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A Toast to KC's Crafty Cocktails

Celebrate the holidays safely and in style with these
imaginative drinks by the city’s best bartenders.
Story and photos by dwain hebda

Among the many tools of the trade you’ll find within Berto Santoro’s arm’s reach, one accoutrement stands out. On a high shelf at Extra Virgin in downtown Kansas City rests Santoro’s cocktail book collection: thick, well-worn volumes of tradecraft that fuel the bar manager’s imagination and help refine his technique.


Above: Berto Santoro created the Christmas Cordial cocktail and the Mocktail that Stole Christmas (shown in title) for the holidays.

Below: JT Koenig-Riley, bartender at Tom’s Town, says one must be fearless to create interesting drinks. A popular mocktail is his Prohibition Punch.


Ten years ago, your average bartender in even an upscale location such as this probably wouldn’t have an entire library of resource material at the ready — and not because the last generation of barkeeps knew everything by heart.

To the contrary, the craft cocktail movement in which the nation finds itself is rooted in bringing back much of what was forgotten or lost to changing tastes — form over substance and the overall fast-food mentality that dominated the cocktail scene for the last 40 years. In fact, Smithsonian magazine contends cocktails are now in their second, arguably superior, golden age.

As the craft has continued to develop with the public’s tastes for premium spirits and artisan products, nonalcoholic drinks have come along for the ride. Such beverages — also called “mocktails” — have come a long way over the past decade. No longer are designated drivers or teetotalers largely limited to water or soda; today, the bartender’s art has come to bear on drinks that don’t look or necessarily taste that much different than those containing alcohol. The result for the patron is to feel more included with the revelry while still staying fit to drive.

Santoro, originally from New Jersey, has been at Extra Virgin since 2008, in which time he’s gained a measure of celebrity in bartending circles. He’s also president of the Kansas City chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. He said the mentality of most patrons of craft cocktails isn’t about intoxication anyway — there are much cheaper ways for those looking for a bender — so the social acceptance for mocktails is also better than it used to be.

In fact, the holidays bring out the best of Santoro’s trade. Designated drivers will want to try the Mocktail that Stole Christmas — a combination of spiced chamomile-apricot syrup, cinnamon, cloves, lemon juice, and rhubarb bitters over ice — before heading across the hall for a great meal at Michael Smith’s restaurant. Highly recommended for those not driving is his hot Christmas Cordial, made with Angel’s Envy port cask-finished bourbon, Sorel liqueur, and spiced apricot-chamomile syrup, and served hot in a glass dusted with dehydrated orange zest on the rim.

The craft cocktail movement is also doing its part to revitalize downtown areas nationwide, Kansas City’s included. Extra Virgin, on the corner of a Kansas City streetcar stop, sits a stone’s throw from several other restaurants that put as much pride into their drinks as they do their menus. It’s also near upscale cocktail bars that are reviving in a big way the lost bartender’s art. Among them, Tom’s Town stands apart.

Not unlike its creative cocktails, Tom’s Town is a perfect blending of multiple components, combining equal parts Kansas City history and craft distilling, shaken gently by an eccentric collection of mixologists and served in a tall, cool location right in the heart of the Crossroads Arts District. Tom’s Town combines a passion for premium spirits and an appreciation for the city’s ribald past. The place is named for Tom Pendergast, a businessman and notorious political boss who virtually ruled Kansas City from 1925 to 1939.

Tom’s Town comes by the spirit of Pendergast’s day authentically. Cofounder David Epstein’s grandfather was a competing bootlegger put out of business by the Pendergast machine. Epstein’s business partner and friend since childhood, Steve Revare, had a great-great-uncle Maurice “Mo” Milligan who was a federal prosecutor that brought an end to Pendergast’s reign as crime boss on tax evasion.

Style meets substance behind the bar, where the Tom’s Town roster of young, hip bartenders like JT Koenig-Riley serve up classics and new twists alike. Koenig-Riley came to downtown Kansas City six years ago and worked his way through virtually every element of food service before finding a home behind the bar at Tom’s Town.

He said the secret to creative and interesting drinks is fearless experimentation, and after one sip of this beverage, you see what he means. After a day of holiday shopping, designated drivers should order the refreshing Prohibition Punch mocktail mixing pear and apple juice with a homemade grenadine of pomegranate, anise, allspice, and clove, finished with tangerine-cucumber soda.

A short ride on Kansas City’s new, free streetcar lands the visitor at Grunauer, another spot known as much for its creative libations as for its food. Scott Beskow, manager of the in-house Wunderbar, is a yeoman at his trade. His clientele appreciates a high-end cocktail but don’t want to wait all night for an unnecessarily fussed-over drink, and his balance of speed of service and quality of product balances both sides of the ledger.

He also keeps one eye on the compatibility of drinks with the Austrian-German menu served in the dining room. But don’t let the old-world atmosphere at Grunauer fool you. The dinner crowd trends toward younger professionals these days, and in many ways, craft cocktail trends have as much caught up to Wunderbar as the other way around. The establishment’s longstanding use of fresh citrus, house-made syrups and infusions, and a variety of unique flavoring agents are all things many competing bars are just waking up to.

