At 14 years old, Bretta Van Bockel wasn’t very familiar with Baileys, the sweet, Irish whiskey- and cream-based liqueur frequently paired with coffee drinks. In her first restaurant job, however, it quickly became an ingredient she would never forget.
“I was working at the first restaurant I ever worked at. We didn’t have a liquor license, we didn’t sell beer or wine or anything, but this lady asked me for a coffee with Baileys,” Van Bockel recalled. “I was 14. I had no idea what Baileys was, so I thought she said ‘bay leaves.’ I really took this woman a coffee with bay leaves in it.”
Now 31 with 10 years of bartending experience under her belt, Van Bockel is able to laugh at the mixup.
“I still think it’s funny,” she said. “She laughed about it. She thought it was funny, too.”
Van Bockel has lived in Coastal Georgia for a little more than a decade, working as a bartender at several locations, including The Westin, The Jekyll Island Club and Driftwood Bistro on Jekyll Island. Despite her years of practice, Van Bockel still finds herself splashing green sprigs into customers’ drinks. The difference is, now, it’s on purpose.
“I like to get weird,” she said. “I like to use weird stuff, root vegetables, fruit — I really like cucumbers in a lot of things. I like using different garnishes, like cheese. I just like to make it weird.”
Stacks of cocktail books from around the world have served as inspirations for Van Bockel’s “weird” drinks, along with different liquors she has stumbled upon behind the bar.
“A lot of times when you get a liquor order in (from distributors), you get a free bottle of something promotional,” she said. “It’s usually something bizarre, and you want to use that because it’s pure profit, so you have to think outside of the box.”
Van Bockel has used some of her creative cocktail thinking to prepare for a competition Friday. Along with six other local bartenders, she will compete in the Coastal Stir Challenge at the St. Simons Island Food and Spirits Festival.
Using either Four Roses Bourbon, Ghost Coast Distillery Vodka, Richland Rum or Maestro Dobel Tequila, the bartenders in the challenge, who are each representing a local business, were tasked with creating one or two recipes to showcase during the competition.
Van Bockel will be serving up two drinks Friday while representing Moondoggy’s Pizza in Brunswick, using Richland Rum and Ghost Coast Distillery Vodka.
“I’m going to use the Richland Rum and try to make an Irish cream with it,” she said. “I’m using an old Irish recipe, and using the rum instead of Irish whiskey in it.”
With the vodka, she plans to make a sweet chocolate martini.
Van Bockel placed in the Coastal Stir Challenge last year, and hopes to “wow” the crowd with her creations again, she said. Whether or not she wins, she said, competitions like this help her sharpen her skills and have some fun behind the bar. Although she isn’t currently bartending full time, Van Bockel plans to continue shaking, stirring and pouring for other competitions and special events.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I love watching these events come together.”