The Fifth Annual Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition had it all: inventive cocktails, impressive bartenders, demanding judges and even burlesque. Much of what I’ve gleaned in recent weeks—including plans for a week-long cocktail extravaganza called Paris of the Plains in 2012—will appear in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 7, but so much more will never see print.
Which is why I’m blogging about the finalists now. They were all spectacular, and these short sketches hardly do them justice. Go find them, and order a drink. You won’t be disappointed.
First—Valdez Campos, The Rieger/Manifesto, Kansas City
Rick’s Fizz: Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, homemade coffee liqueur, Fernet Branca, cream and soda.
Valdez Campos is no stranger to the restaurant and bar scene—he waited tables at the now defunct Frondizi’s, tended bar at Café Trio for years and was a finalist in the 2010 GKCBC. But I didn’t actually meet him until earlier this year, when he moved to Manifesto just after it re-opened.
First impression: modest, professional, smart and friendly. That all came through Sunday, where he efficiently made his Rick’s Fizz onstage, and even more efficiently accepted his award. When asked to say something, Campos merely smiled and said, “Thanks.”
Get him talking about his craft, though, and the conversation flows. He kindly spent an hour on the phone with me ahead of the competition, explaining the evolution of his idea, which started with an Italian cream kind of espresso fizz he made for a customer and embraced both Irish coffee and the Argentine habit of dosing their coffee with Fernet Branca. Explaining how he collaborated with a barista friend and the Broadway Roasting Company to make the coffee toddy base for his liqueur. How the addition of cardamom, cocoa nibs and vanilla to the liqueur did to sooth the possibly-conflicting characters of Irish whiskey and Fernet Branca.
The role of hospitality, the chaos of his first bartending job, the fun of challenging customers’ palates, how much he likes mezcal. Only when I asked what gave him an edge in this year’s competition, did the words slow.
“I don’t think of myself as having an edge,” Campos told me. “I’ll just try to do my best, be the best professional bartender I can be and hope people appreciate it.” And so they did.
Second—Justin Richardson, The American, Kansas City
Hoodoo Tonic: Hendrick’s gin, homemade galangal-orgeat syrup, egg white, lime juice, SodaVie Cucumber Soda.
Justin Richardson helped Valdez Campos batch his competition cocktail in 2010; this year Richardson returned with an award winning drink of his own. His was a riff on the Silver Fizz, traditionally made with gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white and soda water.
The struggle came in how to work two of his favorite ingredients—ginger and orgeat (a sweet almond syrup)—into the drink. Debbie Gold, chef at The American, suggested galangal instead of ginger, which toned down the spice and added an earthy, floweriness to the orgeat. He then swapped lemon for lime and chose SodaVie’s cucumber over plain.
Such tinkering is second nature to Richardson. His home bar is well-stocked and includes about 16 bottles of bitters, and he enjoys changing up ingredients in classic cocktails.
“One of my favorite things to do any time a drink calls for vodka is make it with gin to see how it tastes,” says Richardson, who started his career by bussing tables at Frondizi’s, then worked as a manager at McCoy’s in Westport and finally landed at The American, where he works with bartending legend Willie Grandison. It’s exactly where he wants to be.
“That’s always where I felt the most comfortable, behind bar talking to people,” Richardson says.
Third—Chad George, Demun Oyster Bar, St. Louis
The Standoff: Solerno Blood Orange liqueur, Milagro Silver tequila, Lillet Rouge, Campari, fresh lime juice, Regans’ Orange Bitters
Chad George grew up in the restaurant business, and then returned to hospitality largely because, as he says, “I’m a wino at heart.” He became wine director at Monarch in St. Louis, a restaurant with an 800+ bottle wine program. While there, George got to know Ted Kilgore, the mastermind behind Taste by Niche in St. Louis and one of last year’s GKCBC judges. Kilgore introduced him to the world of cocktails, and George “got bit.”
“I’m much happier behind the bar than being in a suit, running around a restaurant,” says George, who also has a hand in other restaurant projects and is the brand ambassador for Greenbar Collective, a collection of artisanal, organic spirits he promises will land in KC soon.
So, how did George come up with The Standoff? He says he wanted to showcase Solerno, an Italian blood orange liqueur. Tequila was a natural partner. Campari because “I’m obsessed with bitter.” Lillet Rouge to round it all out.
Going into the competition, George wasn’t sure the judges would like the combination. Not because it’s not delicious—it is—but because “It’s more of a crowd pleaser. There’s nothing fancy here. I didn’t make any syrups, although I do that all the time at my bar.” Clearly, the judges were in that very pleased crowd.
