Freelance Food & Drinks Writer

At the bar: Justus Drugstore

Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore is many things: botanist, wildcrafter, bartender. He’s even been called a mad scientist, thanks to regular usage of words like terpene and diacetyl. I say he’s just good at what he does.

Chris Conatser, who took a break from prepping for service at Justus Drugstore to make a So Help Me.

I’ve been up to Smithville, Mo., a couple times recently to see Conatser—the first was in September to celebrate our 21st anniversary. I hadn’t been to the bar in almost a year, and I was amazed at how much had changed—and how much hadn’t. Most obvious was the addition of Derek Coffelt, a talented pro in his own right. What took longer to notice was how many more bottles were crowding the short bar.

Of course there have always been bottles—enough that the cocktail list should only distinguish which ingredients aren’t “house.” But now there were even more vats of cucumbers and rhubarb infusing in pisco and tequila-steeped Missouri peaches. Liqueur-filled decanters made from honeysuckle blossoms, trifoliate orange and smoked honey and sage. Persimmon gin. Bitters, and who knows what else.

All crafted with foraged freshness, or produce and fruit grown by the restaurant or harvested by its farmer suppliers. All waiting to find their way into a cocktail, or the “elixir du jour.” All delicious, presumably.

I couldn’t wait to return a few weeks later, this time for a mid-afternoon interview. The conversation began with Conatser spritzing my wrist with his russet-colored autumn leaf bitters as he rattled off a few of the ingredients—an aged style of black tea called puerh, Batavia Arrack, galangal, cardamom, orris and too many others to write down.

We talked about infusing herbs: “The big danger is getting something that tastes like basil-flavored pond water.” Using the Cognac infused with blossoms culled from a local vintner’s vines: “There are no recipes referenced anywhere for that, though you might find hints in perfumers’ manuals.” (Which of course he has.)

Seasons as defined by what herbs, flowers, berries, fruits, plants and nuts are available, and the difficulty guessing when that might be in the Midwest. How soaking black locust blossoms in refrigerated simple syrup proved the most effective way to extract aroma “without making it taste like sulphuric beans from hell.”

How Conatser remembers where to find things year-on-year: “I have an incredibly spatial memory. I can’t remember to do my laundry, but I can remember where I picked the wild plums.”

But, most especially, how he thinks about cocktails. They’re not just combinations of flavors, but rather the essence of place. The scent of walking in the woods in spring, or the taste of a Missouri peach in summer, or of chrysanthemums in autumn. Which is the point of all those bottles, decanters and vats, to capture a taste of something fleeting and special, connecting each drink to an experience. “It just feels essential.”

The List: the cocktail list at Justus changes by season certainly, or even weekly, as ingredients come or go. But here are a few we enjoyed in September.

Contessa: grape blossom infused Cogac, house-made dry vermouth and Aperol, stirred and served on the rocks with a fresh juniper sprig. Perfectly balanced Negroni riff.

Smith’s Mill Manhattan: Maker’s, house-made sweet and dry vermouths and aromatic bitters; stirred and up with brandied cherries and a lemon twist. Classic, updated.

Tropic of Cancer: house cucumber-rhubarb pisco, fresh lime, simple syrup; shaken and topped with Pinot Noir and fresh basil tips. Sweetish but still refreshing.

So Help Me: Corrido Reposado tequila, house Thai basil liqueur, Fence Stile “Sweet Enchantment” Concord wine; stirred and served up rimmed with Thai basil-black pepper salt. My favorite, balance of savory-sweet, with the pepper bite off the rim. One worth driving back for.