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Festival toasts KC’s hot cocktail culture

Some of Kansas City's top bartenders are participating in the Paris of the Plains cocktail festival. From left, Berto Santoro of Extra Virgin, Ryan Maybee of Manifesto, Paige Unger of Michael Smith, Travis Stewart of Port Fonda, Mark Church of Grunauer, Arturo Vera-Felicie of The Farmhouse, and Jenn Tosatto of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange (front).

A sip of Paris of the Plains

Kansas City’s new cocktail festival blends all sorts of spirited events — parties, dinners, competitions, seminars and industry gatherings — over one week in Kansas City. To order tickets or see a complete list of events, go to popfestkc.com.

A Farmer’s Dinner

Locally grown ingredients are the star at this five-course farm-to-table dinner, which features food by The Farmhouse chef/owner Michael Foust and cocktails by bar manager Arturo Vera-Felicie, winner of the 2009 Greater Kansas City bartending competition. Tickets cost $75 plus tax and gratuity. To make reservations, call The Farmhouse at 816.569.6032.

  • 7-10 p.m. Tuesday at Farmhouse, 300 Delaware St., River Market

Tequila Tasting Dinner

Mestizo executive chef Brad Rishmany prepares contemporary Mexican cuisine with tequila pairings in mind. Among the six courses: Adobo cured pork belly with Corzo anejo (aged) tequila; halibut ceviche with Herradura reposado (rested) tequila; and an endive, mango and habanero salad served with Mestizo’s house margarita. Brian Finegold from Standard Beverage Corp. will be there to talk tequila. Tickets cost $75 plus tax and gratuity. To make reservations, call Mestizo at 913.752.9025.

  • 6-8 p.m. Aug. 22 at Mestizo, 5270 W. 116th Place, Leawood

Midwest Mohawk Melee

Mohawked bartenders from Kansas City and St. Louis stir up their meanest trash talk and cocktail recipes. A $30 ticket gets you samples of six drinks: two punches, two cocktails on tap, and two shaken or stirred drinks.

  • 3-5 p.m. Aug. 23 at Manifesto, 1924 Main St., Crossroads Arts District

Angostura Bitters Dinner

The Rieger’s chef/owner Howard Hanna cooks four courses with Angostura bitters, a key ingredient in many cocktails. Festival co-founder Ryan Maybee, co-owner of the Rieger and Manifesto, will also use bitters in four cocktail recipes. Tickets cost $90 plus tax and gratuity. To make reservations, call The Rieger at 816.471.2177.

  • 6-9 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, 1924 Main St., Crossroads Arts District

Dale DeGroff’s Night on the Town

Dale DeGroff, award-winning mixologist and author of “The Craft of the Cocktail,” tells stories of bygone bar culture, from colonial times through Prohibition. Also on the agenda: music and gin and whiskey cocktails. Tickets cost $40, and proceeds benefit the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.

  • 9-11 p.m. Aug. 23 at Nica’s 320, 320 Southwest Blvd., Crossroads Arts District

Snuffling your Horsefeathers

Kansas City improvisational, avant-garde band Snuff Jazz provides the music as Chris Conatser, winner of the 2008 Greater Kansas City bartending competition, mixes up Horse Feathers for the whole crowd. Entry is $5 at the door.

  • 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Aug. 23 at Grünauer, 101 W. 22nd St., Freight House District

Paris of the Plains, Sez Who?

Local author and historian John Simonson explains how Kansas City got its Paris of the Plains moniker. Ryan Maybee will mix up Kansas City-inspired cocktails. Tickets are $35.

  • 3-4:30 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Westin Crown Center, 1 E. Pershing Road

A tribute to Count Basie

Kansas City jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teams with the New Jazz Order in a tribute to legendary musician and onetime Kansas City resident William “Count” Basie. The event will be one of the first at The Kill Devil Club, a new jazz lounge that Ryan Maybee is consulting on in the Power & Light District. Tickets cost $40 and include food and gin cocktails from the event’s sponsor, Tanqueray.

  • 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Aug. 24 at the Kill Devil Club, 31 E. 14th St., Power & Light District

On a Dessert Island

Christopher Elbow and Master of Wine Doug Frost match chocolates with complementing cocktails at this incredibly decadent seminar. Tickets cost $35.

  • 3-4:15 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Westin Crown Center, 1 E. Pershing Road


A brewer from Boulevard Brewing Co., co-hosts a seminar on beer in cocktails with mixologists Ryan Maybee and Ryan Conklin from Euclid Hall in Denver, Colo. Tickets cost $35.

