Order Erik Mariscal’s Interactive Dirty Martini at SoT, on Grand Boulevard, and he does exactly what you’d expect. Measures and stirs gin and dry vermouth, strains and garnishes with what he calls an olive.
He’s a bartender, right? But like so many of his colleagues, Mariscal is pushing the boundaries of what that means.
So while he calls himself a bartender, he’s also the bar’s general manager, an avid cook, former farmer, husband, soon-to-be father and cocktail science enthusiast. Those influences all merge into a single creative pursuit, that of making something new and sharing it with others.
“It’s fun. It’s what drives us — putting out cool things and different things and things someone hasn’t seen before,” Mariscal says. “It makes me want to keep doing it.”
Bartenders are ever more innovative these days, and this first installment in an ongoing series about their profession examines that creativity and how it shapes our drinking. Subsequent columns will introduce entrepreneurs and artists, bar backs who keep things running behind the scenes and veteran bartenders striving to keep their community healthy.
It all stems from a shift in how bartenders think about their craft and the possibilities for making a lifelong career of it. Not that Mariscal set out to do that. The Oakland, Calif., native originally went into banking but quit to help his father set up a vegetable farm in Hawaii. He followed that with a job at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and then more farming at Sonoma Valley’s Green String Farm and Ballymaloe Cookery School’s farm in Ireland.
When Mariscal finally returned to the Bay Area and began bartending in earnest, everything clicked.
“It just kind of took over my life, in a weird, good way,” Mariscal says.
Mariscal moved to Kansas City for the best of reasons: His wife is from Overland Park. He connected with SoT owner Ron Berg earlier this year and came on full time to help open the 43-seat bar in September. The bar’s name is derived from its location half a block “south of Truman” Road.
“The idea was to do something different than what was happening in Kansas City,” says Mariscal, whose inspirations include the modernist cuisine pioneered by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià (who visited KC in 2015).
Which brings us back to Mariscal’s version of an olive. He begins by pureeing Castelvetrano olives, straining the juice, mixing it with calcium lactate and freezing it in round molds. Cubes are bathed in a sodium alginate solution, which reacts with the calcium to form a gel-like membrane. Each liquid-filled little ball resembles a pale green olive resting in the base of the martini glass. Guests use a silver cocktail pick to break it up, adding a burst of olive brine to the martini.
“Cocktails aren’t just something you drink anymore,” Mariscal says. “They’re something you do.”
For his In the Rocks, he injects hollow, two-inch ice spheres with a mixture of rye whiskey, coffee stout reduction and orange bitters. Crack the sphere, and the Old Fashioned riff flows out, turning the drink “on” the rocks. The Carbonated Cocktail streams from a soda siphon, a ruby-hued combination of vodka, red wine-poached pear syrup and Amaro di Angostura. Then Mariscal uses a kitchen torch to flame the substantial rosemary garnish and fill the air with a fall bonfire aroma.
But it’s the Smoky Cocktail that really brings sight, touch, smell and taste together.
Mariscal first places a tablespoon or so of dried banana leaf, black tea, dried orange peel and cinnamon on a plank of reclaimed barn wood, then lights it. He upends a glass over the flame, capturing the smoke, and places a carafe of chilled Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple rum, ginger liqueur, Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur and coffee bitters next to it. A pineapple-shaped ice cube completes the tableau. Guests flip the glass, releasing the spicy smoke, and assemble the drink themselves.
Creative? Clearly. Creativity alone isn’t enough, though. It takes hours of work to perfect an idea, Mariscal says.
“It’s a game of balance,” he says. “There’s a lot of trial and error, of tasting and moving things.”
When playing with new drink concepts, there’s only one difference between the good and the bad, says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, author of “The Bar Book” (Chronicle Books, 2014): basic bar skills.
“Creativity pales in comparison to simply knowing what you’re doing behind the bar,” Morgenthaler told me via email.
Knowing how to measure, shake and stir, handle ingredients and balance cocktail components — all things Morgenthaler’s book details — is essential, bartenders say. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them, says Arturo Vera-Felicie, who tends bar at Westside Local.
He recommends cocktail books, online tutorials and professional organizations like the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild for learning. But Vera-Felicie’s favorite resource? Fellow bartenders.
“A lot of it is mentorship,” he says. “Sitting at a bar you respect and asking questions.”
The kitchen is another source of inspiration, says Kenny Cohrs, who routinely collaborates with the chefs at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, where he is lead bartender. When he found a stash of squid ink paste in the refrigerator earlier this year, it wasn’t long before he’d combined it with tequila, lemon juice, agave nectar and egg white to produce his inky, savory From the Deep cocktail.
“You come up with a lot of cool, unique things by rummaging through the kitchen,” Cohrs says.
