I meant to cull through my notes to come up with tidbits that didn’t make it into today’s Kansas City Star article. I really did. But for once, I really feel the best stuff went into the paper. My gracious editor, Jill Silva, didn’t make me cut an inch. So, rather than recap, I’ve just posted the whole thing below. Is that cheating? Maybe, but it’s the best today’s tired fingers can do.
Newly reopened Manifesto reflects rapid-fire changes in cocktail culture
By ANNE BROCKHOFF
Special to The Star
Bars close all the time. Some reopen. Few manage to do both with Manifesto’s flair.
The speakeasy-styled bar returned to its subterranean spot at 19th and Main streets in December, following an eight-month hiatus. In some ways, little has changed. Craft cocktails like the Smokin’ Choke, Old Oaxacan and Beautiful Red Bell are still the focus. There’s still no sign at the entrance, and reservations are still a good idea if you want a table in the 48-seat bar.
“People said I was crazy to open a tiny bar with no signage, a door in the alley in the Crossroads and $11 drinks,” Ryan Maybee laughs, recalling initial reactions to Manifesto.
And this time?
Kansas City’s caught up with Maybee, proving he was onto something when he first opened Manifesto in April 2009. Consumers are more fascinated than ever with all things artisanal — coffee, chocolate, beer and cheese, as well as cocktails. New spirits and liqueurs have flooded the market, and bartenders across town are making the most of them.
“People want to have a hand-crafted cocktail made with fresh ingredients, but they also want to see the show,” says Tim Laird, who holds the enviable title of chief entertaining officer at Brown-Forman, one of the largest American-owned corporations in the wine and spirits business.
The show at Manifesto remains a good one. Nattily dressed bartenders ignite Angostura bitters in a mixing glass while making a Ward & Precinct. They pound ice in canvas Lewis bags, dole out amari by the dropper-full and flame orange peels, all while extolling the virtues of Japanese whiskey or explaining the difference between green and yellow Chartreuse.
Entertaining, yes, but not enough to keep the doors open after the building’s upstairs restaurant tenant, 1924 Main, closed in early 2010. Maybee shuttered Manifesto shortly after, right about the time he accepted Nightclub & Bar Magazine’s Small Wonder Bar of the Year award.
Maybee could have moved to another location, but he instead teamed up with Howard Hanna, then chef at the River Club, to fill the restaurant with a new concept — the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. Then, while waiting on lease negotiations, renovations and a liquor license, Maybee and Manifesto bar manager Beau Williams took their show on the road.
Billed as the Traveling Cocktail Club, they pulled one-night gigs at the Screenland Crossroads theater, the American Restaurant, BRGR Kitchen + Bar and elsewhere around Kansas City, St. Louis and Lawrence. Fans tracked them on Facebook.
“It kept that image of Manifesto going,” says Maybee. “I was scraping things together, but it was exciting and fun.”
Much has been made of the faux-speakeasy trend that swept from New York to San Francisco and points in between over the last five or so years, with its romance, rules and secret entrances. Is it all just a ploy to tap nostalgia for a time when drinking was more exciting, if not downright dangerous? No, Maybee insists.
“It’s not a gimmick if it’s in the right location,” he says, and the Rieger is nothing if not the right location for Manifesto.
Built in 1915, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sports original tile floors and bathroom fixtures. Alexander Rieger was the first owner; his family also operated J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey out of the West Bottoms, according to Maybee.
A ghost of the company’s Monogram whiskey logo was until recently still visible on the building’s south face. A new version graces the Rieger’s private dining room, and Maybee’s collection of Monogram bottles, shot glasses and other memorabilia is on view over its bar.
There’s no evidence that the Rieger housed an actual speakeasy, but the limestone walls, low, beamed ceiling and dim lighting make it easy to imagine clandestine imbibing in its basement. Despite the vibe, Manifesto’s menu actually harks back to the so-called golden age of cocktails that spanned roughly from 1890 to 1920.
