For Alcoholics and Moms to Be: Manifesto

Now back in the DAY, when I was still drinking, single, and unafraid of the credit card debt one creates while drunk and single, I had a pretty standard approach to ordering beverages in my favorite restaurants. Three or four Knob Creek Manhattans before dinner and usually two bottles of wine with my meal.  If other people were going to drink wine then I’d make sure we ordered more, because more than a glass or two from my bottles would really throw me off my game.  Whiskey from Kentucky and wine from northern Italy or the American northwest.  That was pretty much it. Not because I was afraid of sampling every goddamn type of alcohol and cocktail I’d ever heard of, but because bourbon did the fucking trick. And wine was effective enough to fill the gap until the real bourbon drinking could commence. Cocktails that didn’t consist of at least 98% booze with an alcohol content of at least 45% were a shameful waste of stomach space and bloodstream. I don’t drink anymore, but I still stand by that shit.

Now TODAY it’s a whole different game, and without the dedication to an alchohol related methodology the sky is the limit when it comes to delicious beverages.  I know that mocktail is a horrible name.  On that we can agree.  But it’s like foodie…it is annoying but it’s concise and immediately recognizable. If you’re going to bother to say “non-alcoholic cocktail/beverage” every time you order, then good for you but I probably don’t want to hang out with you.  But don’t say virgin, because that would imply that you want an even worse version of an already bad mixed drink.  My introduction to the MOCKTAIL came from none other than the legendary Chris Conatser, whose name I speak in reverence to this very day when I think back on the creations he would proudly deliver to my table at Justus Drugstore. I’ll spare my friends a thousandth retelling of the Onion Shrub story, but that is indeed the mocktail high water mark in my life up to this point. And THAT brings us to the point of this whole thing: a series of blog posts focusing on nothing but mocktails at the finest drinking establishments in Kansas City. With my religion dedicated to vetting people and places, as well as my habit of always starting with the people I already know and working outwards fromthere, Manifesto just made sense for my first post.  Plus I was talking to Ryan Maybee about mocktails at The Rieger one day and he mentioned that they might be putting a section for them on the new drink menu downstairs. So I said “hey, I’d like to drink them and write about it” and he said “okay, come on down when I’m behind the bar”.  And you know what?  I still made a reservation for 5:00 on a Wednesday! If a place takes a reservation, make a goddamn reservation!  It’s your one job! I emphasize that point because I find nothing more uncouth or churlish than the “well I’m a friend of so and so” crowd. They are fickle social climbers and usually know very little about food and drink. Just make the reservation. And my bad pictures are me being funny. It’s dark in Manifesto.

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I like crowded restaurants, but I hate crowded bars.  5pm in the middle of the week is, for me, the perfect time to enjoy some peace down at Manifesto.  Having one of the best bartenders in the country creating alcohol-free drinks for me was kind of funny in an ironic way, but also said a lot about the art of hospitality. There would be four different drinks that would probably be going on the new menu, and I was to be as honest as possible with my thoughts as we chatted about a variety of subjects. First of all, it’s dark as shit down there. Your eyes definitely adjust, and once you can see the layout of the room it’s not like you’re going to go bumping in to things, but still, it’s dark enough to discuss logistics that go beyond “how many people do you reckon have gotten pregnant down here?”. When it’s that dark I have an irrational fear of being handed Bushmill’s or Crown Royal in place of my water, because how in the hell would you know the difference until you’d had three or four of them and started to get a buzz?  Even though it’s not an ACTUAL fear, Ryan explained that first of all, mise en place is key…the bar is set up like a cockpit, exactly the same every time. After you’re used to it, you don’t even have to look, so the refined folk among us looking for a digestif will never have to wonder aloud if they have the right COLOR of chartreuse in front of them. Plus, there’s basic quality control; tasting a drink before it’s sent out, which covers checking the flavors as well as the presence of alcohol.  And since the same glassware is used for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, a garnish will be put on a mocktail that would never be put on one with booze.

But is there any chance that the staff will begin to evolve like those fish at Fantastic Caverns and become eyeless from the constant darkness?  Are they beginning to develop radar like a fruit bat?  Apparently not.

