It’s funny what you find while digging through old computer files. In this case, it was a column I wrote for the Kansas City Star after the 2009 Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition that, thanks to some editing snafu, never ran. But there it sat, quietly waiting for me to start blogging. So here it is now, one year overdue.
Shakin’ It Up in 2009
There was a whole lotta shakin’ going on at the Uptown Theater, as 11 finalists in the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition took the stage. I was floored by the originality of these pros, and I wasn’t the only one.
“The level of bartending in Kansas City is really high now,” David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! (Penguin, 2007) and one of the event’s judges, told me afterward. “There was a lot of depth there, and a lot of things I’ve never seen before, which was great.”
Of course, the drinks had to be original. Finalists also had to make a challenge cocktail and answer a bartending question. But the range of ingredients and techniques was fascinating to watch. There was flaming and dry shaking, crushing and smacking. Contestants mixed up allspice flavored rum, elderflower liqueur, yuzu concentrate, sparkling sake, frozen cubes of guava nectar and a whole range of other spirits. Some even brought their own ice.
If there was a darling of the evening, it had to be egg whites. Four bartenders used them, and separating egg from yolk proved a point of showmanship. Jaci Shelby of Kennedy’s Bar & Grill separated an egg one-handed while making her Dutch Courage cocktail. Jennifer Tosatto of Double T’s Roadhouse shook one up in the Ba-da-Bing. Missy Koonce of The Piano Room added one to her Side Car Crash, imbuing the words “I’m going to now emulsify my egg white” with all kinds of innuendo.
But the title went to Arturo A. Vera-Felicie of R Bar & Restaurant for his West Bottoms Social Club, which was inspired by the pre-Prohibition favorite, the Clover Club. The classic is made with lemon juice, sugar, raspberry syrup, egg white and gin; Vera updated the recipe with Hendrick’s gin, egg white, gum syrup (an emulsifier made with gum Arabic), pickled fig syrup and lime juice.
Going into the contest, Vera knew what to expect—he was also a finalist in 2008. This year, he says he blocked out his moves and practiced his commentary. Once onstage, Vera organized his ingredients in true mise en place fashion, and then went to work.
“I was there for business,” he says. It paid off—Vera’s efficiency helped put him ahead of the competition, Wondrich says.
Vera started bartending about five years ago, “slinging beers and pouring vodka tonics” at a bar in Lawrence, Kansas. Vera moved to Kansas City, working at bars including Blanc Burgers & Bottles in Westport and 1924 Main downtown.
He credits his evolving cocktail philosophy to both Eddie Crane of The Drop, who helped launch Blanc, and Ryan Maybee of Manifesto, who also oversees the bar at 1924 Main. And Vera’s just as generous when it comes to peers like runner-up Beau Williams of Manifesto and third place winner Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore.
“I went in, and it was seamless,” Vera says. “But I’m not as knowledgeable as Beau or Chris—he’s like a scientist.”
Williams made his La Prohibida with Del Maguey’s San Luis del Rio mezcal, fig syrup, agave nectar and lime juice, shaken with ice. Not just any ice, though. Williams brought his favorite big cubes from Manifesto, and then crushed them onstage before shaking the drink and serving it in a coupe glass. The result was, Wondrich says, “a thing of beauty.”
Conatser also brought “ice” for The Vintner’s Daydream—a sunset-hued ice ball made with Pinot Noir, Italian white wine, wild grape verjus and stevia tea. As it melts, Conatser says, the ball changes the character of the drink (made with grape blossom-infused Cognac, local honey syrup and chai bitters) from an Old Fashioned to a sour. Where’d he get the idea?
“I was wandering through the woods this spring and picking things for the restaurant, and happened across a bunch of wild grape blossoms,” Conatser says in a bio video on the competition’s web site, http://www.gkcbc.com. “They smelled fantastic, and, infused into brandy—just lovely.”
Anthony “Tony” Beyer of Benton’s Steak & Chop House was named the “fan favorite.” His Art of War featured Yamazaki Suntory 12 whiskey infused with Chinese five spice, ponzu citrus marinade, a syrup made from Asian honey and taro root and Grand Marnier, topped with sparkling saki and garnished with a star anise-studded piece of taro.
Other finalists included Van Zarr of Bluestem, Heather Searls of Topshelf @ The Gusto Lounge and The Brick, Shawn Moriarty of R Bar and Ryan Rama of Extra Virgin. You can catch them all on the competition’s web site, as well as streaming video of the entire event. It’s almost like being there.
The West Bottoms Social Club
Arturo A. Vera-Felicie won the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition title and $1,000 prize with his West Bottoms Social Club cocktail, named for the West Bottoms location of R Bar & Restaurant. Vera showcases long-forgotten ingredients like egg white and gum syrup, an emulsifier made with gum Arabic, as well as thoroughly modern ones like pickled fig syrup. Be sure to shake the ingredients first without ice (what’s called a dry shake) to emulsify the egg white; then add ice and shake until chilled.
West Bottoms Social Club
Makes 1 drink
1 egg white
1/2 ounce gum syrup or simple syrup
3/4 ounce pickled fig syrup or fig syrup
3/4 ounce lime juice
1-1/2 ounce gin, preferably Hendrick’s or Plymouth
Angostura bitters, for garnish
Add egg white, syrups, juice and gin to a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until egg white becomes frothy. Remove top of shaker and fill partway with ice. Cover and shake again, about 10 to 15 seconds, or until the outside of the shaker is lightly frosted. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with four or five dashes of Angostura bitters, swirling to create a pattern.