In January, Kansas City bartenders Paige Unger and Jenn Tosatto stood on a stage in St. Louis making drinks on command — and as quickly as possible — for a crowd of judges and cocktail geeks.
Unger and Tosatto beat out six bartenders from St. Louis for a spot in the final round of the Midwest’s 2013 Speed Rack, a national cocktail competition created by and for female bartenders in 2011. Its goal? Highlight stars in an up-and-coming generation of strong women in the spirits industry while raising money for breast cancer prevention and research.
Unger beat Tosatto to the buzzer and ultimately won the Miss Speed Rack title. But both women proved that Kansas City bartenders are among the best in the Midwest. They did it again last month at the Paris of the Plains bartending competition (previously known as the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition). Unger took first and Tosatto second. It was the first time in the competition’s seven-year history that a female bartender took the top prize.
Kansas City’s craft cocktail scene and the people who drive it have built a national reputation in recent years. In 2013, Manifesto owner and Paris of the Plains cocktail festival organizer Ryan Maybee was named Imbibe’s bartender of the year.
But Kansas City’s female bartenders aren’t as well known, Tosatto says. Not yet.
“Even in this city, when you ask people who the top bartenders are, very few female names come up,” says Tosatto, the bar manager at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. “It’s the same way in the chefs’ world. Nobody quite knows why, but we’re trying to change it.”
The Kansas City chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, a professional association of bartenders that aims to elevate the craft through education and collaboration, was formed a year ago. It has 52 members, 16 of them women.
The local bar scene, and particularly the craft cocktail world, “is super male-dominated,” Unger says.
But that could be changing thanks to Unger, Tosatto and other talented bartenders in KC, including Caitlin Corcoran of Port Fonda, Susan Avery of Cafe Europa and Katie Garcia, a guild member who started her bartending career at nightclubs like Blonde and Mosaic Lounge and now develops menus and infusion programs for bars such as La Bodega and Remedy.
Garcia says that if she’s the minority in KC, it doesn’t feel like it. She looks around and sees inspiring bartenders everywhere, male and female. She points to Tosatto, Unger, Maybee and Berto Santoro of Extra Virgin.
“They eat, breathe and live everything about mixology and creating,” Garcia says. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Tosatto, who has represented Kansas City in bartending competitions from New Orleans to New York City, says our bar scene has a reputation for inclusiveness.
“Our identity as a bartending community is one of togetherness and camaraderie,” she says. “It’s something people around the country have commented on. Here in KC, we push each other. But we also really support each other.”
Recently, we chatted up Tosatto, Unger and Garcia — and the cocktail queens spilled on everything from the fall’s coolest drink ingredients to bartending pet peeves and hangover cures. Kansas City bartenders rule.
Queen of Culinary Cocktails
Paige Unger sees every job as an opportunity to learn.
When she was 22, she was working as a server at M&S Grill on the Country Club Plaza when she asked bartender Scott Beskow to teach her to make a few drinks. Unger was like a sponge, soaking up any information about cocktails, and it wasn’t long before she was inventing recipes.
At Bluestem, she gained an appreciation for details working with bar manager Van Zarr. It didn’t hurt that chefs Megan and Colby Garrelts were working right around the corner.
Working with the Garreltses and Michael Smith — Unger’s current boss at Extra Virgin — has inspired the bartender to take a culinary approach to cocktails.
Much of Unger’s prep work is done in the kitchen. She makes blackberry-thyme puree to brighten gin cocktails, brews Earl Grey tea and then freezes it into cubes, and makes a beet shrub by simmering fresh beets with vinegar and sugar.
The shrub was the star ingredient in the Beet Goes On, the Campari cocktail that helped Unger win the 2013 Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition.
This year was Unger’s fourth at Kansas City’s biggest bartending competition and her first time cracking the top three.
“I guess I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” she says, so when they announced her name, “my jaw dropped to the ground.”
Don’t let the modesty fool you: Unger definitely has a competitive side. The former gymnast and cheerleader says she “was on fire” when she won the Midwest bout of the 2013 Speed Rack Bartending Competition.
To win, Unger had to memorize 50 cocktail recipes and then execute them on command with speed and accuracy.
“The first round, I almost lost it,” Unger says. “I was pouring a cocktail, and I had a rum bottle in my hand instead of a gin bottle. It was an egg white cocktail, and my yolk broke.”