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First up was what was described as “an easy riff on a cocktail”…a ginger syrup and lime juice based mixture.  One thing I love about the truly great mocktails I’ve had is that the bartender is not shy about sweetness, or heat, or whatever the predominant flavor.  This one was super sweet, with some real spice to it.  I could see it being too sweet or heavy bodied for some people, but I grew up on double strength Kool-Aid and Vess Soda, so I’m not shy about sweetness. But I also don’t always know what I’m in the mood for, which would explain why I have gotten so many variations on 7-Up or jazzed up orange juice in my travels. And that includes some really top tier restaurants.  Not a huge deal, I’m not a dickhead who expects a busy place to create something for me on the fly, but having someone put some thought into it is always welcome. When I know the folks behind the bar, like I do at The Rieger, I’ll just throw out a general mocktail challenge….and the variety from drink to drink has been outstanding.  So where does the inspiration come from at Manifesto?  “We always know everything we have on hand that doesn’t have alcohol, and we really know how to make flavors work well together.”  Since most of Manifesto’s drinks are so booze-forward, with two or more ounces of spirits, you can’t really mimic too many cocktails without using alcohol.  “In a concept like this, we’re making so many things in house…vanilla pear syrup, honey cinnamon syrup, mango habanero, ginger, fig syrup…” In addition to the spectrum of flavors created in-house, there are also products like non-alcoholic bitters from Fee Brothers.  The bitters contain glycerine due to its solubility in water instead of alcohol, and while they may not work as well flavorwise in their alcoholic offerings, the mocktail is the perfect foil for the added complexity.

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The second offering was one that I’ll be drinking often.  A combination of Shatto Root Beer Milk, egg white, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Bitters, club soda and nutmeg.  On paper it sounds like that would be a dessert drink, but it’s really not.  In fact I thought the first version was too light in body, so as instructed I mentioned it to Ryan, and after he made a quick adjustment to the type of simple syrup it was perfect. When someone asks me for genuine feedback I take it seriously, and I prefer to articulate any constructive criticism face to face. I’ll annoy the shit out of everyone within earshot with my praise, but if it involves something more than, for example, a minor tweak to a mocktail, I error on the side of staying as far away from the annoyingly precocious and uninformed world of anonymous online reviews as humanly possible.  I can ramble, I can effectively articulate many aspects of flavor, substance, style and context when it comes to vittles, but I’d rather just find shit I really like and throw out the Guy Fierian term “legit” and call it good. Vetting is a religion to me, my recommendations are never flippant, so when I say legit, then you know it’s serious. So with that said, after Ryan remade the drink, it went from very good to 100% legit. A drink that includes root beer milk and still manages to be refreshing has my support. BUT when I find the mocktail that out-Conatsers Conatser, then I will have way more than one word for you.

With the time and thought that goes into potentially dedicating a section of the menu to non-alcoholic options, I wondered how brisk sales must be. After some discussion amongst the staff, the totals ranged from zero sold in an evening all the way up to around six on a busy Saturday night. This will be a question I ask at every establishment I visit, because while the number is very low, we’re talking about Manifesto.  The very large majority of people don’t go down there for soft drinks. Maybe people who aren’t drinking just don’t think to ask, or maybe it’s just the fact that none are listed on the menu yet….I have no clue, all I know is I genuinely appreciate the time and effort.  We talked about the appropriate price, and for me personally, a Manhattan was as “cocktail-y” as I ever got, so since almost the same amount of work goes into their mocktails I’d still pay around nine or ten bucks. I don’t know what the fuck two ounces of liquor even looks like, so its absence doesn’t factor in for me. I’m not sure what the final price will actually be for these, but it sounds like the 6-7 dollar range…so I’m in.

