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The Craft of the Cocktail

The Craft of the Cocktail

So a gal walks into a bar . . .

Or a restaurant.  And says to the bartender, “What’s special?”  He hands her an entire menu of what can only be called specialty drinks.

Take specialty up a notch and you have the trend that’s been going for several years now as the “craft cocktail craze” continues unabated.  Almost every bar worth its hand-filled olives serves at least five or many, many more, riffs on the classic cocktail, usually devised by that bar’s enthusiastic mixologists.  Though the execution in restaurants is different from the best-known crafty bars (for example, Manifesto, Julep, the new Monarch, or P.S. Speakeasy), the intent is the same:  a drink that is very special, very unique, very memorable.

It’s no coincidence that rise of the craft cocktail somewhat parallels the rise of the artisan food movement with its emphasis on fresh, high quality ingredients –  but that cocktail could have more ingredients than a main dish casserole and individually could take six or ten minutes to prepare.

What’s in a Name?

Cocktails have been around for a long time, beginning (probably) as punch when sailors discovered that harsh spirits could be mellowed if they sat in barrels which imparted other flavors.  The East India Trading Company sailors prepared punch by combining their barrel-aged brandy with fruit (helped with that pesky scurvy problem), sugar, spices, and water that needed alcohol’s sterilizing effects. There are assorted derivations given for the word “cocktail” which range from having to do with roosters, horses, the French term for egg cup, coquetel, the Aztec goddess, Xochitl, among others.  George Bishop's The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups, 1965 says, "The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800's, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure . . . and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice."
Pierpont’s fresh mangorita

No matter the name, it was the addition of bitters in the 1800’s that made it a cocktail.  By 1862, there was the first manual how-to, The Bon Vivant’s Companion by “Professor” Jerry Thomas.  Cocktails began to be mentioned in literature and more recipe books were published.

The upward evolution to “craft” cocktail was a natural one, even if it didn’t happen until the 21st century after years of other trends after Prohibition: Tiki drinks after WWII (and now back again), vodka (Bond, James Bond), a return to the classics and then, inevitably, crafty drinks.  Lots of places are now claiming to serve craft cocktails, though that may be a bit of a stretch for some of them. 

A true craft cocktail is one in which, “. . . every element is handmade or tailored specifically to the drink. You will see drinks served in custom glassware, poured over custom ice cubes, mixed with house-made syrups and finished with a dash of small-batch bitters,” according to The Barman’s Journal on-line, as good a source as any.  Often it includes specially prepared or small-batch alcohols, usually barrel aged, and often an unusual garnish is added.  These drinks require experimentation and taste-testing, usually take more time and care than a standard drink certainly and they also usually cost more – in Kansas City, maybe around $10 - $15.  So they better be good.

Why Is a Craft Cocktail Better?

For starters, the ingredients are fresh.  No cartoned orange juice.  Ok, that’s not so unusual.  But the tablespoon of lemon juice must also be fresh.  So, too, for grapefruit juice.  So you’ll probably see a juicer somewhere on the bar.

Syrups are house-made, of course beginning with the simple, simple syrup.  But the sugar proportions can vary, spices or herbs can be added, simmering time altered.  Flavored syrups take more complex recipes which may be more than fruit – jalapeno anyone? – and whose ingredients may be guarded just like original bitters and shrubs. 

Even the ice may be special.  A few bar/restaurants in K.C. have a special ice making contraption which guarantees perfect clarity and taste, one or just a few at a time.  Some smoke their ice, the glass or the bourbon, like Providence New American Kitchen from its Drum Room bar, catching the tasty flavor of the campfire right in the glass.  Travis Johnson, head bartender at Story has his own process for making ice, and then hand-cuts it.  Making everything fresh (and different) takes time, space, and effort – which is why many restaurants have a tougher time doing it.  Classic cocktails (or wine, certainly) are easier choices.

That said, keep in mind that every drink is just a smaller or larger twist on one or another classic cocktail because the same four ingredients are usually the basis: liquor, bitters, water or some other liquid often, and sugar in some form. 

Where Should I Go?

“Cure” from Nara
Some restaurants take the classic drinks and add a special twist.  Pierpont’s in Union Station has perfected this approach.  The new bar manager, Jimmy Rudnick, who came from NYC to take over the bar program there, points to his 18 specialty drinks as having been inspired by the restaurant itself.  “This is probably the most beautiful bar I’ve ever managed,” he said. “I wanted to come up with a cocktail list that was equal to the décor - classic, elegant and creatively-inspired.”  I personally love their “Manhattan … Kansas” which has home-made fig balsamic syrup in it and its description, “We know figs aren’t grown in Kansas, but do you really want a stalk of wheat in your drink?”

