I find that a lot of bartenders shun the use of jiggers and things of that nature when making their drinks because they feel that makes them look more amateur,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I find that balance is important to cocktails. You can’t find balance if you don’t have consistency.”
The drink was pale yellow in color and served in a thin goblet glass. The scent of vibrant citrus tinged my nostrils as I took my first sip. Not too sweet. Not too boozy. Perfectly balanced. Delicious, I told Foster.
He nodded his head. “People have been drinking really well for a long time, my friend.”
Foster moved to Sioux City from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July 2016, and began working at The Diving Elk around the same time. Owner C.J. Perera brought him onboard to run a cocktail program at the predominantly craft beer-centered bar.
The 37-year-old bartender said he’s had the opportunity to work in a lot of different cocktail bars in the past. Three years ago, Foster got back into cocktail bartending, which allowed him to develop connections with the members of his community.
“I think that is one of the coolest experiences that you can have in a bar,” he said. “You get to experience a community that is very diverse. We got all walks of life that come in, all experiences of drinking, all manner of different tastes and palates. I find that when you have that much of a diverse population, it makes it easy to keep life interesting.”
Making those connections was a huge drive for Foster, but admittedly he’s also a fan of spirits, particularly the educational aspects.
DRINK #2: IRISH OLD FASHIONED
I’m mostly a beer drinker. I don’t necessarily order mixed drinks or cocktails on a regular basis. Occasionally, I’ll order a White Russian or a Moscow Mule, but that’s it. My knowledge and experience with cocktails is rather limited, but Foster was kind enough to enlighten me on my next drink – an Irish Old Fashioned
Foster introduced an odd twist to the classic cocktail traditionally made with sugar, bitters, whiskey and a touch of citrus rind. He added a Guinness reduction to his Irish Old Fashioned. He poured a sample of the reduction into a shot glass for me to taste. The rich flavors of the Irish stout were heightened and vaguely tasted of maple syrup – I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to put that on my pancakes.
An Old Fashioned, Foster said, is one of the oldest cocktails in existence.
“They’re pretty basic cocktails,” he said. “They’re essentially the first cocktails. That’s why it’s called an Old Fashioned. You get into the 1800s and people got used to drinking and started seeing more cocktails on the scene. People would say, ‘Nah, I just want that old fashioned cocktail.’”
Back then, he added, water was added to drink because there wasn’t ice to dilute the drink.
“Now we stir it to dilute it. If you ever see me stirring or shaking, I’m watching adding water to the cocktail. Water is a very important part of a cocktail. It’s what brings balance.”
There’s that word again: balance. It’s a crucial element in cocktail making. An unbalanced cocktail can end up being too sour or too boozy. Those experiences can actually hinder people from ever ordering cocktails again, which is why Foster focuses on being consistent.
“With here, you know you’re going to get a balanced product,” he said. “When you’re rolling the dice for the cocktail, you’re really hoping that the establishment and the person doing it have some level of training or understanding of it and you have to believe that they have great product, too.”
So there has to be a certain level of trust?
Foster pointed to himself and then at me. “This right here is a relationship, right? Bartending and the patron experience is really a relationship based on…”
“Nope. Alcohol. You were very close though.”
DRINK #3: DAIQUIRI
Foster made two servings of the last drink to be share between the two of us. He chose one of his favorites: a daiquiri. Rum, lime and sugar.
“It’s so simple,” he said. “And it is so f***ing delicious.”
But although it may be a simple drink, it still requires skill and a sense of Foster’s favorite word: balance. To him, that’s the hallmark of a good cocktail. But Foster realizes that not everyone will like a daiquiri or an Old Fashioned.
“That’s the beauty about this business because it’s so module,” he said. “You can make anything.”
With a bevy of fresh ingredients and top-notch equipment at his disposal, Foster feels confident that he can make just about anything at The Diving Elk. At home, he has his own basement bar to hone his skills and enjoy the many variations of liquor stored in his cabinets.
His skills were put to the test in late February when he competed in the Perfect Pour: A Craft Cocktail Competition in Omaha. Foster was one of eight finalists representing bars from all around the Midwest and tasked with creating one-of-a-kind cocktails. Foster won the competition and received the Judges’ Choice award for his “Havana Nights” cocktail.
While skill is a very important factor in bartending, Foster said it ultimately comes down to the experience the customer is given.
“If I can provide a good experience, then I’ve done my job,” he said. “That’s what’s important to me. That’s the big win.”
Although Sioux City may be considered by some to be a “beer town,” Foster is working hard to broaden the area’s palate or at least develop an interest and spread education about cocktails.
“We make cocktails here. We try to make them properly. Beyond just enjoying it, if you ask questions and you can get an education from it, that’s what I would really love. I would love someone to come in and order a drink and leave that much smarter about the drink.
“Education is what will make the entire culture rise.”