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.”