But Unger caught the yolk, switched the bottles and ultimately took home the Miss Speed Rack title. Performing under pressure? It’s just one more skill under this seasoned bartender’s belt.
Go-to drink: “A High Life and a shot of Jameson. Oh my God, I love High Life. We always have a 24-pack of High Life in our fridge.”
Most despised drink: “Anything with pineapple — I have an allergy to it. So probably a pina colada.”
Secret ingredients: “Italian bitter liqueurs. Campari, Fernet, Amaro and Cynar, an artichoke liqueur. They remind me of being in Italy.”
Cocktail: “The Negroni that I had in Italy. It was the perfect Negroni, made by the Italian national historian of the Negroni cocktail. Everyone has their own way to make a Negroni, but I have the way. It’s the best.”
Wine: “I am obsessed with rosé. I had a problem this summer where I would go out and rosé all day.”
Bar food: “French fries. They sober you up, but they’re so bad for you.”
Bartenders: “Ryan Miller at Voltaire. He has one of the driest senses of humor, and he’s such a good bartender. He’ll make any cocktail or pour you a glass of wine. I love seeing Scott (Beskow, the bar manager at Grunauer). Ryan Zwisler works at Affare; I love to go there for a glass of wine after work. Beau (Williams) and Jenn (Tosatto) at Manifesto and the Rieger.”
Pet peeve: “Sitting at a bar and not even getting a ‘Hello’ or a glass of water. I don’t like when bartenders feel like they need to wait five minutes before they acknowledge your presence. There’s a lot of snobby bartenders out there.”
Hangover cure: “An Aleve and a giant iced tea. Something about the caffeine helps.”
Craft beer: “I like drinking pale ales and IPAs. Probably my favorite beer in the entire world is Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. It’s an IPA, but it has a lot of floral notes.”
Uncool-est drink: “Probably a daiquiri. A strawberry daiquiri.”
Hottest drink: “Anything with mezcal. Everybody loves mezcal and agave-based spirits.”
Queen of The Stirred Drink
Jenn Tosatto’s cocktails are a lot like the bartender — bold yet instantly likable.
“They’re boozy and in-your-face but still well-balanced,” Tosatto says.
Unlike James Bond, this bartender prefers her drinks stirred, not shaken. In fact, she likes stirred drinks so much that she has stirring spoons inked on her forearms alongside crests for Manifesto (where she developed her bartending skills) and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, where she’s now bar manager.
Tosatto, also known as Fire Hawk in the competition circuit, has represented Kansas City at national cocktail festivals such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and prestigious contests such as the Diageo World Class U.S. finals in 2012.
“It challenged every aspect of being a bartender,” Tosatto says of the Diageo finals. “Making drinks on the fly, food pairing, presentation.”
She’s used to high-pressure competition. Tosatto has been in a finalist in the Paris of the Plains bartending competition for the past six years. She took second this year and last year.
“I’m definitely always a bridesmaid,” Tosatto says.
Not at the Rieger, where this rock star bartender wins over customers nightly with some of the most creative cocktails in town. Her current menu features the Downstairs Mixup, $10, which boldly pairs smoky mezcal with strawberry-lemongrass syrup and fresh citrus.
For fall, “I’ve been really looking forward to Oktoberfest beers and pumpkin ales,” Tosatto says. Look for beer cocktails — stirred, of course — on the Rieger’s menu next month.
Go-to drink: “When I go out, I drink Miller High Life and Sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur).”
Cocktail: “A mint julep is my death-bed cocktail. Preferably made by Beau Williams (of Manifesto) because he makes the best mint julep I’ve ever had in my life.”
Spirit: “I’m a big fan of Del Maguey mezcal. And sherry, I love sherry.”
Most despised drink: “I’ve gotta go with the dirty vodka martini. I think that drink should be banned and buried in a time capsule. It’s a bastardization of a classic drink … but you know what, if it’s what my guest wants, I’m down with it.”
Ingredient: “I really like yuzu. I love the flavor. It’s just really bright and kind of tart, kind of sweet. It’s an interesting alternative to your typical citrus.”
Bars: “Harry’s Bar and Tables. It’s kind of a service industry hangout. Dave Misler at Harry’s is one of the best bartenders in the city. You can go in there once, he remembers your name and your drink. You just feel so welcome, you don’t want to leave. I’m loving Grunauer. Voltaire really impressed the hell out of me.”