Fan Favorite—Tony Beyer, Benton’s Prime Chop House, Kansas City
PeachCo Sour: pisco, lime juice, egg white, house-made peach shrub, Licor 43, house-made herb bitters
Tony Beyer has a loyal following, and they turned out in force Sunday, voting him Fan Favorite for the third year running. Is it just because he’s the kind of nice guy who’d sport a faux-hawk onstage in support of fellow finalist Jenn Tosatto? That’s part of it, certainly. But Beyer also mixes a top-notch drink.
This year he created the PeachCo Sour for the competition, although it wasn’t what he started out to make.
“You’ve heard authors talk about how characters rebelled against them? My drink rebelled against me,” Beyer says.
He was experimenting with shrubs, a fruity vinegar Beyer likes because people are afraid of them. Beyer first tinkered with strawberries and balsamic vinegar, but the results were “über-sweet.”
So he reached for peaches, infusing them for about a week in Champagne vinegar. He then simmered the mixture to deepen the flavor, adding rosemary for a savory undertone and honey and Demerara sugar for complex sweetness. Beyer also made his own bitters by infusing grain alcohol with sage, basil, thyme and anise pods, plus spinach and parsley for color.
It’s all very culinary, and Beyer often works with chefs at Benton’s on flavor and ingredient combinations. He’s also a constant student, completing the BarSmarts Wired online course, reading voraciously, working on his second level certification with The Court of Master Sommeliers and enriching his beer knowledge.
In the end, though, it’s about making customers happy. How to do that? Beyer paraphrases Gary Regan, author of the Joy of Mixology and source of constant industry inspiration: A good bartender is one part liquid psychologist, one part mixologist and a little rock star. Indeed.
Matthew Herman, Trezo Vino, Leawood
Republic of Fizz: Hendrick’s gin, Becherovka herbal liquor, lemon juice, homemade ginger syrup, homemade Indian tonic water, garnished with cucumber spears and homemade candied ginger
Bartending is a time-honored second job, but the word moonlighting in no way applies to Matthew Herman. He may only work part time at Trezo Vino, but his passion for bartending is decidedly full-time.
Herman began bartending at 4 Olives Wine Bar in Manhattan, Kan. While working on his economics degree at Kansas State University, he studied abroad in Prague. There, he discovered the Beton, a cocktail made with Becherovka, tonic and lemon. He combined that idea with a gin fizz, making his own tonic to bring out the spices and herbs used in the liqueur.
“Cocktails are an extreme hobby of mine,” says Herman, who also works as an HR manager and recruiter for Knight Transportation in KCK. “I can see myself in the bar scene for as long as I can.”
Jason Kimbrel, Tannin Wine Bar, Kansas City
Strange Holiday: Laphroaig whisky, Smith & Cross Jamaica Rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, homemade falernum gum syrup, smoked lemon juice
This was Jason Kimbrel’s second showing as a GKCBC finalist, and it was a fascinating one. Of all the finalists’ recipes, this is one I couldn’t get my head around—at least, until I tasted it. Smoke from the Laphroaig, bumped up with the smoked lemon juice (Kimbrel smoked halved lemons, then squeezed) somehow plays nicely with the depth of the rum and the warmth of the Allspice.
It’s a far cry from Kimbrel’s bartending beginnings, some eight years ago.
“I started out as I think a lot of us did, slinging drinks and beer bottles, making vodka tonics,” Kimbrel says.
From that, he found his way to the now-gone Jp Wine Bar, then worked at R bar, where he did a bit of the tiki thing. Now he’s at Tannin and Nica’s 320, where he’s experimenting with rums and teas. Is all that creativity what makes a great bartender? Not really, Kimbrel says.
“At the end of the day, we’re in the hospitality industry. We’re here to show people a good time,” Kimbrel says. “People come to the bar to have fun. You can give them a great cocktail, but I’ve seen bartenders who don’t know how to make a single cocktail but run a great bar like crazy.”
Shannon Ponche, Taste, St. Louis
PDA: Hendrick’s gin, Theia jasmine liqueur, Rothman & Winter apricot liqueur, housemade mixed berry syrup, lemon juice, Gran Classico Bitter, cucumber garnish
Classic cocktails are the building blocks of bartender creativity, but sometimes things come together all on their own without any such template. For Shannon Ponche, it was simply a customer’s request for a not-too-sweet something with gin.
She started with Hendrick’s, added Theia jasmine to bring out its floral character and apricot liqueur and berries for sweetness. Lemon juice and Gran Classico balanced it out, and the drink had the desired effect of making her customer very, very happy.
Berto Santoro, Extra Virgin, Kansas City
The Baznegole: Hendrick’s gin, fresh grapefruit juice, house-made Serrano pepper syrup, housemade ancho chili and apricot bitters, basil and cucumber
Berto Santoro gave Tony Beyer a run for his money, coming in a close Fan Favorite second. It’s easy to see why—he’s a showman with a genuine talent for drink-making and appreciation for friends at the bar. Ask him where this drink came from, and you get a rush of storytelling.
