At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Monday morning, Q39 was quiet and smelled like the greatest backyard barbecue you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend.
The chairs in the popular smokehouse at 1000 W. 39th St. were legs-up on top of tables — until bar manager Jenn Tosatto yanked two stools off the bar and set them right-side up.
Since her first bartending job at the now-closed Bar Natasha back in 2007, Tosatto has been a towering figure in the Kansas City bar scene. Before Q39, she worked at the celebrated cocktail bar Manifesto and was bar manager at The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. She’s been a finalist in three national bartending competitions and has placed several times in Kansas City’s Paris of the Plains Bartender Competition. Tosatto hopes to win that contest, now in its 10th year, on Friday.
Tosatto wasn’t always a cocktail expert. She laughs when she remembers the first time she made a drink for Ryan Maybee, who co-owns Manifesto and the Kansas City distillery J. Rieger & Co. She shook his Manhattan, a rookie error.
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Now she can school even the greatest mixmaster on stirring, shaking, pouring and pulling.
Q: How do you pair cocktails with barbecue?
A: We know beer and barbecue — beer is king. But when it comes to cocktails, there are definitely certain ingredients that work really well. I think whiskey, scotch, bitters, sherry work very well. Then you’ve got the classic cocktails that are a little higher in acidity where they pair better with super fatty and very rich meats. I’ve definitely got a lot that I can play with.
Q: What does your cocktail menu look like at Q39?
A: My first cocktail menu will be coming out sometime mid-September. You can look forward to some fun plays with kitchen ingredients, using things from our food menu and food program. The food here is killer, so why wouldn’t I want to use barbecue sauce, why wouldn’t I want to use au jus in some stuff? You can look forward to a killer Bloody Mary mix.
Q: Do you have a signature drink?
A: I tend to not use more than, at the top end, five ingredients in my cocktails. Basically, I like to pick a base spirit and then do everything I can to make that base spirit sing. I don’t like unnecessary frills. I’m not the kind of girl who’s going to garnish a daiquiri with a banana dolphin. I like classic, straightforward. My particular bailiwick is brown, bitter and stirred — tends to be what I do quite well.
Q: What’s your favorite drink?
A: I think it has to be an original gin martini. It’s just so beautifully balanced and delicious. The martini has been kind of bastardized. In the 1990s — (expletive) the 1990s — they said anything that goes in this glass is a martini. A martini is gin, vermouth and orange bitters.
Q: So is gin your favorite spirit?
A: I’m a sherry fanatic. I competed last year in the Vinos De Jerez sherry competition finals in New York — I was one of 10 finalists. It’s such a versatile component and the flavor is beautiful and it’s something that’s very misunderstood.
Q: What’s your favorite dish to order at Q39?
A: Lord knows I love the pork belly appetizer, because who doesn’t love pork belly, and it’s served over cassoulet with crispy onions — it don’t get any better than that. As far as dinner goes, I’m a sucker for the ribs. A lot of the time I’m thinking about getting something else, but I keep coming back to the ribs, they’re just so good.
Q: When you need someone else to make you that perfect drink, where do you go?
A: I’ll go to Manifesto in a heartbeat if I’m in a cocktail mood. Manifesto, it can be argued, is what started the cocktail renaissance in Kansas City. And Ryan Maybee from the very get-go has been doing it right at Manifesto.
Q: You and Zac Snyder are co-chairing the Paris of the Plains’ Midwest Melee, now in its fourth year. What’s the origin of that event?
A: It started as a grudge match between Matt Seiter (a bartender from St. Louis) and me. We took over a bar and each created a new cocktail. The crowd judged, and they judged I killed him.
Q: What’s at the heart of the Melee?
A: When we get to a certain level, we know these bartenders make really good drinks. It’s kind of a given. So we get really tired of these competitions where it’s like, ‘I make this drink for the judge, they taste it, they judge it.’ But what about all the other stuff that makes a good bartender? Interaction with the crowd? Ability to multitask? Ability to pull five perfect beers from a really (crummy) tap? Our motto is: We know you make good drinks. Now what else do you got?
Q: Which event must Paris of the Plains cocktail festivalgoers not miss?
A: The Melee, of course. But the seminars keep getting better and better every year. I’m particularly interested in the sherry seminar. There’s a gin seminar with Tom Nichol, which is incredible. He was the master distiller at Tanqueray for years and years. He’s like Superman to us bartenders.
Dive into Paris of the Plains
The 2016 Paris of the Plains cocktail festival features seminars, cocktail parties and bartender competitions in various Kansas City locations Thursday through Monday.
Jenn Tosatto will compete in the 10th Annual Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition, 7-9 p.m. Friday at The Brass on Baltimore, 1228 Baltimore Ave. She is also planning the Midwest Melee, a bartending contest from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday at The Guild, 1621 Locust St. Tickets to both events cost $25 each.
For more info on seminars and other Popfest events, go to popfestkc.com.