“When cocktails were first being created and enjoyed, there was a really high level of craft,” Maybee says. “They were an art form. We lost that.”
Something of a classic bar renaissance began in the mid-1980s, but what marketers like to call “cocktail occasions” were still rare in 1994 when the Velvet Dog appeared in what’s now known as Martini Corner and Harry’s Bar & Tables opened in Westport. By 2000, “Sex and the City” had made cosmos and other pretty drinks, well, sexy, but that was nothing compared to what happened mid-decade.
By 2006, growth in spirits sales had for the first time outpaced growth in beer and wine, according to Brown-Forman’s Laird. Although premium brands like Grey Goose led the way, an increasing number of small American distilleries were producing deliciously handcrafted spirits. Absinthe became legal again, and rye whiskey made a comeback.
Locally, JP Wine Bar and Coffee House (which Maybee helped open in 2006 and is now closed), Justus Drugstore, Bluestem Lounge, M&S Grill, Café Trio and other new bars made drinks using fresh juice, house-infused spirits and unique bitters everyday stuff. Maybee and Doug Frost, a wine, beer and spirits expert and Kansas City Star columnist, founded the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition in 2007. Creation of the Kansas City Bartenders Alliance soon followed.
Meanwhile, the openings continued — Extra Virgin, Firefly Lounge, R Bar & Restaurant, Westport Café & Bar and Grünauer, to name a very few. Suddenly, Kansas City was a great place to drink.
“As a community of bartenders, we’ve put KC on the mixology map,” Manifesto’s Williams says.
So, what’s Kansas City drinking?
Cocktail menus from the Rieger and Manifesto offer a snapshot. House-made is still hot, but it’s not just syrups, infusions and bitters. The bars’ shared staff also makes its own tonic water and sodas.
Rieger bar manager Arturo Vera-Felicie is perhaps proudest of his “kola,” made by grinding kola nuts and steeping them with lemon and orange zest, gentian, lavender, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon and tamarind. The resulting syrup is mixed to order with soda water from an old-fashioned charger. It’s sweet but complex and weighty enough to stand up to red wine and Fernet Branca in the Calimocho.
The orange-tinted tonic is flavored with dried roses and lemon and orange peel, making it a perfect match for Hendrick’s gin in the Rieger G&T. (Take note, though, that the drink is drier and more complex than a standard-issue gin and tonic.)
The ginger soda lands somewhere between commercially sweet ginger ale and spicy ginger beer, and lemon-lime soda is also in the works.
“It’s another level of craft in what’s already a highly skilled profession,” Vera-Felicie says.
Manifesto’s bar now stocks some spirits once thought dead and gone, like Old Tom gin and absinthe. Brands like Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur didn’t even exist until recently. Others, such as Four Roses Small Batch bourbon, were familiar but unavailable. And then there are those you’ve likely never heard of — Batavia-Arrack, Dolin sweet and dry vermouths and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.
Manifesto and the Rieger’s bar also use a startling variety of bitters, including Angostura, Peychaud’s, orange, peach, rhubarb, whiskey barrel aged, cherry, lemon and house-made tea — and those are just the ones on the printed menus. Where bitters won’t do, there are Italian amari such as Averna, Cynar and Fernet.
All these ingredients are combined into cocktails at once innovative and respectful of their roots. The Brothers Perryman is Negroni-ish, combining G’Vine gin, Campari and St-Germain elderflower liqueur. Harry’s French 75 adds a touch of absinthe to the traditional gin, lemon juice, sugar and Champagne, while the Grapevine Manhattan re-imagines a classic with VSOP cognac, Averna, Lillet Blanc and peach bitters.
Manifesto’s signature drinks are $11 (the Rieger’s selection runs $8 to $10), and they take longer to make than, say, a vodka tonic. But Manifesto is not about partying on the cheap. It’s about settling into a seat and enjoying the show.
“Places like Manifesto are more focused on quality over quantity, so it becomes more about the journey,” says Craig Rohner, a wine and spirits specialist for Pinnacle Imports. “You can go anywhere and get drunk, but it’s hard to go to a bar and have a wonderful drink that takes you somewhere.”
