Paris of the Plains

PopFest cocktail festival gets underway this week

Updated: 2013-08-21T01:24:01Z

By ANNE BROCKHOFF

Special to The Star

So a guy with a goatee, a blonde and a brunette walk into a bar. They order drinks, then get to talking. But what happens next is no joke.

Doug Frost, Ryan Maybee and Brandon Cummins go on to launch the Midwest’s top cocktails and spirits event — the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival.

This year’s PopFest runs through Sunday, once again putting the focus on local talent and tastes. The event is expected to draw participants and presenters to Kansas City from California to New York. Why?

“It’s just the best one in the Midwest,” says Kris Von Dopek, brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin.

PopFest began with a simple idea in 2007: create a contest to highlight local bartenders’ skill and professionalism. The one-day event did just that for five years, then, in 2012, it exploded into a week’s worth of seminars, competitions and celebrations.

The timing was good. Consumers are more fascinated than ever by all things cocktail, and attendance at New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and other festivals has surged. Unlike those, however, PopFest’s smaller scale creates an unusual atmosphere.

“We want this to be a series of events that allows for a more one-on-one experience, and for its scale and friendliness to reflect our city’s style and ethos,” says Frost, a spirits and wine educator and one of four people in the world to hold both the master of wine and master sommelier distinctions.

From today’s craft cocktail vantage, it’s easy to forget the so-called dark ages, when artificial mixes and sweet drinks like the Harvey Wallbanger reigned — and when Frost took his first turn behind the stick.

Doug Frost

It was the summer of 1976, and Frost was doing repertory theater in Grand Lake, Colo., when the company asked for a volunteer to run the bar.

“I was like, I can do that, I’ve got a ‘Mr. Boston (Official Bartender’s Guide),’” says Frost. There were no soda guns, so he poured from bottles and squeezed fresh juice, which “we didn’t know at the time was a good thing.”

He had expected to return as the company’s artistic director after graduating from college. When the job fell through, Frost hit the road, traveling through Europe, Asia and India. When he ran out of cash, he headed home to Kansas City. And when he couldn’t get a theater gig here, he waited tables at Plaza III.

Frost had a knack for wine and soon became a wine steward, then worked as a wine wholesaler. He earned his two degrees, and, along the way, met Steve Olson of AKA Wine Geek, a beverage education and consulting company.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the greatest minds in the industry, if not the greatest,” Olson says.

Frost collaborated with Olson on training programs, including one for Seagram Co., and later designed a spirits education diploma program for Walt Disney Co. and consulted for other clients. In 2006, Frost and Olson joined forces with Andy Seymour, F. Paul Pacult, David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff — industry heavyweights all — to create Beverage Alcohol Resource.

Their initial BAR Five-Day mixology and spirits education and certification program has since expanded to include the online tutorial DrinkSkool ( DrinkSkool.com), Pernod-Ricard’s BARSmarts and others. Cheers Magazine named BAR and its founders Innovators of the Year in 2007; Frost received the publication’s Innovator of the Year award in 2009.

“He knows everything, can express it and is sweet about it to boot,” says Wondrich, a cocktail and spirits historian who describes Frost as hyper-verbal, wickedly funny and overwhelmingly generous. “Doug’s been a leader and a quiet mentor, without being a jerk about it, for a long time.”

Frost has published three books on wine, writes for publications including The Kansas City Star and founded three competitions — the Jefferson Cup Invitational and Mid-American competitions for Midwestern and American wines and the Washington Cup competition for American-made spirits. He hosted KCPT’s “Check Please!” and in October will debut his new program, “Ferment Nation.”

Oh, and he still consults for retailers, restaurants, wineries and distillers around the world. Frost is nothing if not pragmatic about his punishing travel schedule.

“It’s the showbiz thing,” says Frost, who has two daughters and lives in Prairie Village with his wife, Brenda. “That is the sort of dictum — you work ’til you drop.”

Ryan Maybee

Hospitality’s a hot topic among bartenders and chefs these days, but it’s nothing new in Kansas City. Just ask Howard Hanna, the chef and Ryan Maybee’s business partner at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Manifesto.

