Why Kansas City’s world-class cocktail scene is the best in the Midwest

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Photo by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

It starts with Manifesto. The subterranean speakeasy opened in 2009, introducing KC to homemade grenadine and applewood-smoked Four Roses bourbon. For a full five years thereafter—that’s a century in bar years—it was tops in town. We happened by in mid-March of last year, joking with bartenders about the unthinkable prospect of some type of short lock-down. Up to the very end, it remained a magical little room.

Manifesto’s legacy lives in the enviable craft cocktail scene it helped incubate. When it comes time for creative drinks shaken and poured over crystal-clear, hand-chiseled globes of ice or served up in a dainty chilled coupe with preserved citrus rinds, KC punches far above its weight. This midsize Midwestern city has a dozen serious cocktail spots that would shine in Brooklyn or West Hollywood. If anything, like a puffballed dandelion hit by a mower, the closure of Manifesto and the Reiger bar above it only scattered the seeds wider.

If you’re looking for the closest existing analog, you’ll end up (seriously) in Old Shawnee. That’s where Manifesto’s last former* GM, Jay Sanders, now runs Drastic Measures (5817 Nieman Road, Shawnee), along with fellow standout bartender Jill Cockson. Shawnee is working hard to establish its downtown and made a generous overture to attract this project to the unmarked space (a sign instructs you to knock firmly but respectfully). Drastic Measures has been made into a mid-century chic den with the help of Kofod Larsen-style lounge chairs and exposed stone walls that recall Sanders’ last spot.

You could also go over to Cockson’s other project, Swordfish Tom’s (210 W. 19th Terrace, KCMO), which leans more heavily into the Prohibition-era speakeasy stuff than any other place in town (and also makes nice cocktails).

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SoT/Photo by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

And because, like the mid-80s DC hardcore scene, everyone involved in KC craft cocktails has at least three projects, you can see more of Sanders’ handiwork behind the tiled bar at SoT (1521 Grand Blvd., KCMO) on the border of the Crossroads and Power & Light, where he used to be the bar manager and now consults.

Before his time at the reborn Rieger distillery, Andrew Olsen tended bar at the unrelated Rieger restaurant. At the Hey! Hey! Club (2700 Guinotte Ave., KCMO) in the distillery’s basement, you’ll find his creations—and those of bar manager Derek Branham, another former Rieger bartender—on a menu that pays homage to KC history while also making good use of high-end spirits from around the world, not just the ones distilled upstairs. If you’ve made it this far, Brock Schulte is a name you know. He’s the man behind Hand In Glove (6 S.W. Third St., Lee’s Summit), a narrow coffee bar by day with modern decor and tall shelves of exotic liquors, including two-hundred-dollar-a-shot whiskeys and a fair number of oddies bought out from places that have shuttered. You’ll be handed a sheet of bright white paper advertising “another temporary menu brought to you by Brock” (like Madonna or Bono, one name is enough). The cocktails here are very good and lean heavily into the space’s other identity by embracing flavors from coffee.

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Schulte made his name at Monarch Bar (4808 Roanoke Parkway, KCMO) on the Plaza, which for our money is maybe the best cocktail spot in this time zone. Monarch is one of three standout cocktail spots owned by noted local architect David Manica—the new Raiders Stadium and London’s O2 Arena are in his portfolio—and it’s a gorgeous space with an elegant white marble bar that contrasts with the dark herringbone floor below and the soaring chandelier crafted of a thousand custom-made acrylic butterflies. The drink program, now under the direction of Scott Ruggiero, is also a work of art. Manica’s two other projects, Verdigris (5245 W. 116th Place, Leawood) in Park Place and Mercury Room (1800 Walnut St., Suite 1400, KCMO) are even more swank and just as drink-centric. Rez-only Mercury Room hangs fourteen stories above the city street and uses thousands of LED bulbs and mirrors to create the feeling of flight. It has just twenty-eight seats and cocktails are thirty dollars.

You can also get very fine cocktails with an amazing view at midtown’s Canary (3835 Main St., KCMO), the new project from the team behind Westport whiskeria Julep (4141 Pennsylvania Ave., KCMO). Julep’s cocktail menu leans heavily on bourbon while Canary tilts toward gin. Both are under the direction of co-owner Beau Williams, who got his wings at… Manifesto.

*For the last year of service at Manifesto, the General Manager was Kyle Gardner. Gardner’s former staff appreciated his service enough to reach out with this correction. Our apologies.

Categories: Bar Guide, Beer, Wine, Spirits