“I’m from New Jersey, and my grandmother’s from Queens. She’s real New York, old school Italian,” Santoro says. “On Sundays she used to make gravy—that’s spaghetti and meat sauce in the Midwest—and throw in sausage, basil. The smell of basil makes me think of my grandmother and how she said the word in her raspy, old Italian voice.”
When chef Michael Smith created ancho chili-apricot bitters a few months ago, Santoro knew he had to do something with them. That something wasn’t inspired by anything classic, but brought together disparate flavors in a pleasing way.
Matt Seiter, Sanctuaria, St. Louis
Der Achet Vund: cucumber-infused Hendrick’s, housemade honey-lavender syrup, Kummel, lime juice
Matt Seiter named his drink on a dare, and I’ll let you translate the German and contemplate bygone euphemisms to figure out what it means. What I can tell you is caraway-cumin-fennel character of the Kummel worked nicely with the gin, with just enough sweet and floral overtones.
Seiter invoked the Bobby Burns-shortbread tradition with his garnish, a dehydrated cucumber chip that was meant to be consumed in sip-bite-sip-bite fashion. I must admit to discarding the chip in favor of only sipping. Nothing against the chip, although it could have been crisper. I just didn’t want it slowing down the sipping.
Travis Stewart, Chaz on The Plaza, Kansas City
Passport 86: Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Campari, Lillet Blanc, Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
Travis Stewart says this drink commemorates what must have been a rotten winter last year, what with totaling his car and begging rides to work and sleeping on friends’ couches to avoid slogging back to the ’burbs late at night.
On the upside, he felt welcomed into the bar community, having just moved to KC, and had plenty of time to delve into cocktail books, particularly Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. There, he found his inspiration in the Lucien Gaudin. Stewart replaced gin with mezcal, and I am a sucker for mezcal, and used Lillet to do what it always does—round things out and create a balanced, intriguing drink for his second go-round in the GKCBC finals.
Stewart’s been at this bartending thing for a while, first at 4 Olives in Manhattan, Kan., and more recently as a bar back at Manifesto. Now he’s running the bar program at Chaz, a gig that I hope will leave him enough time to continue bottling bitters and complete what he calls his “amaro project.”
Jenn Tosatto, The Rieger/Manifesto, Kansas City
Everybody’s Girl: Blended Scotch, Averna, Cream Sherry, cherry macerate liquid (made with dried cherries, rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and Luxardo maraschino)
Jenn Tosatto “rocked the ’hawk” all week long in preparation for her fourth showing at the GKCBC, even bringing gel and whatever else it takes to get your hair up for whoever wanted to join in. This girl has style, and it shows in her drinks.
Everybody’s Girl started out as a rye drink, but Scotch proved a better match, creating a cocktail with “a lot of big, old bold flavors,” Tosatto says. It’s tasty, to be sure, but better is seeing Tosatto in her element behind the bar, which she considers just another stage.
“You’re not just serving a drink,” she says. “You’re a confidant, therapist and entertainer.”
Paige Unger, M&S Grill, Kansas City
The Armistice: Hendrick’s gin, homemade lavender-fennel syrup, lemon juice, dried tarragon, fresh basil, SodaVie “Champagne Inspired” soda
Paige Unger takes a culinary approach to cocktails, and this one is no different.
“I was playing around with herbes de Provence, and I wondered what they’d be like in a French 75,” she says. “French herbs, French 75…it all worked out beautifully.”
And it was work. Unger made five gallons of lavender-fennel syrup with the help of Phil Cline, sous chef at Extra Virgin. Why so much? She served some at her kick-off party last week, some while tending the VIP bar at Farm Aid 2011 and the rest at the competition. Unger also spent an afternoon at SodaVie, tasting sodas to get just the right fizz to top it all off. Beautifully.
Jon Yeager, Watanabe Sushi & Asian Cuisine, Nashville, Tenn.
The Smoking Jacket: Belvanie 15-year single malt, Broadbent Rainwater Madeira, Dolin vermouth, Laird’s Applejack, simple syrup, Angostura bitters
Liberty native and Jp Wine Bar alum Jon Yeager returned to his old stompin’ grounds to stir up this drink, which he started working on last autumn. He wanted something with Scotch but that captured the essence of apples. The result went over so well that Yeager now has several versions, including this new one rolled out for the GKCBC.
Yeager says he usually pours a half-ounce of Laird’s in a serving glass, setting it alight so it can “roast” while customers watch and then dousing it with the Scotch. Delightful to be sure, but not when you’re batching a drink for 100+ attendees. Still, my glass was delicious and the show for the judges was a good one.