Paige Unger, 28, of Kansas City is head bartender and bar manager at the American Restaurant. Unger replaces the legendary Willie Grandison, who retired last month after 40 years behind the bar. Unger comes with a reputation and following of her own, having won the 2013 Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition and the all-female Speed Rack bartending competition the past two years. Last month, she was voted fan favorite at the Mixtapes & Mixology competition. This conversation took place at the bar.
You worked with Willie for a couple of weeks before he retired. Was that intimidating?
The first day, Willie and I realized we were in two totally different genres of bartending. Willie comes out of the tradition of the 1950s to the early 2000s, and I came out of the resurgence over the past decade of cocktails from the 1800s to Prohibition, what we call craft cocktails. So even though Willie has been bartending a lot longer than I have, my style of bartending is older than his.
What is the difference between the two styles?
In the 1950s to the 2000s, clear spirits like vodka and gin were the main focus. There were a lot of store-bought ingredients such as Rose’s lime juice, Rose’s grenadine and sweet and sour mix. Blenders replaced shakers at a lot of bars. Now, bartenders are using fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemon juice and lime juice. It might not last as long, but it tastes better.
So if Willie didn’t teach you how to make cocktails, what did you learn from him?
People came to Willie’s bar because of the way he treated them and the way he made them feel when he mixed their drinks. He was the most hospitable bartender I’ve ever met. He was sincerely excited when he saw customers he hadn’t seen in a while. You can’t fake that.
Did anything about his approach rub off on you?
Yes, the idea that the most important thing is making the drink exactly the way the customer likes it. A lot of bartenders only want customers to drink classic cocktails because they like making them. If you want a Jack and Coke and I try to give you a Manhattan, you might drink one, feel uncomfortable and never come back. If I give you a Jack and Coke, you might have three and go away saying it was the best time you ever had at the bar. I don’t care what you drink. Unless it’s a blended piña colada (laughs).
What has it been like taking over Willie’s customers?
Some of them have started trying my drinks, and some haven’t. Willie was a big help teaching me what the regulars drink and exactly how they want them mixed and served. I try to keep a mental log of that. For example, there’s one guy who likes his Manhattan up, but he doesn’t like it in a martini glass. He wants it in a rocks glass. The first time he ordered from me and I brought it out that way, he was very excited that I remembered. And I tweaked it a little — I had been chilling rocks glasses, so the glass was chilled, and he thought that was really fancy.
What are your favorite drinks to make?
One is a Corpse Reviver. You coat the glass with absinthe and then add equal parts of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, Cocchi Americano (an herbal fortified wine). Everyone thinks it’s cool because of the name, but it is so delicious.
I also like a drink I put on the menu as a shoutout to (jazz singer) Shay Estes. She comes in every Wednesday, and she loves grapefruit and she loves whiskey, so I made a twist on a whiskey sour. It has a burnt simple syrup, so it’s like a caramelized taste, and grapefruit juice, Bulleit Rye and an egg white. It’s topped with Angostura bitters. It’s a simple drink, but it’s a nice sipper for the summer.
Do you change your cocktail lineup seasonally?
Yes. I’m what you would call a kitchen bartender. I always raid the pantry (of the restaurant) for fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables. Since our menu is seasonal, the ingredients I find are seasonal, so my cocktails are seasonal. I make enough syrups and ingredients to last about a month, and then I rotate the cocktails.
What is your favorite part of being a bartender?
My favorite thing is that because craft cocktails have become such a national movement, I can travel anywhere and be part of a community. I have friends who tend bar in New York and San Francisco and all over, and when I travel, they bend over backward for me. It’s the most hospitable industry.