A number of restaurants in town make their own syrups, like Nara (see their “Cure” recipe in the box), Room 39, Ophelia’s, Eighty- Eight at the Elms Hotel, or Ruins.  Others infuse their own liquor for their specialty drinks, like Pinstripes’ limoncello. Fogo du Chao infuses cachaça (a rum-like liquor) with pineapple to drink straight.  Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar has a short infusion section on their menu which includes their Strawberry Lemonade (strawberry infused vodka, strawberry purée, lemonade) or their Bangkok Fizz with chile infused vodka, pineapple syrup, lime, and ginger beer.  Krokstrom Klubb infuses aquavit (a distilled spirit made from wheat or potatoes primarily from Scandinavia) with spices and fruits like coriander, orange, caraway, juniper, dill and others. The Westside Local even infuses a few of their liqueurs and cordials and change out their entertaining drink menu frequently.

Final Cut makes their “El Hefe Martini” with pineapple-jalapeño infused Patron Silver.   Piropos infuses Rieger whiskey with apple and cinnamon; Sullivan’s makes their signature Vieux Carré by infusing their rye with an oak barrel stave, to name just a few.  The Gaslight Grill’s lead bartender, Christian Leake, was just recently involved in mix-off where he used Royal Crown Apple liquor, his own maple smoked bacon syrup and other ingredients which then were strained through cheese cloth.  This restaurant also makes its own fresh sour mix, honey syrup, purees, and infused vodkas.  Their “Pretty in Pink” martini is a vodka they infuse with blue, black, rasp, and straw  berries. 

Often assorted syrups and infusions are used in spins on the classics.    The Hilton’s famous Drum Room, open since 1941, is now serving many craft cocktails, some based on their original offerings and served with special ice.  One tasty sounding one: the Rocket 88 Boogie (a 1949 two-sided instrumental record by Pete Johnson) which calls for vodka infused with red onion, cayenne pepper, cucumber, and olive juice with a couple of hand-blue cheese stuffed olives plunked in it.  Brewery Emperial, with 14 cocktails on its list, makes mint simple syrup for their mojito, honey syrup for another drink, their own sour mix, and on Sundays only, green tomatillo bloody mary mix. Café Trio’s Star Lounge does seasonal craft cocktails, for instance, a fig Manhattan (the bourbon infused with five pounds of figs) or their “Mise en Scene” which is comprised of Tom’s Town McElroy Corruption gin, crème de cassis, their own cinnamon simple syrup, fresh lemon juice and bitters.

Known for their 25 varieties of martinis as well as their home-made pasta Italian dishes, Genovese in Lawrence also makes their own shrubs, the so-called drinking vinegars. These have become popular in the last few years, and are often strongly herbal, since that’s what they’re often made of. Shrubs have their roots in the Middle East — the word comes from the Arabic “sharab,” meaning a drink — and the early Middle Eastern varieties used nuts and spices and rose petals for flavor. But colonial America made shrubs as preservatives or remedies.  They are good added to water or soda and since they’re non-alcoholic, they’re a good option for those who don’t or can’t drink.  They take at least a week to macerate and they’re not so common at most bars. Room 39 features both shrubs and tinctures, at this writing they are doing a special black peppercorn tincture at their Mission Farms location.

You might assume that Story in Prairie Village should be making craft cocktails and indeed they are.  They make ingredients in house because, “There is a palpable, substantial difference in the quality.  A difference you can taste,” according to Travis Johnson, lead bartender.  All of Story’s syrups, purées, bitters and cordials are made at the restaurant.

Kansas City '82
There are also some unexpected places that you might not think of for craft cocktails.  One of these is Porto do Sul, the churrascaria out south.  Adrian Kennedy, lead bartender, is mostly responsible for this and points out it takes a lot of time and trial and error to come up with the perfect mix, even to the point of making his own bitters.  Their number one cocktail is the “Kansas City ’82” which is his play on a “French ’75.”  He was asked to come up with a cocktail years ago for a party and he quickly named it.  It’s made of Hendrick’s gin, fresh lemon juice, basil infused simple syrup and served in a wine glass topped off with champagne. One of his special bitters recipes includes ginger, lemon, hibiscus and 12 other ingredients.  His orange bitters have nine ingredients.

Another surprise choice is Ruins Pub, whose reputation is primarily for craft beers.  But they are stepping up their craft cocktail list which currently has six signature cocktails.  So far, the additions are working really well for them.  Another “strange” choice might be Waldo Pizza which makes their own syrups and juices their own fruit.  They change drinks out seasonally.  Sullivan’s Steak House’s list has gone from sweeter to more liquor-forward and they’re especially appreciated for their purified ice (blocks, spheres as well as crushed) and upgraded glassware that makes you feel just a little richer than you are.

There is a plethora of craft cocktails for you to try in Kansas City.  Talk to your bartender about how it’s made, what goes into it, why it was created. If not busy, they’ll be glad to talk with you about it – it’s basically their (or someone’s) artistic creation that you’re talking about.  If you hate it, tell ’em.  If you love it, tell ’em why and order another.  You’d also be amazed at the number of drinks that can be made by a great bartender.  On the spot.  But the best drinks demand measuring or memorization and forethought.  And home-made ingredients.  And a substantial amount of time. 

A truly great, well-crafted cocktail is worth it.


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