  • 4:30-5:45 p.m. Aug. 25 at The Westin Crown Center, 1 E. Pershing Rd.

Crayola Cafe Agave Dinner

Steve Olson, a nationally recognized expert on wine, beer and spirits, crafts tequila and mezcal cocktails to complement food by Crayola Cafe executive chef Greg Bauer. The bold menu features mezcal-cured salmon and flank steak rubbed with coffee from South America. Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, will be there to talk agave. Tickets cost $85 and include tax and gratuity.

  • 6-9 p.m. Aug. 25 at Crayola Cafe, 2500 Grand Blvd., Crown Center

Wine-tails Dinner

Master of Wine Doug Frost pairs with The American Restaurant’s executive chef Debbie Gold (who you might recognize from Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters”) on a five-course meal served alongside cocktails made with Missouri wines. Tickets cost $75 plus tax and gratuity.

  • 6-9 p.m. Aug. 25 at the American Restaurant, 2511 Grand Blvd.

Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition

Twelve bartenders (including six from Kansas City) concoct their best cocktails and compete for a $1,000 grand prize. The competition, now in its sixth year, gets bigger every time. This year’s event is a party, with burlesque performances and live music. There will also be food from The Farmhouse, Gram & Dun, Local Pig, Chez Elle, Tannin Wine Bar and other local restaurants. Tickets cost $25 at ticketmaster.com and include one drink token.

  • 6-10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26 at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway

KCPT Paris of the Plains Gala

The cocktail festival’s culminating event is a big party with live music, dancing, small plates by Debbie Gold and cocktails handcrafted by top bartenders from the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition. Tickets cost $100 each at kcpt.org. VIP tickets are available for $250 and come with gifts, behind-the-bar tours and extra access to the bartenders. Proceeds benefit KCPT.

  • 6-9 p.m. Aug. 27 at the American Restaurant


Five years ago, Ryan Maybee helped start a little bartending competition in Kansas City.

At the time, Maybee was on the lookout for like-minded bartenders — cocktail geeks who tweaked 100-year-old recipes for fun and preferred fresh-squeezed juice over mix. Passionate people who considered their work a craft, not just a job, but didn’t take themselves too seriously.

“We wanted to create a community and build a reputation for Kansas City,” Maybee says, adding that since that first Greater Kansas City bartending competition in 2007, “we’ve achieved that.”

Over the past few years, Maybee and a growing group of passionate Kansas City bartenders have shaken up a thriving cocktail culture from scratch.

Cosmos and Red Bull vodkas have been booted from local menus in place of classic cocktails like Negronis and Manhattans. Bartenders have become more like chefs, making their own bitters and syrups from scratch and infusing spirits with ingredients such as smoked honey and jalapenos.

Kansas City is drinking it up, and outsiders are beginning to buzz about what’s happening here.

Last month, BBC Travel declared that Kansas City is in the midst of a cultural renaissance, and that cocktail bars — along with craft beer bars, farm-to-table restaurants and art venues — could “help reclaim the city’s status as the Paris of the Plains. ”

With all of that in mind, Maybee and his competition collaborators Doug Frost and Brandon Cummins decided to expand their one-night bartending event into the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, a week of parties, dinners, seminars and contests for everyone from casual drinkers to industry insiders.

The festival toasts Kansas City’s new cocktail culture, an ever-evolving recipe with four main components: history, collaboration, innovation and inspiration.

One part history

Kansas City scored its Paris of the Plains nickname during Prohibition, when city boss Tom Pendergast made sure that alcohol flowed freely despite a nationwide ban on booze.

“If you want to see some sin,” columnist Edward Morrow wrote in the Omaha World-Herald, “forget about Paris and head to Kansas City.”

In 2009, Ryan Maybee attempted to evoke that dark, intriguing chapter in Kansas City history with Manifesto, an unmarked bar at 1924 Main St. To get inside, you make a reservation, enter through an alley and descend a steep, creaky flight of stairs. Behind the dimly lit bar, vested mixologists use eye droppers and four kinds of ice to craft some of the best cocktails in the Midwest.

Manifesto’s Unbridled Julep, a smoke-infused mint julep, recently was named one of the 10 coolest new cocktails in the country by Yahoo! Travel.

The bar has innovated the use of smoke, a flavor that defines Kansas City barbecue, in cocktails. One of its most popular and enduring drinks is the Smokin’ Choke, $11, a play on the Old Fashioned, but made with applewood smoke-infused Four Roses bourbon and maple syrup.