At Café Europa in the Crestwood Shops, bar manager Susan Avery looks to her customers for ideas. The restaurant’s elegantly styled bar carries a “Cheers” sort of neighborhood vibe, and the locals’ preferences frequently find their way onto Avery’s menu.
George’s Winter Negroni (Campari, rye whiskey and Dolin Rouge vermouth) is named for the owner of a nearby business who first requested it. There’s John’s Morningside Martini, named for the guy who prefers his gin martini with Bloody Mary mix, caper brine, lime juice and black pepper. And the Cannery Row, made with rye whiskey, Cynar, ginger beer and “forbidden” rosemary that was originally picked from a neighbor’s overflowing garden.
Avery balances old and new by featuring different local bourbons, adding amaro (the current bartenders’ darling) to cocktails and making her own cherry bark bitters, infused spirits, tonic water and other ingredients. She’s driven by her own curiosity — Avery says she’s currently tinkering with lots of savory, herbal things — and sometimes by necessity, as when she ran out of elderflower liqueur and so made her own. It keeps her engaged in her job, and, more importantly, it makes her customers happy.
“This works for us, right here, in this little joint in Crestwood,” Avery says.
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist: ninmilefarm@gmail, @BlitheSpiritsKC
The Smoky Cocktail
This drink from Erik Mariscal at SoT is a tactile experience that involves all the senses.
Makes 1 drink
For the drink:
1 1/2 ounces Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple rum
1/2 ounce Koval Ginger Liqueur
1/2 ounce Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur
2 dashes coffee bitters (such as Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Cocktail Bitters)
Combine all ingredients in a stirring glass with ice, and stir for about 30 seconds.
To make the smoking mixture, combine small amounts of dried banana leaf (Mariscal buys fresh leaves from an Asian market and dries it himself; leave it out if you can’t find it), dried orange peel, ground cinnamon and black tea, about 1 tablespoon total.
Place on a wooden board or other heat-safe surface. Light on fire with a kitchen torch. When completely lit, place an upside-down rocks glass over the burning pile to extinguish the flame and season the inside of the glass with smoke.
To serve, mix the cocktail and strain into a small carafe. Place next to the smoking mixture and upside down glass. Set an ice cube on the board (Mariscal uses pineapple ice molds from Williams-Sonoma). After presenting the cocktail, turn the glass over to release the smoke, place ice cube in the glass and pour cocktail.
The Carbonated Cocktail
This is Erik Mariscal’s answer to a vodka cocktail. The recipe makes a large quantity of red wine-poached pear syrup. Mix it with club soda for a nonalcoholic refresher, add a bit to sparkling wine or use it to give other cocktails a seasonal lift.
Makes 1 drink
5 ounces red wine-poached pear syrup (see instructions below)
1 1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce Amaro di Angostura
1 large sprig of fresh rosemary
Fill a soda siphon with the pear mixture (follow manufacturer’s instructions). Dispense the now-carbonated syrup into a Collins glass. Add vodka, amaro and ice. Place rosemary sprig in the glass, making sure the top of the sprig is at least two inches above the rim of the glass. Use a kitchen torch to scorch the sprig, creating smoke.
Red Wine-poached Pear Syrup
Makes about 5 quarts
12 pears, peeled and cored
2 liters red wine
5 allspice berries
2 cinnamon sticks
3 pieces star anise
5 black peppercorns
1 quart sugar
1 quart lemon juice
2 quarts water
Place pears, red wine, spices and sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer for 1 hour. Cool slightly, and then remove pears with a slotted spoon and carefully puree in a blender. Strain the poaching liquid and combine with pear puree. Add lemon juice and water; strain again. Cover and chill syrup; it can be refrigerated for several days.
George’s Winter Negroni
Café Europa’s Susan Avery adjusted the classic Negroni proportions to please the bar’s neighbor in the Crestwood Shops and namesake, George Terbovich of George Terbovich Design.
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Bulleit Rye Whiskey
1 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce Dolin Rouge vermouth
Few drops of lemon juice
Orange peel, to prepare glass
Orange slice, for garnish
Combine the whiskey, Campari, vermouth and lemon juice in a glass with ice. Stir until chilled. Run the orange peel around the lip of a rocks glass, discard peel. Strain the cocktail over one large cube of ice, and garnish with the orange slice.
Café Europa’s Susan Avery originally picked the fresh rosemary used in this drink from a neighbor’s overflowing garden. Even though she calls it “forbidden” on her menu, she had permission.
Makes 1 drink
1 small sprig rosemary
2 ounces Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
1/2 ounce Cynar
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Ginger beer (any brand works, but the drier the better, Avery says)
Orange slice, for garnish
In a double Old Fashioned glass, bruise rosemary with a cocktail spoon to release the oils. Fill glass with large ice cubes, then add whiskey, Cynar and lime juice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with orange slice.