Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Kansas City, Missouri (not Kansas!), is on us.
Kansas City, Missouri, with Kansas City, Kansas, is punishable by law. Not really, of course, but this 320-square-mile metropolitan area straddles the border between the two states and each city boasts a proud, distinct identity. The Missouri side (abbreviated KCMO) is the largest city in the state and its demographics skew toward the young professional crowd. The family-friendly Kansas side (KCK) is much smaller—KCK is only the third largest city in Kansas—and the surrounding areas tend to be more rural. So how do the drinking environments compare? “Simple answer: There isn’t a cocktail scene in Kansas City, Kansas,” says KCMO barman Andrew Olsen, laughing. “All joking aside, we share ideas and talk amongst ourselves as often as possible.”
For our purposes, we’re going to stay east of the border and explore Missouri’s Paris of the Plains, which has always been a laid back town according to Ryan Maybee, owner of Manifesto cocktail bar. “We’ve never seemed to feel the need to put on airs, and I think that’s reflected in our cocktails,” he says. “There are lots of amazing bartenders that are doing some very creative things, but it always seems to be grounded in a sense of humility.” Olsen, bar manager of Bluestem restaurant, says the goal is always to push the boundaries and be more than a flyover city. “That being said, our style is very genuine and hospitable,” he says. “We hustle and we smile.”
To put simply, drinks in KCMO are fun. This is where American bartenders first started incorporating smoke into cocktails, a natural birthplace considering the city’s huge barbecue presence. Whiskey is definitely king of the spirits here, but smoky mezcal is turning into the house shot in many bars. And according to Maybee, the most popular cocktails are the super regional Pendergast (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters) and Horsefeather (KC whiskey, ginger beer and Angostura bitters). On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three only-in-KCMO cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.
Where to order: Bluestem
When Andrew Olsen, bar manager and lead mixologist at Bluestem, designs a cocktail, he wants it to be as beautiful as possible—and taste even more incredible than it looks. (The same goes for the restaurant’s artistically designed and delicious food dishes.) One of Olsen’s favorite drinks for people to order is his stunning SXSE cocktail, which guests often pass to their friends, saying, “You have to try this!”
For this drink, Olsen combines tequila with German Riesling wine, chamomile tea syrup and lemon juice. “Since terroir is very present in both tequila and wine, I chose something that had similar aromas and tastes,” he says. “The earthy, minerality that comes with the Riesling complements that of the tequila. I get very specific flavors as well: pear, green vegetable, apple, rosemary, cinnamon and black pepper.” The chamomile tea helps reinforce and amplify those flavors. He then tops the drink with an easy-to-make foam that contains ancho chile liqueur, Spanish red wine and salt.
“Salt and tequila are a natural pairing, but I needed something that was going to add more character to the drink,” he says. “This foam is really something else. It is slightly dry and salty with a bit of ancho flavor, but not too much spice.” Once you get some of the foam in your mouth, your palate is immediately cleansed by tequila, chamomile and Riesling. “You get more of the back end floral, which helps it finish so balanced and clean. You have all sorts of experiences in this drink.”
He named the drink SXSE, a play on the well known acronym SXSW from the South By Southwest music festival held in Austin, Texas. “The slopes from which the Riesling are grown fall from the east,” he says. “So I’m just trying to be clever. Funny enough, everyone orders it as ‘South By Southwest.’ Muscle memory, I suppose.”
1 oz. Tequila Ocho Plata
1 oz. Mosel Riesling
½ oz. chamomile syrup (recipe below)
½ oz. lemon juice
Salted Ancho Reyes/Rioja foam, for garnish (recipe below)
Make chamomile syrup: Combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan. Heat slowly, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and steep 4 chamomile teabags in the syrup for 20 minutes. Remove teabags and let cool completely.
Make salted Ancho Reyes/Rioja foam: In a large bowl combine 1 ounce Ancho Reyes, 1 ounce Rioja wine such as Tempranillo, ½ ounce water, ¼ teaspoon sucrose ester emulsification powder and a pinch of salt. Blend with an immersion blender until foamy.
Make drink: Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a coupe. Top with 4 or 5 Tablespoons foam (or until the top of the cocktail is covered).
