What I want to accomplish with this is simple. I am a simple man. I work hard, I have ideas, I do research. I quietly make it through my life, season-to-season, adjusting and tweaking all of my life’s processes. I work as a bartender in a successful restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. My roll as bartender— or Head Bar Man, as my business card reads, includes a myriad of duties and tasks, problem solving, out-of-the-box thinking and other abstracts that maybe I take for granted. I have these ‘a-ha’ moments from time to time. I want to tell you about them. Explain the process, walk through (your) questions, share recipes, start conversations. I want to be better. I want to share.
I figured I would start with something fairly simple. Share with my burgeoning audience what has been a very popular cocktail on our drinks menu since day one. We opened our restaurant in late May of 2013. Kansas City in Spring is a funny place. It’s always a guess to what the weather will be from day-to-day. It seems at any moment we could be thrust back into the below freezing temperatures of our harsh, grey winters or hurled forward into the sun-beaten-can’t-even-hide-in-the-shade summers at any given time (it always feels more extreme than it actually is during the seasonal shifts). We want so badly to come out from hibernation, to fill the patios and sidewalks of our favorite cafés. Invite our friends to Happy Hour and get a jump on the weekend. Springtime in Kansas City is a hopeful time. The Chiefs have already lost, and the Royals haven’t had the chance to quite yet.
We opened our restaurant in a neighborhood once populated with livestock brokers. Cowboys and saloons. Today one of the biggest draws to our block is one of the country’s largest barbecue competitions. This is where I wanted to begin conceptualizing our opening cocktail menu. I knew right off that I wanted to open with a menu that was split with classics and new interpretations. I knew we were going to sell a lot of whiskey and I wanted to be able to sell whiskey drinks to people that maybe thought they couldn’t enjoy them. (This plays on the whole ‘problem solving’ idea of this blog.) So, in keeping with those themes I began to think. I thought about Kansas City in the springtime. I thought about barbecue. I thought about backyard parties and tailgating at Kauffman Stadium. I thought about charcoal, wood and smoke.
One of the most refreshing drinks on a newly warm, spring day is the Whiskey Sour. Strong, tart and quaffable— the three best descriptors for a whiskey man. With its three simple ingredients of whiskey, sugar and citrus it’s no mistake why this beverage has made it though the times as well as it has. Sure, it’s been bastardized by some, or in some establishments, or just by the bummer that was prohibition and the demise of the bartender apprentice- but in the end it remains a timeless classic. So, how was our Sour going to outshine the rest? What was going to draw guests time and again to our bar, in this forgotten area of town? The same thing that brought them here the last time they made the journey— Barbecue.
I had seen people smoking ingredients for cocktails for some time. Everything from ice and citrus all the way to the spirits themselves. I did research on smoking non-traditional foods- specifically citrus. I wanted to gain the smoky flavor from hickory and fruit woods without cooking the actual fruit. It’s simple when you think about it, and it’s barbecue mantra: Low & Slow. Also, you have to keep in mind we weren’t going to be the type of restaurant to have a smoker set-up in the kitchen, or a smoking gun at the bar. That was just money we didn’t need to spend. People do barbecue down here all the time, and it’s some of the best. I read about the different affects of particular woods and the flavors they impart. How quantities required by each wood were sometimes different. I decided on my ‘custom blend’ of woods and rolled our barrel smoker out into the alley behind the restaurant. I couldn’t have been happier with my initial success. After letting the now bronzed and smoke-ringed lemons rest, I juiced them. The juice smelled and tasted of barbecue. I used a combination of hickory and apple woods that I thought really represented Kansas City barbecue.
When it was time to make the first drink I did it in the same way I had made Whiskey Sour in the past. I used a nice high-proof bourbon and shook that with half as much sugar and citrus (I prefer lemon). I strained it into a chilled cocktail glass and garnished it with a brandied cherry. It was.. okay. The smoke was definitely there, and the bourbon. They played nicely together, but over all something was missing in my smoky sour— the sour. Sometime during the smoking process this was lost. I immediately thought of reducing the smoked lemon juice on the stove to sort of ‘concentrate’ its tartness and trying again. I brought the liquid down by about half and mixed the drink again. It was far too tart at this point and I began to lose what confidence I had gained after having created such beautiful looking smoked lemons. I took a step back and thought about the other smoked cocktails I had, of other variations of the classic four cocktail. I remembered The New York Sour wherein the cocktail is poured over ice and given a red wine float, and that ice was a good idea to use here because it will help open up the smokiness locked inside the lemon juice. This is where it happened. My fist ‘a-ha’ moment at my brand new bar.
I was going to layer the flavors and make the whole drink an experience. So I rebuilt the drink in the original way with the unreduced smoked lemon juice. I poured it over ice to help release the smokiness as the guest enjoyed the drink. I was going to float red wine on top to mellow out the reduction of smoked lemon juice I was then going to drop on top of that. And so it goes: Smoky tart, to red wine cool down, to sweet smoky whiskey.
It’s been a success. People seem to really enjoy the drink. Smoking outside in an alley in January and August of course aren’t ideal bar prep situations, but at the end of the day it’s well worth it. This drink can even be found on a cocktail menu in Louisville, KY thanks to a mutual friend at Rye on Market,Doug Petry. When I met Jeffrey Morgenthaler last week during PoPFest, you better believe I mentioned our shared space on that piece of paper. He seemed cool about it.
The Kansas City Sour
2 oz. Bourbon, bottled-in-bond
.5 oz demerara syrup [2:1]
.5 oz. smoked lemon juice
<.5 oz claret or dry French red wine
4-6 drops smoked lemon juice reduction
Combine together bourbon, syrup and lemon juice into a cocktail shaker and shake well with ice until properly chilled and diluted. Strain mixture into an Old-Fashioned glass and add ice, leaving space at the top for a float of red wine. After floating the red wine, add drops of the smoked lemon reduction around the top of the drink. Do not serve with straw as the layers are important to overall enjoyment.