Industries rise and fall based on any number of forces, but Jeff Wuslich, co-founder of Bloomington’s Cardinal Spirits, can trace the success of his to a big one: Mad Men, he says, joking. “If Don Draper wasn’t drinking old-fashioneds and looking amazing, this would be a much different place.”
The place is Cardinal Spirits, a distillery, tasting room, and now restaurant that Wuslich and Adam Quirk launched in 2015 to ride the Draper-fueled wave. “The pope blessed wine, and you’re allowed to have a beer with your dad, but spirits were still like, hmmm,” says Wuslich. “That’s why we’re trying to expose people to many different spirits in many different ways.”
Their clean ace: cocktails. Cardinal currently has whiskey resting in barrels that they release in limited quantities. But their spirits include a spiced rum with citrus and vanilla notes, and a bramble vodka that involves black raspberries, hibiscus, and agave. (There’s also a coffee liqueur that’s suitable for all manner of cocktails, if you’re not just drinking it straight.) As their drinks don’t cost $2, Cardinal isn’t out to grab Bloomington’s undergrad crowd. Its location on Bloomington’s oft-trod Rail Trail draws a lively mix of faculty, residents, and not-quite-as-young people. “I’m pleased to see the diversity we get. Young people are discovering spirits, and the older generation is rediscovering well-made and executed cocktails,” Wuslich says.
Wuslich figured that the wizards in the back room would come up with recipes and send them out to the bar, but the reverse has proven true. For the most part, bartenders sense trends and requests, and Cardinal responds. (On the day of our interview, master distiller Justin Hughey had spent the afternoon hand-peeling hundreds of oranges.)
Things are falling in Cardinal’s favor. Their Terra Botanical gin—“our pride and joy,” says Wuslich—received sunny write-ups in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Cardinal opened a full kitchen a year ago. And you can barely walk a Bloomington block without seeing their name. “Businesses in Bloomington, it’s kind of understood that you’re a member of the community,” he says. “But we feel like we have to do education to get people over the hump from, ‘Oh, I don’t drink vodka,’ ‘Oh, I don’t drink gin.’ Well, let’s try one of those things in a beautiful cocktail and see what happens.”
922 S. Morton St., Bloomington, 812-202-6789, cardinalspirits.com