Botanical bartending

•June 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There’s nothing new about bartenders using herbs. But no one does it quite like Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore.

That’s why a handful of Kansas City’s bartenders—many of them members of the KC Bartenders’ Guild, a newly formed chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild—trekked up to Paradise, Mo., earlier this week for Conatser’s take on the herbal anatomy of a drink.

Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore with a selection of the house-made bitters, tinctures, infusions and other concoctions that have made the bar’s cocktail list one of the most intriguing in the country.

We met in the garden, which surrounds the home of Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof, just down the road from their restaurant in Smithville, Mo. It’s an informal thing, with sinuous beds curving through what was once an empty, grassy lot and a scattering of raised stone-and-brick planters built by Justus.

Pretty enough, to be sure, but what grows here is clearly essential to the restaurant. Raspberries, lettuce, arugula (both wild and domestic), figs, cardoons (a wild artichoke variety), parsley, a native spice bush, lambs quarters, the rare-ish maple-leaf goosefoot, peaches… it all makes its way onto the plate and into the glass. Read more…


In season: wild gooseberries

•June 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

So, were the wild gooseberries worth fighting prickles, poison ivy, ticks and locust thorns for? Absolutely.

Hard-won wild gooseberries.

The season, like everything this year, came on early. Suddenly gooseberries were everywhere. We picked as many as we could stand picking, grateful that Ribes missouriense is a friendlier berry than the Sierra gooseberries Hank Shaw describes as “nasty, spiky, prickly things.” And that’s the actual berry, not just the branch.

Still, even these smooth gooseberries need to be trimmed of stems and beards, a painstaking process, but well-worth it in the end. A few were fully ripe, soft and brownish-purple with a dull, winey sweetness. But most are tart and green, perfect for desserts, although Wild Edibles of Missouri also recommends using them in jelly and picking leaves for salads or tea.

I immediately made a pie, because that’s what my mother-in-law has always done with them. It’s easy enough: just cook 4 cups of unripe gooseberries with 1 cup of granulated sugar and 2 tablespooons of corn starch until it’s a gooey, sweet mess, then fill a double-crust pie and bake. Read more…

Bitter flashback

•May 16, 2012 • 2 Comments

Bitter’s big in the cocktail world these days, and store shelves are now crowded with all manner of amari. So I was tickled to see my old friend Sanbitter top Imbibe’s list of 50 Most Notable Drinks of the Moment.

San Pellegrino’s Sanbitter

The vivid red Italian aperitif is happily non-alcoholic, and it saw me through my pregnant years. I liked it well enough to keep it stocked, and the petite bottles were sweet enough to stay in use as bud vases long after being emptied.

So what’s it taste like? In a word: Campari. It’s got the same herbaceous, citrusy bite, although it’s a bit flatter without the alcohol. Some brave souls claim to drink it on the rocks, but I prefer it diluted with club soda or tonic water and a squeeze of lime.

Sadly, today’s rummage through the pantry turned up only one lonely bottle of Sanbitter. I used to buy 10-packs of the 3.4-ounce bottles at World Market, or pick them up at Italian groceries or other specialty stores. Let me know where you’ve seen it around Kansas City or Lawrence—I clearly need to go shopping!

Kansas City’s first drink of the night

•May 10, 2012 • Leave a Comment

If this doesn’t get you jazzed about Kansas City’s cocktail community, I don’t know what will.

VIDEO: The  First Drink of the Night—Paris of the Plains

While most of Tanqueray’s “The First Drink of the Night” videos feature individual bartenders, there was no way that could happen in KC, Lindsey Johnson told me during a brand-sponsored screening at The Rieger earlier this week. Johnson’s founder of Lush Life Productions, which made the video with local Brandon Cummins behind the camera.

It is indeed a community here, and you’ll see familiar faces: Doug Frost, Ryan Maybee, Arturo Vera-Felicie, Beau Williams, Mark Church, Jenn Tosatto, Chris Conatser, Valdez Campos and Justin Richardson, just to name those I recognized. And places: The Rieger, Manifesto, Grünauer, The Farmhouse, Justus Drugstore, Harry’s Bar & Tables. But there’s much, much more out there that makes Kansas City a great place to drink.