Another go-to spot for throwback cocktails is Westport Cafe & Bar, which opened in Westport in 2010. The bartenders there know the recipes for Manhattans and Moscow Mules by heart, but they also like to get creative. They’ll infuse tequila with jalapenos and create shrubs, syrups made with fruit, sugar and vinegar that add a bright flavor to drinks.

Westport Cafe’s Bitter Spirit, $8, completely tosses out the cocktail rulebook by using bitters as the star ingredient.

“Usually bitters are a seasoning, like salt and pepper,” bartender Ryan Miller said before shaking Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters with egg whites, lemon juice and simple syrup, which counterbalances those pucker-inducing bitters. The pinkish cocktail, which gets its fluffy layer of froth from the egg whites, is punchy and refreshing, even on a 100-degree day.

One part collaboration

Kansas City’s cocktails often are inspired by the city’s equally buzz-worthy cuisine.

Earlier this year, James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, said on “The Today Show” that Kansas City is an emerging culinary destination poised to have its moment in 2012.

That’s great news for local bartenders, who are gathering inspiration and ingredients from the kitchen.

At Grünauer, an Austrian restaurant that opened in the Freight House in 2010, bar managers Mark Church and Scott Beskow are using water squeezed from heirloom tomatoes in martinis and combining leftover apple strudel juice with dark rum in the popular Flussiger Strudel, $8, which was featured last year in Imbibe magazine.

The bartenders also think like chefs when they’re inventing new drinks: balancing sweet with bitter, coming up with the perfect presentation, and building complex flavor profiles out of multiple ingredients.

Recently Beskow duplicated the taste of root beer in a recipe inspired by an Old Fashioned.

The Sassafras, $9, gets vanilla flavor from bourbon and clove, cinnamon and cocoa flavors from bitters. Beskow adds a twist of orange and sassafras syrup to round out the root beer flavor.

Chris Conatser, a bartender and botanist who works at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, also makes a root beer-inspired Old Fashioned. Conatser’s version, $9, is made with bourbon he infused with sassafras and a long list of spices that includes ginger, wintergreen and dandelion root.

Like the chefs at Justus Drugstore, Conatser is constantly raiding the backyard herb garden. He dunks fresh-picked dill in tequila, then combines the infused tequila with fresh watermelon juice, lime juice and simple syrup to make a Dillydally, $9, one of the most popular drinks on the bar’s summer menu.

Conatser also collaborates with Lindsay Laricks, who owns Little Freshie. The pint-sized coffee shop and snow cone stand at 811 W. 17th St. sells several of Conatser’s homemade nonalcoholic sodas, including root beer and a spicy Concord grape soda made with orange blossom, cinnamon and basil.

One part innovation

Kansas City bartenders aren’t just following trends — they’re setting them.

Conatser has helped Justus Drugstore become a destination for cocktails by using ingredients that no one else has. Last fall, he made bitters that taste the way autumn leaves smell and infused bourbon with smoked sweet potatoes and sumac he foraged from local fields.

Arturo Vera-Felicie, bar manager at The Farmhouse in the River Market, is making bottled cocktails that taste like alcoholic soda pops. His favorite, the Old Fashioned BrewPop!, $8, pairs 12-year-old Irish whiskey with a tart cherry shrub. Vera-Felicie recommends drinking it straight from the bottle, perhaps even with a bendy straw.

Vera-Felicie has a history of taking risks: In 2009, he won the Greater Kansas City bartending competition with his West Bottoms Social Club cocktail, which got its sweet and sour flavor from pickled fig syrup.

“It was my first time making a shrub,” he says.

Another local bartender known for testing new techniques is Berto Santoro, bar manager at Extra Virgin in the Crossroads Arts District. Santoro ages Old Overholt rye whiskey in barrels with Carpana Antica Formula vermouth for 10 weeks. Then he taps the barrel and uses the mix in his Barrel Aged Rye Manhattans, $13, which are garnished with brandy-soaked Amarena cherries from Italy.

“It turns out to be the best Manhattan ever,” Santoro says.

Santoro, a finalist in this year’s bartending competition, is also honing a new recipe for a gin cocktail with lemon, mint, bitters, a splash of Boulevard’s Saison-Brett beer and a strawberry-and-red-peppercorn shrub. He says most of his drinks are infused with subtle smokiness, because Extra Virgin’s wood-fired oven is just a few steps from the bar. Working next to the restaurant’s chef and owner, Michael Smith, is a constant source of inspiration for Santoro.