Those wanting a festive taste without the booze this holiday season should order the Bellini Radler, made with fresh grapefruit juice, peach bitters, and simple syrup over ice and served alongside a bottle of Bitburger Drive, a German nonalcoholic beer. Or try the Improved Almdudler, an amazingly simple yet flavorful drink comprised of lemon juice, old-fashioned bitters, and a can of Almdudler Austrian soda over ice. If you’re not driving, try the Flusser Strudel (Liquid Strudel) and watch it snow.

Across town, not far from Kansas City’s famous Country Club Plaza, you’ll find Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, an upscale, glass-encased gem serving the freshest seafood and sophisticated cocktails. The restaurant is the personification of special occasions and holiday events.

Assistant General Manager Margaret Adams said Jax’s has benefited from the city’s growing craft culture both from the food side and the bar side, and with the city’s thriving music and theater attractions, the restaurant can complete a memorable evening’s entertainment. At any given time, the restaurant’s crowd is dominated by young professionals, many of whom are drawn to Jax’s philosophy for serving only sustainable seafood, as well as the many visitors to surrounding attractions.

The bar is equally upscale, with a premium drink menu that delivers the unexpected, curated to match anything on the menu. Manned capably by Kenny Cohrs, the city’s 2014 Best Bartender by The Pitch magazine, the drink menu offers many innovative and satisfying beverages, with and without alcohol. The signature Jax Mocktail combines a house-made “shrub” of locally produced apple cider from Louisburg, Mo., and apple cider vinegar, with soda water and a clove-studded orange rind garnish.

If you’re not the driver, don’t miss the Coming Home, a fragrant drink combining St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Benedictine, and applejack liqueur for a treat that hearkens the best mulled cider, right down to the freshly ground cinnamon on top. Though it can be enjoyed cold, order it hot for the full holiday aroma and effect.

Whatever your preference or taste, raising a glass of Kansas City’s best craft cocktails or mocktails with family and friends this season is sure to warm your holiday spirits.

Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Ark.

November/December 2016 Issue


For more information on dining and the craft cocktail movement in Kansas City, contact Visit KC at (800) 767-7700 or click on visitkc.com.

To visit Kansas City, first stop by your nearest AAA service office.





drink drink


Party like it's 1899

Like the old saying goes, “Everything old is new again,” and expertly crafted cocktails are once again in vogue nationwide. But unlike previous eras, where the quality of ingredients could vary widely from bar to bar, today’s high-end components have led some experts to pronounce the current rage as superior even to the original golden age of cocktails.

According to Smithsonian.com, the craft hit its first peak in 1850, when America’s East Coast cities began to cater to the tastes of affluent European immigrants with a love for fine dining by opening the nation’s first great restaurants. New bars began producing cocktails to match, and over the six decades to follow, cocktail standard-bearers like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, and the Jack Rose would join the nation’s first recorded cocktail — Sazerac, from 1838.

In 1919, Prohibition officially outlawed alcoholic beverages in the United States, and the first Golden Age of cocktails came to a shuddering halt. For the next 14 years the art of the cocktail, like that of the winemaker or brewmaster, fell on hard times. Unlike these other industries, cocktails didn’t rebound with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, as the successive Depression, war, and changing public tastes nearly stamped out the craft altogether, until the 1980s, when a few scattered bars started reviving the art, led by New York City’s Rainbow Room.

Over the past decade, the rise of small-batch distilleries, premium spirits, and even craft bitters have brought the cocktail back to its former glory. Between 2007 and 2012, U.S. spirits consumption grew more than 13 percent, compared to 9 percent in wine and a decrease in beer consumption. In 2012, the industry hit a volume record of 206 million 9-liter cases, capping off a solid decade of growth.

Mocktails have followed suit; at the start of 2016, many industry publications tagged craft nonalcoholic drinks as a trend to watch with potentially explosive growth potential.


The classic Manhattan cocktail is believed to have originated in New York’s Manhattan Club in the early 1870s. iStock.com



A bevy of attractions crowd Kansas City’s holiday calendar. Check out some of these before stopping in for a craft cocktail or mocktail.

Nov. 4
Crown Center Ice Terrace Opening
Crown Center’s picturesque ice-skating rink opens for the season, which runs through mid-March.

Nov. 19
Northern Lights at Zona Rosa
Ornate and colorful lighted crowns are suspended above the district’s busy streets, harking back to a 1950s Christmas tradition.

A Legendary Light Show at Legends Outlets
Every 15 minutes, the sprawling shopping center springs to life with thousands of lights set to music.

Nov. 23
Christmas in the Park at Longview Lake
The night before Thanksgiving marks the return of this drive-through winter wonderland featuring 300,000 lights and nearly 200 animated figures.

Nov. 24
Plaza Lights
The Plaza Lights have been a Kansas City holiday tradition for more than 80 years. Thousands of lights outline the Spanish-influenced architecture of the Country Club Plaza.

Nov. 25
Mayor’s Christmas Tree
The 100-foot Mayor’s Christmas Tree is the centerpiece for an illuminating holiday celebration at Crown Center Square.


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