It’s one thing to arrive at Manifesto or the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange thirsty for a drink. It’s quite another to pick one from the dozens described in the two bars’ menus. Here’s a starting point:
Go for a winner
Arturo Vera-Felicie, the Rieger’s bar manager, won the 2010 Gran Gala Shakedown with the Chambeli Cocktail, made with Beefeater gin, Gran Gala orange liqueur, lemon and rhubarb bitters. Look for it on the Rieger’s list. Or, try the La Prohibida, which combines Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, fig syrup and lime and earned Manifesto bar manager Beau Williams second place in the 2009 Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition.
Williams is also a national semifinalist in this year’s Domaine de Canton signature cocktail competition.
And the rest of the staff? Four others, including Vera-Felicie, have been KC bartending competition winners or finalists. Brock Schulte was named Bombay Sapphire KC “Most Inspired Bartender” last year, and Valdez Campos has been tipped as KC Magazine’s best bartender two years running.
Punch it up
Punch was the original cocktail, and there’s nothing like a flowing bowl shared among friends to get the evening started. The big bowl (best for groups of eight or more) isn’t on the menu, but call the Rieger several hours in advance and you may be able to special order one made with pisco, brandy or Batavia-Arrack, a mostly sugar cane-based spirit that comes from Indonesia by way of the Netherlands.
Or, try the Birdie’s “Country Fair” Punch on the Rieger’s cocktail menu, a single serving made with pisco, lemon, pineapple gomme, house-made tea bitters and apple cider.
Absinthe and Old Tom were once essential ingredients, but both had all but disappeared from the bar until recently. Taste them in Manifesto’s Improved Old Tom Cocktail, made with Hayman’s Old Tom gin, St. George absinthe, sugar and orange bitters, stirred and strained into a coupe glass with a flamed orange garnish.
Travel the world
Who needs a passport when you can order a drink at Manifesto? Try Brazilian cachaca in the Winter in Buenos Aires, Chilean pisco in the Ode to San Francisco (apologies to Peru, but its pisco remains maddeningly hard to find) or Del Maguey mezcal from Mexico in the smoky and seductive Old Oaxacan.
Japan? You’re covered with the Brass in Pocket, made with Yamazaki 12-year single malt, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and whiskey barrel aged and cherry bitters.
The Caribbean? Go for a Bridgetown, made with Mount Gay Eclipse rum from Barbados, Bermuda’s Gosling’s Dark Rum, house-made falernum (a sweet, rum-based syrup) and Angostura bitters from Trinidad.
Take Ryan’s advice
When asked which drink everyone should try, Manifesto co-owner Ryan Maybee recommended the Smokin’ Choke. Essentially an updated old-fashioned, the drink combines applewood smoked Four Roses Small Batch bourbon, Grade B maple syrup, Cynar (an Italian amaro made with artichokes), lemon and orange zest.
“It’s probably the most unique cocktail on the menu and is also very indicative of our approach with regard to striking a balance between classic cocktails and modern innovation,” Maybee says. “Of course, you should probably already be a whiskey lover.”
WHERE TO FIND IT
1924 Main St. (use rear entrance in alley, look for the red door and buzz to get in)
Hours: Monday through Saturday, from 5 p.m. until 1:30 a.m.
Reservations: Call or text 816-536-1325 to reserve a table for four or more people. Bar seating is first come, first served. When full, Manifesto will take your cell phone number and call when seats become available.
Menu: Online at www.theriegerkc.com/
Cocktails: Each signature cocktail costs $11.
Food: A selection of small plates
THE RIEGER HOTEL GRILL & EXCHANGE
1924 Main St. (use the Main Street entrance)
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The Rieger’s bar does not close between lunch and dinner and remains open until 1:30 a.m. six nights a week.
Reservations and menus: Call 816-471-2177 or www.theriegerkc.com
Cocktails: Signature cocktails are $8 to $10.