A good bartender is a mix of three essential ingredients: a heavy pour of knowledge, a splash of creativity and overflowing hospitality.
And a great bartender knows that a drink can be much more than a drink.
“I’m not selling you a cocktail, I’m selling you a memory,” says Margot Thompson, bar manager at the Farmhouse.
One of the job’s most rewarding perks is helping someone discover a new favorite drink, says Andrew Olsen, bar manager at Bluestem.
“Seeing that person’s face light up once they try it,” Olsen says, is “instant gratification.”
For our Fall/Winter 2015 Bar Guide, we’re introducing you to six emerging and influential bartenders in Kansas City. Each offers a unique approach to drinks and a passion for deepening their knowledge with trips to cocktail festivals, volunteer work for the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild and plenty of research into the world of beer, wine and spirits.
These drink professionals can tell you a thing or 12 about Japanese whiskey, and they can also show you a damn good time.
“People choose to spend time in your bar, and it’s your job to make them want to come back,” says Evan McConnell, a bartender at Repùblica.
“We get to make people happy.”
Sarah Gish writes bar guides and dining guides for Ink. Contact her by calling 816.234.4823 or on Twitter @sarah_gish.
A few years ago, Chelsea Almeida skipped out on her senior year in costume design at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and moved to Ireland.
The self-described “wanderer” was looking for a change of pace, so she got a job at a hotel bar pouring lots of Guinness and Jameson. Almeida loved chatting with regulars and learning about different drinks and spirits, so she continued bartending after moving to Kansas City to spend time with family. After a brief stint at a local nightclub, she scored a job at Story, a fine dining restaurant in Prairie Village. There, she delved deeper into wine and culinary cocktails.
Almeida, 29, now manages the bar at Affäre, a modern German restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District, where she enjoys full creative control over the drink menu. The lifelong student is always looking for new learning opportunities: Recently she took her first sommelier course and was appointed event coordinator for the Kansas City chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. In her spare time, Almeida samples California wine and Japanese whiskey and reads service industry-centric magazines and blogs. Her favorite is written by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a bar manager based in Portland, Ore.
“There’s so much I don’t know,” Almeida admits. “That’s intimidating, but it’s also reassuring — I’ll never be bored.”
Previously behind the bar at: Story, the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, the Phoenix
Mentor: Katrin Heuser, co-owner and sommelier at Affäre
Ask her for: A gin martini. “People who order a classic gin martini are always sophisticated and a little bit odd, which I like.”
Go-to cocktail: Pimm’s cup, a summery, thirst-quenching drink “with a thousand different interpretations.”
Go-to wine: Chenin blanc from Le Rocher des Violettes
Go-to beer: Stiegl Radler
Go-to spirit: It’s a tie between “crisp and clean” Citadelle gin and “old school” Booker’s bourbon
Don’t make her drink: A Bloody Mary, because “I don’t particularly care for tomato juice.”
Secret ingredient: Hugo tea. Almeida mixes the Kansas City company’s black tea with Four Roses bourbon and smoked peach and clove liqueur to make a drink she calls March Hare
After-work hangout spots: Grünauer, Harry’s Bar & Tables and Caddy Shack
Hangover cure: “Eggs Benedict and peppermint tea with Baileys (Original Irish Cream), then naps.”
On her bucket list: A trip to Yamazaki, Japan’s first commercial whiskey distillery
Rachel Freeman started her bartending career slinging beer at a sports bar.
She was fascinated by craft cocktails but didn’t learn to make them properly until she got a job at Kill Devil Club in the Power & Light District. The bar’s manager at the time, Scott Tipton, “gave me a shot despite my lack of experience,” Freeman says.
“I had the passion for it,” she says, “and he could see that.”
After locking down cocktail basics, Freeman, 30, started experimenting more and entering contests such as Speed Rack, a traveling competition for the nation’s top female bartenders. She also travels regularly to festivals such as Portland Cocktail Week in Oregon and Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
Freeman is settling into her new job as bar manager at the Phoenix Jazz Club. Her latest task: perfecting a curried bourbon Manhattan recipe for the new fall menu.
“I don’t want to just pour margaritas on tap,” Freeman says. “I want to blow people’s minds.”
Previously behind the bar at: Kill Devil Club, Beer Kitchen, Cocobolos, Cleaver & Cork
Mentor: Scott Tipton, currently director of beverage at Bread & Butter Concepts
Ask her for: A Ginger Snap made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, cinnamon bark syrup, ginger beer and Art in the Age Snap liqueur, which tastes like gingersnap cookies
Go-to cocktail: A shot of gin topped with cider and lemon. “Add some ice and you have what we call a friendship,” Freeman says.
