When it comes to cocktail trends, farm-to-glass, vermouth and Tiki are among those worth noting, and you can taste them all this weekend at the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival.
The schedule’s packed with seminars, lunches, parties, competitions and music, too, but don’t be fooled into thinking POP Fest is just about drinking.
“We want to make it a festival about Kansas City,” says event co-founder Ryan Maybee, who is also co-owner of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Manifesto. “It incorporates elements of education, and it celebrates Kansas City’s culture and music by giving it a national spotlight.”
POP Fest began as a local bartending contest in 2007 and has since developed into one of the nation’s premier cocktail festivals. It now draws hundreds of enthusiasts and industry professionals while invigorating the metro’s bartending community.
Maybee and fellow POP Fest founders Doug Frost (a wine and spirits educator, writer and Star columnist) and Brandon Cummins (a partner in beverage consultancy Liquid Minded Concepts) are supported by a team of volunteers, many of them members of the Kansas City chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild.
And the cocktail-loving public.
“A lot of this speaks to the way this community has supported cocktails and bartending,” Cummins says. “Kansas City is on fire.”
Thanks in part to consumer demand, former trends such as fresh-squeezed juices are now de rigueur. So bartenders are increasingly turning their attention to produce from area farms or even their own gardens.
They’re partly driven by flavor — local simply tastes better, says Arturo Vera-Felicie, head bartender at Justus Drugstore in Smithville. Add foraged foods to the mix, as Justus routinely does, and you’ve got a distinctive sense of place.
“Because it’s only local terroir, you can get something at Justus Drugstore that you can’t get anywhere else in the city, let alone the country,” says Vera-Felicie, who is among the presenters at POP Fest’s farm-to-glass seminar.
At Justus, bar prep includes everything from turning hand-pressed apple juice into apple soda, making the sweet almond syrup called falernum from almond-flavored baby peach leaves, crafting elderflower liqueur to infusing gin with lilac and bourbon with sumac.
The harvest window for such ingredients can be frustratingly short, which is why Vera-Felicie will discuss fresh items and preservation methods including freezing, pickling and making shrubs, jams, syrups, infusions, bitters and tinctures.
Farm-to-glass takes more than technique, though. It’s an entire mindset, says Zac Snyder, who worked at Justus before taking over the bar at The Westside Local and who will also be speaking. He likens it to a cook who, instead of choosing a recipe and shopping for ingredients, goes to the farmers market, sees what’s in season and creates a meal from what’s available.
Working at Justus “gave me a different perspective on using what’s in front of you, rather than conceptualizing something else,” says Snyder, who’s incorporating that approach into The Westside Local’s cocktail menu.
And ingredients available in Kansas City are astounding in their variety, says Linda Hezel of Prairie Birthday Farm, a POP Fest panelist who supplies cultivated and wild fruit, nuts, flowers, herbs and other produce to area restaurants.
“This area is an untapped opportunity,” Hezel says. “There are so many ingredients that haven’t been explored, and they’re all unique, highly flavorful and beautiful.”
The same could be said of aromatized wines, the focus of another seminar. It’s a surprisingly varied category that encompasses wines flavored with herbs, roots, spices and flowers. The most familiar of these is vermouth, which uses wormwood, although gentian (a root), cinchona (a bark that contains quinine) and things like cardoons deliver the bitter bite to other styles.
Certainly mainstay vermouths including Dolin, Noilly Prat and Cinzano are more widely available than ever. More fun for me, though, has been the influx of rich, intense vermouths like Carpano Antica Formula, Punt e Mes and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.
Each brings its own character to classics like the Manhattan and Negroni, but they’re equally delicious as a digestif. As for their paler counterparts, dry and bianco (slightly sweeter but still white) vermouths from brands such as Carpano beg for cocktails of their own — try them in The Ford Cocktail (see recipe) or a White Negroni.
Or, forget the spirits all together and serve them Old World style, simply chilled, with ice and an orange slice, and maybe a little club soda. That’s how Lee Edwards, a sales representative for spirits importer Haus Alpenz, who’s organizing POP Fest’s aromatized wine seminar, prefers his.
“The inside of my refrigerator door is all aromatized wines,” says Edwards, who looks forward to explaining the full range to participants. “I see (drinking them) as an everyday thing.”
The unexpected is part of POP Fest’s appeal, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to a seminar examining gin’s role in Tiki drinks. After all, rum’s been the Tiki spirit of choice since Don the Beachcomber opened in Los Angeles the day after Prohibition ended, according to the excellent “Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean” (Cocktail Kingdom, 2014).
Hundreds of copycats followed, and when Hawaii was admitted as a state in 1959, “Tiki exploded into a full-blown pop culture phenomenon,” author Jeff Berry writes. Ernest Raymond “Don the Beachcomber” Beaumont-Gantt routinely blended different rums to create his signature cocktails, but competitor Vic “Trader Vic” Bergeron became adept at combining rum with other base spirits to make drinks such as the Samoan Fog Cutter (rum, cognac, gin, sherry, lemon and orange juices and orgeat syrup).