Pet peeve: “I’m a monster when it comes to garnishes. If it’s an orange peel, I want it done with a vegetable peeler and not a knife so there’s no pith in it.”
Hangover cure: “If I think I might have a hangover, I set my alarm an hour and a half early, I take 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen and a bottle of Pedialyte. It has never failed me.”
Beer: “I’m a fan of the Flemish red sour beers. I really like Monk’s Cafe. Also, (Ommegang’s) Three Philosophers.”
Bar food: “I’m a big fan of soft pretzels, like at McCoy’s. Oh yeah.”
Uncool-est drink: Any of those damn Skinnygirl drinks. You know what’s going to happen — I’m going to make your damn Skinnygirl margarita and you’re going to send it back because it’s not sweet enough.”
Hottest drink: “I think the Pendergast is pretty popular. It’s becoming the penultimate Kansas City cocktail. It’s bourbon, sweet vermouth, Benedictine (herbal liqueur) and Angostura bitters.”
Queen of Healing Potions
Katie Garcia has spent a good chunk of her 20s slinging shots at Kansas City nightclubs.
Garcia’s resume includes stints at Blonde (a Country Club Plaza nightclub that closed in 2010) and Mosaic Lounge in the Power & Light District. She has seen it all in the nocturnal world of VIPs and bottle service.
“I have so many horror stories,” Garcia says, “and you can read them in my tell-all book when I’m finished writing it.”
Over the past few years, Garcia has traded Vegas Bombs for craft cocktails made with fresh juice and herbs. She has revamped La Bodega’s menu with infused cocktails and consulted on the debut drink menu at Remedy, which opened last year in Waldo.
In May, Garcia served strawberry and jalapeno-spiked Samogon cocktails alongside food by Kansas City top chefs Celina Tio, Colby Garrelts, Michael Smith and Patrick Ryan at Comida, a benefit for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
But cocktails aren’t her only gig: Between shifts at the Drop and Empire Room, Garcia is growing her massage therapy business. She’s also passionate about martial arts and fitness, so health plays a big role in her job as a bartender.
Garcia bans diet soda and energy drinks from her cocktails. She much prefers grapefruit juice, cucumber slices and gluten-free vodka infused with pineapple. The USBG member is experimenting with cocktails made with coconut water and kombucha.
“If I’m going to serve an alcoholic beverage to somebody, I’m going to make it as healthy as possible,” Garcia says, “because I feel like I have a moral obligation to help people in both my jobs.”
Cocktail: The Stay Wet from Manifesto. “It’s an egg white cocktail with infused seasonal vodka. It’s got lemon in it, so it’s got that citrusy tartness that I love. I love egg white because you’re getting protein in your cocktail.”
Despised drink: “Anything with Rumple Minze is disgusting. I hate Jager. I hate Goldschlager.”
Liqueur: “St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur. It’s really fragrant and versatile. I love it with fresh-squeezed grapefruit.”
Herbs: “Sage and rosemary. Both have healing properties, especially sage.”
Spirit: “Tito’s is a really great vodka to work with. It’s gluten-free, made from sweet corn. It infuses really well because corn absorbs a lot. I don’t know if you’ve ever had Cajun corn at a crawfish boil, but it’ll be the hottest thing in the boil.”
Pet peeve: “If you’re gonna come up to a nightclub bar, know exactly what you want before you make eye contact. And don’t snap — I hate when people snap, that’s so disrespectful.”
Tip: “I got a $1,500 tip when I worked at Blonde. It was a bottle service table, and these guys were having a bachelor party. The tab was probably three grand, maybe four. That was how Blonde was. People would throw around money.”
Hangover cure: “Take one super B complex before you start drinking. Drink a glass of water before each drink. Take a super B complex when you wake up, and go to the sauna in the morning.”
Wine: “Sauvignon Blanc. If I’m drinking red, Petite Sirah.”
Bar food: “I do love myself some hummus. If I can get some hummus and veggies, I’m great.”
Uncool-est drink: “Uh, Vegas Bombs. People, stop ordering Vegas Bombs!”
Hottest drink: “Stiegl Radler, that beer in the orange can. I see it everywhere! People ask for it all the time at the Drop, and I always see people drinking it at Woodside. Some people mix it with citron vodka.”