Go-to wine: Anything with bubbles
Go-to beer: Something sour, or Coors Banquet
Go-to spirit: Scotch
Don’t make her drink: A Long Island Iced Tea
Secret ingredient: Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub cocktail bitters
After-work hangout spots: Harry’s Bar & Tables and Caddy Shack
Hangover cure: “Sleep! If that’s not an option, I eat something incredibly greasy paired with a giant soda.”
On her bucket list: Trips to Laphroaig Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland and Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego
Lots of bartenders make their own drink ingredients such as syrups and shrubs. Austin Jacobs takes the DIY method a step further by growing his own garnishes.
Jacobs, 27, often incorporates homegrown basil, mint and cucumbers into cocktails he serves at Bristol Seafood Grill in the Power & Light District. He grows the ingredients on the back patio of his home in North Kansas City, and soon, he’ll have even more produce to pick from.
Jacobs and a friend recently teamed up to farm a 2-acre plot of land in Parkville, where they’ve already planted seeds for the fall harvest.
“We planted radishes, turnips, beets, carrots and lettuce,” he says.
Jacobs started bartending at Bo Ling’s but didn’t get serious about the craft until he worked at Bristol alongside bartenders Ryan “Mags” Magnuson and Jonathon “Tex” Bush, who now work at Manifesto.
“I learned everything I know from them,” says Jacobs, who also works part time in the Border Brewing Co. taproom in the Crossroads Arts District.
His gig at the budding brewery has inspired Jacobs to consider learning yet another new skill: brewing.
Previously behind the bar at: Bo Ling’s and YaYa’s Euro Bistro
Ask him for: An Oaxaca Old Fashioned. The recipe from Death & Co., a cocktail lounge in New York, mixes tequila and mezcal with agave syrup and Angostura bitters. “It’s impossible not to love,” Jacobs says.
Go-to cocktail: A Sazerac
Go-to wine: Franciscan Magnificat, “a super in-your-face Cabernet blend.”
Go-to beer: Boulevard Single-Wide IPA, preferably on tap at the Brick
Go-to spirit: Génépy des Alpes, an herbal liqueur that Jacobs calls “a nice sitting-in-the-snow beverage.”
Don’t make him drink: A Vegas bomb, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink shot made with Red Bull and an assortment of other liquors
Secret ingredient: Smoked, rye whiskey-infused peppercorns from Wood + Salt
After-work hangout spots: The Milwaukee Delicatessen Co.
Hangover cure: Stiegl Radler
On his bucket list: A trip to Scandinavia to “drink mead in some sort of large wooden hall like the characters of ‘Beowulf.’ ”
Evan McConnell worked in liquor distribution and beer brewing before stepping behind the bar for the first time last year.
The months since have been a bit of a whirlwind for McConnell, who recently joined Bread & Butter Concepts to help open República on the Country Club Plaza. The self-described “product-driven bartender” has traveled to Patrón’s tequila distillery in Mexico, several bourbon distilleries in Kentucky and the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans.
He has also volunteered to do audio/visual work for Kansas City’s Paris of the Plains cocktail festival and attended Cocktail Week in Portland, a city McConnell says “is like Hogwarts for bartenders.”
“For someone like me, who’s relatively new to this, travel can give you a greater sense of community,” McConnell says.
McConnell, 29, connects the local bar community using Instagram and Facebook. The USBG-KC board member handles social media and helps organize education and charity events.
He’s passionate about sherry, Tiki drinks, Japanese whiskey and craft beer.
“But the most important part of (bartending) is the community,” he says.
Previously behind the bar at: The Local Pig and the Belfry
Mentors: Bartenders Adam Ryffe and Arturo Vera-Felicie and bar consultant Brandon Cummins, a co-founder of the Paris of the Plains cocktail festival
Ask him for: A mai tai made with Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
Go-to cocktail: A whiskey sour with egg white
Go-to wine: 2010 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge
Go-to beer: Liliko’i Kepolo, a Belgian witbier brewed with passion fruit by Avery Brewing Co.
Go-to spirit: Suntory Hakushu 12-year-old Japanese peated single malt whiskey
Don’t make him drink: A Busch Light or a barrel-aged, quadruple-hopped IPA
Secret ingredient: Black truffle bitters from Rare Botanical Bitters Co.
