Six bartenders will take the stage at Brass on Baltimore on Aug. 26, vying to impress the judges in the 10th annual Paris of the Plains Bartender Competition. But while they might be professionals from some of the region’s best bars, their challenge isn’t so different from the one playing out in countless homes on any given night.
Which cocktail to make? How to make it? And how to make it your own?
If you’ve been reading Chow Town’s Cocktail Deconstructed series, you now know how to manipulate various cocktail components to create better drinks. I’m the first to admit it’s easy to get bogged down in the details, though. I’ve spent hours searching books and blogs for explanations of how large ice crystals form, retronasal olfaction works or the tongue perceives bitter flavors, only to lose sight of what it’s really all about.
“People talk a lot about the characteristics that are supposed to make a great cocktail,” says PopFest co-founder Doug Frost, who’s also an internationally recognized wine and spirits educator and writer and a Kansas City Star contributor. “The simple fact is you want it to be delicious. Does it taste good?”
The drinks we consider classics have endured, and many newer cocktails caught on, for no other reason than we like them. How else do you explain the Cosmopolitan? If your quest is to craft an original cocktail, Frost recommends first mastering a drink you already know, then changing one element at a time.
Swap spirits, maybe, or add more or different bitters. Toy with that Cosmo by switching brands of orange liqueur, or update it with Aperol. Tweak. Taste. Think.
“That’s the fun part of drilling down and taking your time with it,” Frost says. “Find a version you like and share it with friends. Even if you don’t like it, it’s not wasted time. You’ve learned to appreciate more what made that drink work, and you’ve become more adept at making it.”
The cocktail canon is littered with such evolutionary examples. The Rob Roy? A Manhattan made with Scotch whisky instead of rye. The Bobby Burns? A Rob Roy with Benedictine. The Reverse Manhattan, Brooklyn and Saratoga cocktails? All Manhattan variants.
That’s just the start. There are at least a dozen new cocktail books on my wishful reading list, each packed with recipes. Kansas City’s bars will soon be rolling out their fall drinks menus, and who knows what creativity will be on show at PopFest. With so many drinks being made in so many ways, is it possible to make something truly new? Yes, Frost says.
“We’re in a historical circumstance where products that were never available in the same time and same place now are,” he says. “Bartenders have so many more options. They have the opportunity to crash things together, to mash them up in ways their predecessors didn’t have.”
New Western, botanical and Old Tom gins. Mezcal, rye whiskey, absinthe and crème de violette. Amaro. Dozens of bitters, ginger beers and tonic waters. All feel familiar now, but not so long ago they were simply unavailable. Add to that fruits, vegetables and herbs; syrups, shrubs and infusions; barrel-aged, bottled and on-tap, and the options seem endless.
So, where to start? Cocktail competitions simplify that question for bartenders like Jenn Tosatto, bar manager at Q39. Tosatto has placed repeatedly in the PopFest bartending contest and been a regional or national finalist in the Auchentoshan Switch, Diageo World Class U.S. and the Vinos de Jerez Sherry cocktail competitions.
Creating drinks for those events is all about showcasing the sponsors’ products. At her own bar, Tosatto has more leeway.
“I choose a spirit I love and make it sing,” says Tosatto, who is also helping organize PopFest’s Midwest Melee team bartending event.
If you already have a favorite, great. If not, order different spirits at the bar and talk to your bartender about why each is special. Attend a retail store or restaurant tasting or, better yet, buy a ticket to a PopFest seminar to learn about gin, sherry, agave-based spirits or whiskey.
“Don’t go buy eight gins,” says Brock Schulte, bar manager at the Rieger and a partner in cocktail consulting company Liquid Minded Concepts. “Figure out what you like best and use it to make the style of drink you want to drink.”
He’s certainly good at figuring it out. Schulte has placed in PopFest and Small’s Gin contests in Kansas City, made the Diageo World Class U.S. regional finals and twice been a national finalist in Bombay Sapphire’s Most Inspired Bartender Competition. During PopFest, Schulte acts as sort of a fireman, helping wherever needed and likely spending much of his time in the festival’s scullery, where all the drinks served during the four-day festival will be prepped and batched.
The right spirit is also Schulte’s starting point for drinks on the Rieger’s menu. Take his Lily of the Incas, a cocktail he originally made for a bartender friend in St. Louis who wanted to offer vodka drinkers a non-vodka alternative.
Schulte chose pisco, a grape-based South American spirit, infused it with tangerines, combined it with the muskmelon-flavored Midori liqueur and shook it with lime juice, simple syrup and Suze, a pleasantly bitter French aperitif. A sprig of micro-cilantro added a final savory note and balanced the drink — no mean feat.
“Balance is your only pitfall in the cocktail world,” Schulte says.
Bringing a drink’s strong, acidic, sweet and bitter elements into harmony so that no single characteristic dominates isn’t easy. Some pros start with a classic formula, like the 2:1:1 spirit, citrus and sweet ratio favored by Charlotte Voisey, the director of brand advocacy for William Grant & Sons USA. Equal parts can work, too, as evidenced by Kara Newman’s soon-to-be-published “Shake. Stir. Sip.” (Chronicle Books, 2016).