“I want to make the cocktails as good as he makes the food,” Santoro says.

Bartenders outside of Kansas City are starting to pick up on that passion.

Stephan Mendez, a self-described cocktails geek who works at Bar 1919 in San Antonio, Texas, has traveled to Boston and New York City just to try new drinks. Next week, he and a friend are flying to Kansas City to attend seminars on Irish whiskey, punch and tequila at the Paris of the Plains festival. Mendez says he’s never been to Kansas City, but has heard good things about Manifesto and Ryan Maybee.

“I know that everything he’s been doing is top notch,” Mendez says. “I definitely want to see what’s going on up there.”

One part inspiration

Since Manifesto opened three years ago, it has developed a cult-like following among up-and-coming bartenders.

Eric Schmidt and Stewart Hammer, who co-manage a new cocktail bar in Waldo called Remedy, consider it their homework to go to Manifesto or Harry’s Bar and Tables in Westport. There they gather inspiration for their own cocktail menu, which is heavy on classic cocktails such as the Aviation.

Schmidt, a bartender from Houston, got his start making rum drinks on cruise ships. He loved his job but dreamed of working at a craft bar where he could delve deeper into classic cocktails and invent original recipes. So on a whim a few months ago, he moved to Kansas City.

“I absolutely love it here,” he says. “There’s no traffic, and the cocktail culture is awesome.”

Bartender Jenn Tosatto was blown away by her first drink at Manifesto.

“I stalked Ryan Maybee until he hired me,” Tosatto says.

Now Tosatto manages Maybee’s other bar, upstairs at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. She has logos for both businesses tattooed in black ink on her forearms. Last month, she went with Maybee and Cummins to the Tales of the Cocktail Festival in New Orleans, where Manifesto represented the Midwest in a national bartending competition called the Bar Room Brawl.

Tosatto says that before the trip, she started getting Facebook messages from other bartenders around the country who said they couldn’t wait to try Manifesto’s cocktails.

“And these are bartenders I’ve read about in books,” Tosatto says.

Brandon Cummins, the Paris of the Plains festival co-founder, says he’s been to the New Orleans event several times, but that this year, everyone was buzzing about Kansas City.

“They’d say, ‘I keep hearing about Kansas City and how much you’re killing it,’ ” Cummins says.

Outsiders see Kansas City as a melting pot of cocktail trends from across the country, he says. An innovative but approachable place that’s finally coming into its own.

“Our cocktail culture was behind,” Cummins says. “That’s the major advantage we had. It gave us time to watch everything that’s happened and develop a very unique approach.”

That approach is constantly evolving. Take Port Fonda, for example. The new contemporary Mexican restaurant in Westport has some of the most interesting drinks in town.

Travis Stewart, Port Fonda’s bar manager, is going all mad scientist behind the bar, making shrubs with mango, mint, cilantro and jalapeno and infusing tequila and mezcal with everything from chilies to toasted annatto seeds.

Stewart is an artist: He studied drawing and painting at Kansas State University, and in between classes learned to craft classic cocktails at 4 Olives Restaurant and Wine Bar in Manhattan, Kan. When he moved home to Kansas City, he got a job barbacking at Manifesto. He started reading old cocktail books and carrying around a notepad so he could jot down ideas for new recipes.

When Stewart got the job at Port Fonda in January, he promised the restaurant’s chef and owner, Patrick Ryan, that he would make the best cocktails in the city. Stewart took that promise seriously. He started drinking only tequila and mezcal. He spent weeks working on the house margarita — which gets floral flavor from rosy hibiscus syrup — and worked hard to find ways to balance the big, smoky flavor of mezcal in cocktails.

One of Stewart’s favorite creations is the Johnny Ringo, $11, a mezcal and gin drink made with celery bitters and pickled melon rind, an ingredient used in some of Port Fonda’s dishes. Every sip of the drink tells a story: The first taste is sweet, almost flowery. Smoky mezcal takes over for a while until fresh hints of cucumber and celery punctuate the aftertaste.

Like Maybee and a growing number of bartenders in Kansas City, Stewart sees cocktails as a form of self-expression.

“Our bartenders are finding themselves,” Stewart says. “They’re making statements.

“Kansas City isn’t a place where we borrow ideas. It’s where we create.”


  1. 3 years, 1 month ago

    excellent story.

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