“Food and drink are important, but hospitality is the bottom line of what we do,” says Hanna. “That’s the thing that clicked early for us.”

Maybee absorbed that lesson from his grandmother, who lived on a farm near Bazine in western Kansas. His family would visit each summer during wheat harvest, and he’d find her in the kitchen, cooking for the crew.

“She was the happiest person I’ve ever come across in my life, always smiling and wanting nothing more than to make us happy,” Maybee says of his grandmother, who died earlier this year. “I don’t think I realized at the time that that’s hospitality in a natural sense.”

That sensibility quickly earned Maybee a following at Pierpont’s in Union Station, where the Parkville native cut his bartending teeth in 1999.

“I saw him as an up-and-comer, someone who was really sharp,” says Vintegrity’s J.P. Gilmore, who recalls being blown away by a 48-page cocktail book Maybee produced for the bar.

Maybee became a fine wine specialist, then helped open and manage the now-defunct JP Wine Bar & Coffee House. He competed in the Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition in 2007, earning a spot in the finals in New York. There he went up against the likes of Jim Meehan and Don Lee, who had just opened PDT. Maybee drank at the influential Milk & Honey and met Olson, Wondrich and Pacult.

The experience galvanized Maybee. He returned to JP, ripped out the soda guns and installed classic cocktail technique.

“They thought I’d lost my mind,” Maybee says. “My eyes had been opened.”

He left JP to open Manifesto in 2009, creating a speakeasy vibe that earned Nightclub & Bar Magazine’s Small Wonder Bar of the Year award in 2010. But when the upstairs restaurant closed, Manifesto had to close, too.

After an eight-month hiatus, the bar reopened, with the Rieger above. Both make much of the hotel’s history, which was built in 1915 and initially owned by Alexander Rieger. The family also operated J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey in the West Bottoms, and Maybee plans to someday rebuild its signature Monogram whiskey brand.

That project’s in the earliest stages, but Maybee has moved on with others. He became the first to complete the BAR Masters certification (akin to becoming a master sommelier); explored the mezcal-producing villages of Oaxaca, Mexico, with Steve Olson; and developed the Kill Devil Club concept for the Cordish Co. Maybee was a finalist in the 2012 Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge, and this year Imbibe Magazine named him bartender of the year.

“All those opportunities completely reinforced my belief that bartending is a serious profession,” says Maybee, who will accompany Olson to Jerez, Spain, in October. “Five, 10 years ago, people would have laughed at that idea.”

Brandon Cummins

That no one’s laughing now is at least partly due to the success of PopFest’s progenitor, the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition. Frost and Maybee created the event. When they needed help expanding the format, they tapped freelance photographer, videographer and filmmaker Brandon Cummins.

“Ryan said, ‘You should meet this guy,’” recalls Frost, who together with Maybee and Cummins manages PopFest under the PopTrio name. “As soon as I did, I’m, like, ‘Yup, I’m good.’”

Cummins has that effect on people, says Ceci Norman, a Houston-based spirits industry project manager who met Cummins during the 2010 Manhattan Cocktail Classic.

“There are a lot of guys who hide behind the camera, but he’s so social,” Norman says. “That’s part of why he’s so good at filmmaking. He’s able to interact with people.”

He also knows bartending. As a kid, Cummins hung out at his father’s Por’e Richards restaurants in Topeka, watching the bartenders. During college he was bar manager at 4 Olives Restaurant and Wine Bar in Manhattan; that’s also where he met his wife, Jennifer. After graduation, Cummins worked at Manifesto for about six months before embarking on his freelance career.

“It’s been three years since I tended bar, but I still totally consider myself a bartender,” says Cummins, who started volunteering at the bartending competition in 2009 and also co-founded the Kansas City Bartenders’ Alliance.

That group morphed into a chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild last year. In his role as its “consigliere,” Cummins has organized industry-sponsored relief efforts that raised $4,200 to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy and this year’s deadly Oklahoma tornadoes.