Still, ratios often need to be adapted depending on a spirit’s proof, the sweetness of various ingredients or other factors. That’s where personal taste comes in. Want more of something? Add it. Not sure what you like? Experiment.
If your cocktail still isn’t quite right, don’t give up, says Tosatto, who has long tinkered with a drink called Everybody’s Girl. She got the idea while working at Manifesto years ago, where they make their own whiskey-soaked cocktail cherries.
Tosatto wanted to use the leftover syrup and so combined it with Scotch whisky. She adjusted components and quantities over time — at one point it was a “rum-ish” drink — until finally hitting on the right combination of scotch, cream sherry, amaro, bitters and cherry syrup.
Has the current incarnation won any competitions? Not yet, but it doesn’t matter. It’s delicious.
“This might be the best drink I’ve ever made,” Tosatto says. “This is the one I keep coming back to.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist for Chow Town. Reach her at email@example.com or @BlitheSpiritsKC.
PopFest Cocktail Festival
Reading about cocktails is fine, but wouldn’t you rather taste them? There’s no better place than the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival Aug. 26-29. From mezcal, whiskey and sherry to blind tasting, building a home bar and Kansas City bar history, the four-day festival offers something for everyone.
It’s also a chance to rub elbows with not just the best pros in Kansas City, but also cocktail luminaries like Steve Olson (one of the world’s foremost experts on agave-based spirits), Doug Frost (an internationally renowned wine and spirits educator and writer), Tom Nichol (former master distiller of Tanqueray gin) and New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson, among others.
“You can come here and hang out with the people making cocktails, speak with them and ask questions,” says Frost, who is also the event’s co-founder. “It’s still on a very human scale.”
But the real stars? The bartenders. Six finalists will compete in the 10th annual PopFest Bartender Competition on Aug. 26, while teams from Nebraska, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Arkansas and Kansas City are vying for the Midwest Melee title.
“At these competitions, you see new products, new techniques, things that aren’t difficult but that you maybe haven’t heard of,” says Q39 bar manager Jenn Tosatto, who helps oversee the Midwest Melee.
Melee teams are judged not only on their drinks, but also on how professionally they serve them to the attendant crowd and handle any challenges the judges throw at them. In past years, those have included a relay race, written exam and “junkyard challenge,” which replaced traditional bar tools with Home Depot hardware finds.
“It’s well-managed chaos, and the teams have a really good time,” Tosatto says.
This year’s festival also includes the inaugural Bartender BarSwap, a walk-around event featuring local distilleries and restaurants. Funds raised go toward scholarships that allow working bartenders to travel to other cities to learn from the pros there. It’s about giving back to those who contribute so much to the community, Frost says.
“It’s fun for these bartenders to travel and learn what’s happening in other markets,” Frost says. “People in those places get a kick out of our men and women, who are really cool people.”
Tickets: PopFest runs Aug. 26-29 at various downtown locations. For tickets, go to popfestkc.com.
The Cocktail Deconstructed
This is the last in a seven-part series on the making of a cocktail.
Jenn Tosatto, bar manager at Q39 and a veteran cocktail contest competitor, has tinkered with this drink for years and says this version “might be the best drink I’ve ever made.”
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces Grant’s Blended Scotch Whisky
1/2 ounce cream sherry
1/2 ounce Amaro Averna
3 dashes bitters (preferably Miracle Mile Forbidden Bitters or Bittermens’ Burlesque Bitters)
2 teaspoons Cherry Cordial Syrup (see below)
Orange swath or whiskey-soaked cocktail cherries, for garnish
Combine all ingredients over ice, stir. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with orange peel or cherry.
For Cherry Cordial Syrup: Begin by making a batch of the whiskey-soaked cocktail cherries like those served at Manifesto. Place 6 ounces dried sour cherries in a jar. Add 1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey, 1 1/2 ounces Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and 1 1/2 ounces Angostura bitters. Stir and cover for at least 48 hours or until they plump; store in the refrigerator to drop into chilled drinks. Pour off 2 teaspoons of the liquid for the recipe.
Per drink: 203 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Lily of the Incas
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Tangerine-Infused Pisco Capel (see below)
3/4 ounce Midori liqueur
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce Suze
Dash simple syrup
2 sprigs cilantro, one for the drink, one for the garnish
Combine pisco, Midori, lime juice, Suze, simple syrup and one sprig cilantro with ice in a shaker. Shake, and then double-strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with remaining sprig of cilantro.
For Tangerine-Infused Pisco Capel: Peel several tangerines. Alternatively, use a peeler to remove the peel from 2 oranges, being sure to get only the colored peel, not the bitter white pith underneath. Combine peels and one 750-milliliter bottle of pisco in a clean glass container, cover and infuse at room temperature for about 2 days, or until pisco becomes aromatic. Strain infused pisco into a clean bottle.
Per drink: 176 calories (2 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 10 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.