Where to order: Tom’s Town Distilling Co. Tasting Room
Photo courtesy of Tom’s Town Distilling Co.
Tom’s Town Distilling Co. is the first legal distillery in downtown Kansas City since Prohibition. Back then, Kansas City was known as “Tom’s Town” because it was run by one of the country’s most polarizing and corrupt political bosses, Tom Pendergast. “More than 250 speakeasies were in the downtown area, allowing jazz to really take hold,” says JT Koenig-Riley, bar manager of the tasting room at Tom’s Town Distilling Co. “It’s that glamor, excitement and creativity that we’re recreating at Tom’s Town.”
The distillery produces three spirits, all named after colorful characters from that era: Pendergast’s Royal Gold Bourbon, Eli’s StrongArm Vodka (made with 5 percent rye) and McElroy’s Corruption Gin (made in the “New Western” style, which is to say it isn’t juniper-forward). In The Honest Ballot cocktail, Koenig-Riley pairs that gin with mango purée, mint, allspice liqueur and a locally made passion fruit shrub, or drinking vinegar. The drink’s name is ironic, considering the rampant election fraud at that time.
“The allspice pulls forward the warm spice notes of our McElroy’s Corruption Gin, creating a product similar to a spiced rum,” Koenig-Riley says. “And then combined with ripened summer fruit and fresh mint, it mimics Caribbean-style cocktails or tiki drinks.” The shrub comes from Tom’s Town chef, Tim Tuohy, who owns Kansas City Canning Co. and produces a diverse selection of drinking vinegars including watermelon-habanero and apple-caraway. For this cocktail, Koenig-Riley ended up using the mango purée to help cut the vinegar’s presence. “Overall The Honest Ballot is light in body and fruity without being overly sweet, with a warm spiciness from start to finish,” he says.
The Honest Ballot
2 oz. Tom’s Town Distilling Co. McElroy’s Corruption Gin
1 oz. mango purée, juice or nectar
½ oz. Kansas City Canning Co. passion fruit shrub
½ oz. mint syrup (or 5 mint leaves muddled in 1 Tbsp. sugar)
¼ oz. St. Elizabeth allspice dram
Mint sprig, for garnish
Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with a mint sprig.
Where to order: Manifesto
Photo courtesy of Manifesto
Only in Missouri will you find a drink known as root beer milk. Family-owned Shatto Milk Company has been farming land north of metropolitan Kansas City for 100 years. About 10 years ago they started bottling and selling their organic milk to the general public at grocery stores like Hy-Vee and Country Mart. (Locals can even get it delivered to their door by an old-school milkman!) And Shatto milks come in more varieties than just whole and skim; they also have weird flavors such as strawberry milk, banana milk, orange crème milk, cotton candy milk and, yes, root beer milk, which is made with milk, sugar and classic root beer flavorings.
When barman Ryan Maybee opened his Kansas City speakeasy Manifesto back in 2009, he couldn’t resist the urge to make a cocktail containing milk flavored with the Americana confection. “When I discovered root beer milk, I got really excited to do something with it,” he says. “I’ve always had a weakness for a White Russian, so I riffed off of that.” A traditional White Russian is made with vodka, cream and coffee liqueur (Kahlúa). Maybee kept the vodka, swapped out the cream for the root beer milk and dropped the Kahlúa in favor of Yellow Chartreuse, an herbaceous French liqueur. He also added simple syrup and some Angostura bitters, and named it Shatto Blanc in honor of the local dairy.
“Yellow Chartreuse pairs beautifully with the root beer flavors,” he says. “It’s rich and sweet, but refreshing. It isn’t cloying; the Angostura really gives it a clean finish.” Maybee says he isn’t sure how many people actually drink root beer milk at home, but they sure do love it in his bar: “It’s been on our cocktail menu ever since we opened.”
1 oz. Tito’s vodka
1½ oz. Shatto root beer milk
½ oz. Yellow Chartreuse
½ oz. simple syrup (1 part sugar: 1 part water)
3 to 4 dashes Angostura bitters
Mint sprig dusted with powdered sugar, for garnish
Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a mint sprig dusted with powdered sugar.
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.