How Cedar Rapids bartender Josh O’Connell turned his passion into a business

Local distiller Josh O’Connell produces high-end liquor and behind-the-bar fixtures. — photo by Zak Neumann

Not long ago, Josh O’Connell was flipping bottles behind a bar, taking orders from a menu of his own cocktail recipes. The tattooed and mustachioed mixologist delighted the public at the 2016 Cobble Hill and Pullman Corridor Mashup with his French Oak Old Fashioned, in which a mix of orange blossom water and bourbon was soaked in oak chips and strained out tableside with sophisticated flair.

Today, he sits in a quiet, sparse office space in Marion, standing watch over a 64-ounce glass jug. A slow stream of vodka trickles into the jug, freshly distilled from a copper and steel still that looks a bit like a metal coffee urn. This batch of corn-based vodka will fill five jugs with clear, 190-proof liquor; the sixth jug, called the tail, will be put back through the still to remove the fusel oils and the other less-than-tasty elements that tend to make their way into bottom-shelf vodkas.

Life as a distiller is a bit quieter than that of a bartender, but O’Connell is living the dream.

Helmed by two cocktail aficionados and a modest budget, Drams & Dashes began operation in May 2016. Their flagship products, Elemental romarin (rosemary) liqueur and Bark and Root cinnamon bitters, can be found at Hy-Vee stores and high-end cocktail bars alike. J.J. O’Connell’s Vodka is their first base liquor, unrolling in 2018.

With friend and partner Brian Rosteck handling the business logistics, O’Connell makes use of the still, half a dozen Breaking Bad-esque barrels full of fermenting ingredients and meticulous spreadsheets to create his small-batch creations. He understands the anatomy of a cocktail, and works towards mixers that will create layered, mind-blowing concoctions.

“You can have a wonderful drink that’s not just a sugar bomb,” O’Connell said. “Knowing how to work with your ingredients, liqueurs, syrups and things like that gives you the ability to put out a very, very similar drink in taste, but it’s not just loaded with sugar. You can also get more complexity.”

The Iowa Restaurant Association named O’Connell Iowa’s Top Mixologist of 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

While vodka is a standard product for a distillery, O’Connell and Rosteck have more adventurous creations in the works. “Product Ideas” are written in blue marker on a whiteboard in their workshop: liqueurs flavored with sweet corn, beets, rhubarb and coffee; citrus and horseradish vodka; thyme, stone fruit and bay leaf bitters; and much more.

“My favorite thing to distill is something new,” O’Connell said.

Before Drams & Dashes, before he was crowned Iowa’s Top Mixologist of 2016 by the Iowa Restaurant Association and before he even mixed his first cocktail, a 17-year-old O’Connell joined the U.S. Army as a paratrooper and combat engineer. When he returned from overseas, his first bartending job was at The Knight Spot in Springville, Iowa, a small-town joint where he not only served beers but had to break up as many as three fights a night. By day, he worked as an electrician until a shoulder injury made the job difficult (shoulder pain still prevents him from heavy-lifting, which is why he must distill his vodka into small containers).

O’Connell’s passion for mixology blossomed while working towards his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Iowa. He applied his scientific mind to his bartending side-job.

“I’ve always kind of been a tinkerer. I like building weird stuff in my garage, so this was just kind of another facet of it,” he said. “Once you start asking questions about [bar science] you start to realize ‘whoa, I really don’t know what goes into tonic water. I know I read somewhere there’s quinine. OK, what the heck’s quinine?’ It just snowballs.”

“I was kind of on a mission for a while to make everything from scratch that you’d find in a normal bar. I can read about it all day long, but once you make it then you really know it.”

Mixology, both theory and practice, became a satisfying and well-paying career, and O’Connell dropped out of engineering school with only a few credits left to go. In addition to entertaining with bar and card tricks, O’Connell would bring his DIY creations into work—most recently, Cedar Rapids’ Black Sheep Social Club and Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary—and incorporate them in his original recipes.

He quickly garnered fans, including future business partner Rosteck, who insisted O’Connell market his homemade crème de cassis. Their conversations around drinks and entrepreneurship manifested into Drams & Dashes.

“Brian gets the craft side of this,” O’Connell said. “He has a passion for fun, new products. He’s really good business-wise … where my bread and butter is playing like an evil scientist in the lab.”

It’s not unusual for microbreweries to sprout up in eastern Iowa, but distilleries are fewer and further between, with about 20 registered across the state. Even more rare is to find a distillery that not only produces spirits, but other behind-the-bar fixtures—bitters, tonic water, vermouth—that cocktail drinkers may take for granted.

“I really do think trends will come to Iowa where craft cocktails will have a similar surge as craft beer. I look towards the bigger cities, and craft cocktails are the rage in the bigger cities right now,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell sometimes has a future cocktail in mind when he brainstorms new products, and sometimes not. Recently, he has been working with pears—boiling them with alcohol and water in the still; suspending them in the dome of the still so only the vapor picks up the flavor; doing a pear infusion, and letting the fruit soak for minutes, hours or days. The trials are endless, but will hopefully result in the perfect pear liqueur or gin.

“My favorite thing to distill is something new,” said Josh O’Connell. — photo by Zak Neumann

“There are people that tell you that suspended is best, but until you actually do it—I want to taste the difference, I want to see that exact thing done this way and that way,” O’Connell said. “When I was at Cobble Hill and I had an idea for a drink, I would try it out that night and have it on the menu the next day or two if it worked, where this is, you come up with a product idea and if you’re moving fast, six months later you’ll have it out.”

Distillation can bring out the best and worst in a flavor. For example, O’Connell’s early attempts at making rhubarb liqueur produced an overly tart profile. He’s now experimenting with mixing angelica root with rhubarb to add some earthiness.

Other normally benign ingredients can become dangerous when concentrated by distillation. When O’Connell distilled clove, he was surprised to find an oily glob sitting on the bottom of the container, as oil usually floats. This clove oil contains eugenol, a substance formerly used in dentistry to numb the mouth, before it was dubbed too hazardous. He didn’t taste test the product.

His idea to create shamrock liqueur as a St. Patrick’s Day treat also met with complications. When clover leaves ferment, O’Connell discovered in research, they create a toxin used in rat poison that causes internal bleeding and death.

“So, you know, that one’s on the backburner for a while,” O’Connell said with a laugh. He’s now considering the clover flower, a common ingredient in teas.

“Half of that stuff up there probably won’t make it onto a store shelf,” O’Connell said, pointing to the whiteboard, “but it’s kind of my process to have a plethora of ideas and start working through them. Some are flavors I’ve worked with before that have been popular, and people have responded to well. Some of it is just fun.”

O’Connell’s ambitions stretch much further than the upcoming vodka release and the possibilities on the whiteboard. He envisions a workroom free of 55-gallon drums, stocked with industrial tanks, vats, scales, 100-percent locally-sourced ingredients and a gorgeous large-scale still.

But for a young start-up, Drams & Dashes is on its way. O’Connell, who continues to book private bartending gigs on the side, is still getting used to the idea of mixing a drink with bottles bearing his own name.

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