Cummins frequently works with wine and spirits marketer Lush Life Productions, filming videos like Tanqueray’s “The First Drink of the Night” series featuring bartenders in Kansas City (see it on YouTube) and elsewhere and shooting and helping produce a recipe series for Johnnie Walker that was filmed at Manifesto earlier this year.

He has also worked as a photographer for Imbibe Magazine, created Dark Horse Distillery’s tour video and done videography for musicians including percussionist Brandon Draper of Kansas City.

“What I find inspiring is capturing people in the moment doing real work,” Cummins says. “I love the journalistic, documentary side of it.”

Nowhere was that more true than on Cummins’ recent trip to Mexico with the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable, traditional practices in the agave distilled spirits industry. The trip, which Norman organized, visited artisanal tequila and mezcal producers in and around Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta, Colima, Tequila and Guadalajara.

“It made me appreciate what goes into making a single bottle of anything agave,” says Cummins, who hopes to soon combine a showing of the trip’s photographs with a tequila tasting.

Frost, Maybee and Cummins are clearly industry champions. They’ve invested themselves in creating PopFest, which this year showcases not just cocktails and spirits, but wine, beer and coffee as well. But their real passion? Bringing much-deserved acclaim to their hometown.

“I love Kansas city,” says Maybee, echoing his partners. “I want to do my part to make this town a better place.”

THE EVENTS

Bartending competition

The Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival ( popfestkc.com) began with a single event back in 2007: the bartending competition. It showcased local bartenders’ talent and laid the foundation for what is now a week’s worth of cocktail-focused education, exploration and celebration.

Still, the competition remains at Popfest’s core, and bartenders will again return the Uptown Theater on Sunday to vie for the title.

Finalists include Tony Beyer of Milano; Mark Church of Grunauer; Caitlin Corcoran of Port Fonda; Mandi Kowalski of Sanctuaria in St. Louis; Kyle Mathis of Taste in St. Louis; Ryan Miller of Voltaire; Ryan Rama of Waldo Pizza Tap Room; Justin Richardson of Manifesto; Scott Tipton of Kill Devil Club; Jenn Tosatto of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange; Paige Unger of Extra Virgin; and Beau Williams of Hawthorne & Julep Cocktail Club.

Theirs is no easy task. Each must prepare an original cocktail onstage, as well as make a tasting room-sized batch. Judges will compare the two versions, pick a classic drink at random for each contestant to make and quiz them.

Judges include Doug Frost, PopFest’s co-founder; Chris Patino, director of brand education for Pernod Ricard USA; Sean Kenyon, owner of Williams and Graham in Denver; and James Beard Award-winning chef Celina Tio.

Watching them go at it is always fun, but this year organizers are upping the energy by moving the tasting room into the main auditorium and adding musicians and burlesque, aerial and contortionist performances.

“The goal is to create a highly visual and exciting experience for everyone involved,” says PopFest co-founder Ryan Maybee.

Want to see the action? Tickets are at POPFestkc.com and include food from local restaurants.

Midwest Melee

What makes a great bar? The bartenders, to be sure. The drinks make a difference, too. But the best bars are where it all comes together, with staff quickly delivering quality cocktails, even when the place is packed. And that’s exactly what the Midwest Melee is designed to judge.

The competition pits four teams of four bartenders each from Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and Denver against one another. Teams must make four original cocktails using spirits from sponsors Dark Horse Distillery, Appleton Rum and Samogon. They’ll be judged on creativity, speed, quality and their ability to entertain a raucous crowd, according to the rules.

“It’s all about getting more bartenders here and getting them excited about what they do,” says PopFest co-founder Brandon Cummins.

The PopFest soundtrack

Illicit booze may have fueled the party during the Jazz Age, but music is what truly put Kansas City on the map. The Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival celebrates that heritage throughout the week, in part because of its founders’ love of music.

“Music is a huge, huge thing,” says co-founder Ryan Maybee. “We want to showcase that.”

On Friday, Mark Lowrey will lead a 12-piece band through Kansas City’s jazz and swing classics during a big band tribute at the Kill Devil Club. There will be modern favorites, too, along with plenty of Tanqueray libations.