“(Trader Vic) mixed those spirits to make a singular flavor,” says Matt Seiter, who bartends at BC’s Kitchen in Lake St. Louis and who is leading the gin-Tiki session. “From that point on, as bars and bartenders started getting into this trend, you saw more gin being incorporated.”
Still, only a few cocktails relied solely on gin, probably because most gins were then juniper-dominated London drys, says Seiter, also the author of “The Dive Bar of Cocktail Bars” (Nectar Media Group, 2012).
That’s no longer the case. With the rising popularity of New Western-style gins and their range of fruit, floral, spice and other flavors, gin is more relevant to Tiki than ever before, Seiter says.
“That breadth of flavors and textures and aromas is extremely similar to rum,” he says. “That’s what gin can do for Tiki now that it couldn’t in the ’30s.”
Of course, if it’s rum you want, POP Fest has a seminar on that, too. Another explores how Spanish wines fit into cocktails, including an introduction to Spain’s classic Kalimotxo (red wine, Coca-Cola and lemon or lime juice, see recipe). There’s a session on how barrels influence spirits, wines and cocktails, and one on brunch cocktails.
It’s all a result of collaboration and creativity, and POP Fest is worthy of the national attention it’s received, Maybee says.
“I can’t tell you how many people over the years have come up to me and said they’ve never seen anything like this,” Maybee says. “This is something we can be proud of.”
To reach Blithe Spirits KC spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Going to POP Fest
One the hottest tickets at this year’s POP Fest?
A lunch prepared by James Beard Award-winning chef Celina Tio, featuring Del Maguey mezcal and presented by New York-based wine and spirits expert Steve Olson, who Doug Frost describes as “more knowledgeable than any single human being about the character and diversity of agave spirits.”
There’s a Kansas City barbecue showcase, vodka-tasting, Irish whiskey lunch and late-night cognac party. Lenexa-based Dark Horse Distillery and Kansas City’s J. Rieger & Co. and Phenix Brands also are sponsoring events.
Competitive events bookend POP Fest, beginning with MixLDN, the national finals for Beefeater’s 2015 Global Cocktail Competition and a replacement for the festival’s own contest. The weekend culminates with the fourth annual Midwest Melee, a “multicity smackdown” that this year has bartending teams from Denver, Lincoln/Omaha, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival runs Sept. 10-13. A schedule and ticket information is available at POPFestKC.com. Individual events range from $15 to $45. Weekend passes ($288), night owl passes ($135) and educational passes ($157) are available.
One of the best ways to capture the flavors of the season is use them to infuse distilled spirits. Justus Drugstore in Smithville infuses gin, whiskey, vodka and other spirits with everything from Earl Grey tea, coffee, peaches and smoked apricots to lemon sorrel, lilac blossoms and sumac.
There are countless recipes and methods for making your own infusions (Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s “The Bar Book” includes excellent instructions), but they all follow a few basic rules:
▪ Begin with quality ingredients. That means the distilled spirit you’re using and the fruit, vegetables, spices or other flavorings you put into it.
▪ Combine them a clean glass container and seal.
▪ Store the mixture in a cool, dark place and agitate it regularly.
▪ Taste as you go. Some ingredients may take days or even weeks to give up their flavor, while others (chilis come to mind) impart theirs in a matter of hours.
▪ Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer and then filter it (a paper coffee filter works well).
▪ Store your infusion in a clean, sealed bottle in a cool, dark place.
The Ford Cocktail
The Ford Cocktail is one of my favorites from “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” (Quarry Books, 2009), which says the drink dates back to 1895. Swap the dry vermouth for sweet, and you’ve got a drink called The Vancouver.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce Old Tom style gin (preferably Hayman’s)
1 ounce dry vermouth
3 dashes Benedictine
3 dashes orange bitters
Orange twist, for garnish
Combine ingredients with ice in a mixing glass; stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Per drink: 115 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 5 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Hula Hula Cocktail
Ray Buhen, one of the original Don the Beachcomber bartenders, created this gin-based Tiki drink in 1934, says Matt Seiter, the St. Louis-based Tiki enthusiast, bartender and author who’s leading POP Fest’s gin and Tiki seminar.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce fresh orange juice
1 ounce London dry gin
1 ounce orange curacao
Orange twist, for garnish (optional)
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish.
Per drink: 175 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Doug Frost, a wine and spirits educator and writer and POP Fest co-founder, describes this drink (pronounced cal-ee-MO-cho) as the simplest of wine cocktails, and one of Spain’s classics. The quantities don’t really matter, as long as you use equal parts wine and cola.
Makes 1 drink
1 part red Spanish wine
1 part cola-flavored soft drink
Lemon or lime juice (optional)
Combine wine and cola over ice and add either lemon or lime juice to taste.
Per drink: 96 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 59 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.