After-work hangout spots: Il Lazzarone and the Blind Tiger
Hangover cure: Liquid B vitamin complex “will change your life,” McConnell says.
On his bucket list: “My friends at La Factoria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, recently got named a top bar in the world. I want to go watch them work.”
Over the summer, 27-year-old Andrew Olsen took over as bar manager at Bluestem. His task: make Bluestem’s drink menu as innovative as the food crafted by the restaurant’s chefs and owners, Megan and Colby Garrelts.
“They won a James Beard award,” Olsen says, “so they know what they’re talking about in the kitchen.”
Olsen, who started bartending after four years with the United States Marine Corps, stocks his bar with kitchen ingredients such as microgreens, egg whites and candied almond truffles. He gathers inspiration from tastings, seminars and guest shifts at bars in other cities, such as Eastern Standard in Boston.
He’s no stranger to competition: Earlier this month, Olsen represented Kansas City in Beefeater Gin’s global bartender competition at the Paris of the Plains cocktail festival. One of his drinks for the competition mixed the British gin with clarified lime juice, citron blossom syrup and absinthe ice cubes.
When Olsen is on the other side of the bar, he’s likely to order Coors Banquet — especially on Monday nights, when it’s $1 off at Dave’s Stagecoach Inn.
Previously behind the bar at: Cleaver & Cork, the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, the Drum Room Lounge
Mentors: Brock Schulte, currently bar manager at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. “He’s the reason I got into this profession and the reason that I’ve gotten as far as I have in my career,” Olsen says. “I owe everything to him.”
Ask him for: A Pamplemousse Phizz, a grapefruit-flavored drink made with Tequila Ocho Plata, Combier Crème de Pamplemousse Rose liqueur, lime juice and grenadine
Go-to cocktail: A Blood and Sand made with scotch, Cherry Heering, sweet vermouth and orange juice
Go-to wine: Anything that sparkles
Go-to beer: A saison — “they’re amazing beers to drink while eating,” Olsen says.
Go-to spirit: Tequila
Don’t make him drink: Anything with mint in it
Secret ingredients: Egg whites and Aigre-doux, a mixture of sugar water and vinegar
After-work hangout spots: Harry’s Bar & Tables and Dave’s Stagecoach Inn
Hangover cure: A pork tenderloin sandwich from Kitty’s Cafe
On his bucket list: A trip to the French estate that produces Pierre Ferrand cognac
Margot Thompson got into bartending for a common reason: It was fun.
Thompson, 30, started working at bars part time to make money while studying painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. Things changed, she says, after her boyfriend was diagnosed with leukemia.
“Being behind the bar became like my safe place,” she says. “It helped take me out of that sadness.”
Eventually Thompson dropped out of art school to pursue bartending full time. Since then, she has scored a job as bar manager at the Farmhouse and embarked on many new adventures, from taking a crash course in roller derby with other female bartenders in Los Angeles to touring Kentucky bourbon distilleries at a bartenders-only summer camp called Camp Runamok.
Thompson says her art background helps her craft cocktails, which she likens to an art form that stimulates all five senses.
“Each new product on my backbar is another crayon in my crayon box,” she says.
Previously behind the bar at: Affäre, Kill Devil Club, Grinders Pizza and Garozzo’s Ristorante
Mentor: Scott Tipton. “He’s insanely knowledgeable,” Thompson says.
Ask her for: The Disapproving Moon, a drink inspired by Thompson’s close friend Rachel Freeman and named after an emoji. It’s made with scotch, rum, coffee stout syrup, orange and black walnut bitters, and smoked ice that infuses the drink with flavor as it melts
Go-to cocktail: “A properly made gin martini or a gin and tonic. I like gin.”
Go-to wine: Grüner Veltliner
Go-to beer: Suburban Beverage from Perennial Artisan Ales
Go-to spirit: “Aquavit, which is like gin but more savory.”
Don’t make her drink: Buzzballz — mixed drinks in round cans that come in flavors such as Pumpkin Pie Eater and Blueberry Blitz
Secret ingredient: “5 alive-cello,” a limoncello-like drink ingredient that Thompson makes with orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime and tangerine juices
After-work hangout spots: Caddy Shack and Chez Charlie
Hangover cure: Taco Bell’s Cinnabon Delights
On her bucket list: “I’d like to see a bar at a Guy Fieri restaurant because I bet they’re super cringe-worthy.”
Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot to hear the bartenders discuss the importance of community and what makes Kansas City's bar scene special.