Late Night Callers are up the next night, playing their distinctive style of music that The Kansas City Star has described as “songs that evoke the mood of film noir and Raymond Chandler and mix the sights and sounds of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Massive Attack.” The Majestic restaurant is the place, and Pierre Ferrand Cognac and Plantation Rum will be in the cocktails.

More than half a dozen bands will round out the week during the PopFest Bartending Competition on Sunday at the Uptown Theater. Musicians will perform in the box office area and side bar, as well as roam throughout the auditorium to create what Maybee calls a more ambient, street fair feel. They include 20,000 Strongmen, A.J. Gaither, Billy Beale, Freight Train and Rabbit Killer, the Konza Swamp Band and Loaded Goat.

Tickets to all performances are available online at POPFestkc.com.

Fun facts about the founders

Some things you may not know about the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival founders.

Doug Frost has what he calls an “insatiable appetite for any kind of music.” From punk rock and bossa nova to vintage jazz and the Lefty Frizzell boxed set he received as a gift, “I like it all.” Frost recently read “Tango: the Art History of Love” (Vintage, 2006) and took in the Paul McCarthy exhibit at Park Avenue Armory and James Turrell’s installation at the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York. When Frost pours for friends, he pours Del Maguey’s Tobala.

Ryan Maybee is restoring his 1967 Chevelle, and rarely drives it. He prefers being a pedestrian and only has to cross the street to get to work. Maybee climbed Kenya’s Mount Kilimanjaro with Kansas City restaurateur Jimmy Frantze in 2005 and has a thing for vinyl. Right now, he’s listening to Grand Marquis, Cold War Kids, the National, Pokey Lafarge and Dead Weather. Other favorites: the “PDT Cocktail Book,” by friend and PopFest presenter Jim Meehan, and cask strength bourbon and rye.

Brandon Cummins often reaches for his Canon 5D Mark II, an advanced camera that he learned to use, in part, during a weekend working with Hollywood cinematographer Shane Hurlbut. Cummins loves documentaries like “Manufactured Landscapes,” about photographer Ed Burtynsky, and Ron Fricke’s films “Samsara” and “Baraka.” He just finished reading “The Tequila Ambassador” (Diffordsguide, 2012) and listens to everything from Gaby Moreno and Helmet to Nerve, Soulive and NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts.” In his flask: Tequila Ocho.

Paris of the Plains Schedule

TUESDAY

From Plains to Paris at Providence New American Kitchen, a five-course dinner with cocktail pairings, $70 per person. Reservations at 816-303-1686.

THURSDAY

Distilling 101 seminar at Dark Horse Distillery. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

Midwest Melee at Dark Horse Distillery. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

Haus Alpenz French Aperitif Dinner at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, four-course family-style dinner. Details and reservations at 816-471-2177.

FRIDAY

All Things Coffee (and Cocktails), a series of seminars on morning-after cocktails, coffee cocktails and the basics of coffee at the Roasterie. Tickets at popfestkc.com.

All Things Beer (and Cocktails), a series of seminars on beer cocktails, the basics of beer and barrels and their effect on drinks at the Boulevard Brewing Co. Tickets at popfestkc.com.

• Four Roses presents Everything You Need to Know Before You Open Your Bar seminar at the Google Fiber Space Lounge. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

• Tanqueray presents A Big Band Tribute to Kansas City Jazz at the Kill Devil Club. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

SATURDAY

Rum For All seminar at the Kill Devil Club. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

Magical Mezcal seminar at Snow & Co. Purchase tickets at popfestkc.com.

American Whiskey: The Innovators seminar at the Pendergast Building (1908 Main). Tickets at popfestkc.com.

BeerTails vs. WineTails at the American Restaurant. Help decide which is better in cocktails — beer or wine. Reservations at 816-545-8001.

Late Night Cognac with The Late Night Callers at the Majestic. Tickets at popfestkc.com.

SUNDAY

Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition at Uptown Theater. Tickets at popfestkc.com.

Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits columnist. Her columns appear monthly in The Star.

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