The sweetest part? The title. Paris of the Plains is also the name of Kansas City’s first-ever cocktail festival. It’ll happen in August, a sort of massive expansion of the long-running Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition that will fully embrace this city’s rich cultural, musical and boozy heritage. Until then, drink up Kansas City, drink up.

Of shrubs and espresso

•April 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Shrubs are a cocktail ingredient, but why stop there? That’s what Caitlin “Corky” Corcoran, a barista at Parisi Artisan Coffee, figured. So she’s now combining all manner of fruits, vinegars and sweeteners into shrubs, and then matching them with espresso.

“The cafe’s been letting me go wild,” Corcoran says.

Caitlin "Corky" Corcoran with her shrubs at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Union Station.

And for good reason. Corcoran first tasted coffee when she was a toddler, stealing sips from her mother’s cup. She’s been in love with the stuff ever since, working as a barista for the last 9-1/2 years and recently qualifying for the U.S. Barista Championship competition, to be held in Portland, Ore., this weekend.

Her entry isn’t so much a drink as it is a tasting menu that explores espresso’s bitter, sweet and acidic characteristics. She starts with a straight-forward Parisi-roasted Guatemalan espresso with bright green apple at the start, followed by walnut bitterness. The second round is sweet, topped with a dollop of foam to highlight the espresso’s vanilla and caramel notes.

But it was Corcoran’s third “course” that captivated me. Her signature drink pairs a half-ounce of apple-honey shrub with one shot of espresso—something you’d think would clash, but that instead it brightens the beans, lifting each sip to bring out the fruit and nuts.

It would be interesting stuff, even if it was Corcoran’s only shrub. It’s not. She’s been playing with shrubs for months, and when I stopped by a couple weeks ago there were five jars lined up on the counter. Read more…

Shrubbin’ it at Westport Cafe & Bar

•March 28, 2012 • 2 Comments

Shrubs are a free-form thing. The basic formula’s pretty simple: fruit, sugar and vinegar. How much, what kinds, how they’re combined and how they’re used is then all up to the bartender.

Arturo Vera-Felicie continues pushing the shrub envelope at The Farmhouse, most recently by bottling a fizzy cocktail called Ophelia’s Lament that combines aquavit with his rhubarb/orange shrub.

Caitlin Corcoran, a barista at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Union Station, created a signature drink with a cold press honey crisp apple shrub that was good enough to qualify her for the U.S. Barista Championship competition in Portland this April.

The Blood & Glass at Westport Cafe & Bar

And then there are the guys at Westport Cafe & Bar. They had a line of shrubs aging when I dropped in a while back, including orange, red plum-red wine, and green apple. Some go into non-alcoholic sodas, most notably the sweet-and-sour orange soda served at Westport Street Fare.

I love a good savory soda and have even started making them at home, but shrubs in cocktails make me even happier. WC&B combines their orange shrub with Famous Grouse Scotch whisky and Cherry Heering to make WC&B’s Blood & Glass, a stirred riff on the classic Blood & Sand.

“It’s really velvety and smooth versus the Blood & Sand, which is almost like a broken vinaigrette,” owner Aaron Confessori told me. He and business partner Richard Wiles also use shrubs at The Boot, which they opened in February.  Read more…

More than a shot of Irish

•March 16, 2012 • 4 Comments

Admit it. You might just do a shot of Irish whiskey tomorrow. I don’t blame you. Those Jameson specials are hard to resist. Just remember that there’s more to Irish whiskey than St. Patrick’s Day.

All the makings of a Dubliner.

Irish whiskey is a fascinating spirit. Much of it is light and gentle, but there are plenty of heavyweights to give Scotch and bourbon a run for their money. The proof’s in the numbers—Irish whiskey is now one of the fastest growing spirits categories, and in 2011 it outpaced single malt Scotch whiskey sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Read more…