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The third drink was a play on a gin and tonic, and Ryan’s personal favorite out of the four.  Muddled juniper, rosemary and orange slices, with grapefruit bitters, lemon and lime and then topped with Q tonic.   Great herbal taste on the back end, sharp citrus, lots of subtle flavors…more of the type of complexity you’d find in a real cocktail.  We talked about how even though you cannot REPLACE booze, this particular drink had a pop to it, definitely set off by the tonic.  In a way it took the place of a full-on potent shrub with its lack of vinegar but still some of that dry tartness. For me this would be the perfect drink for the long haul, something I’d have refilled a few times during a long dinner.

Living in the midwest it’s easy to assume that many trends rise and fall according to what is happening on the coasts…for example- a butterfly flapping its wings in a phone booth leading to a speakeasy in NYC breathes those coal black caverns of craft cocktails to life here in flyover country. We’ve got hipsters in overpriced ol’ timey clothing made from fabrics created in modern Asian sweatshops and then transformed via pre-Industrial American machinery, slavish dedication to niche everything, and specialty barware out the ass in KC…..fads rise and fall, SO- is the speakeasy something that is here to stay?  Is the trendy butterfly about to blow in a whole new concept or is this particular style concrete? As far as Ryan Maybee’s opinion, there are a couple of answers: First, as a trend in larger markets it most definitely could become outdated or evolve into something completely different, and perhaps that has already started.  However, that will probably never happen at Manifesto.  The concept is timeless and the building itself at 1924 Main provides the perfect context down in the basement, just off the alley. According to Ryan, the speakeasy and craft cocktails have gone from a smaller, niche market into something more accessible.  The quality hasn’t suffered, it’s just happening on a larger scale and doesn’t have to seem as exclusive. For me personally, my belief is that quality and consistency will always win out over trends and the perception of waning “coolness”.  I don’t know about the craft cocktail world, but as far as food trends go “the death of exclusivity” is pretty much the same thing….when your Sandra Lee loving aunt gets a Sous Vide Supreme it hurts your wannabe master chef heart just a little.  Is it because you’re an elitist asshole, or because you suddenly realize it’s kind of just an expensive crockpot?  I don’t have the answers, but I do know I’m not cool.

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The final drink of the evening was a stunner; a rendition of the hugely popular “Winter in Buenos Aires”.  Roasted butternut squash puree, honey, cinnamon, lemon and pineapple.  Definitely kind of wintery, some fall harvest there, but underneath that, plenty tropical with the overall texture coming way more from the pineapple than the squash (which is what I expected to taste more of than anything).  I don’t have a lot to say about it- legit plus. If you’re going to drink a mocktail at Manifesto, I would be shocked if this drink did not receive high praise.  Plus it’s served up, like a big boy drink. Very pretty. A big nose for something with no tannins or liquor.

I’m totally not making this up…while I was sitting there, someone came in to drop off the latest Visit KC Magazine, which is only printed once per year and is seen by anyone who flies here or stays in a hotel.  On the cover is the Winter in Buenos Aires, and inside there is a great feature article highlighting a ton of places I already love in KC.  I would have needed more ambient light to peruse it properly, but Ryan did point out that the first page of the feature contained “one of the proudest moments of his career”…his photo right next to that of Mr. Tom Pendergast. So, with that potential boost to weeknights at Manifesto due to business travelers and tourists, you know what that means…another nail in the coffin of exclusivity. I guess someone has to make bridge and tunnel people seem cool in comparison. The whole concept of exclusivity in Kansas City just makes me giggle into my napkin. Honestly, other than The River Club, WHAT do we have that’s “exclusive” or owned by a segment of the social hierarchy that delights at the minions below whose thirst for such heights will never be quenched? We’ve got exactly jack and shit unless you’re going to count the myriad $100+ charity benefits and galas. And that is part of what I love about this town. We’ve got amazing food and drink that is way cheaper and more accessible than it would be in many other cities, and you can generally find parking. The only “exclusive” thing about eating or drinking here is the need for a reservation on a Friday or Saturday night. And money does not buy good taste. If you need to be set apart as elite or exclusive (or view anything popular AS that), with your own extremely dated and contrived version of what it is to be a VIP, you miss the point of what makes hospitality such a big part of our social fabric. Restaurant and bar owners want us to have a great time, and to come back. They are literally invested in that concept. Per Ryan, “it’s an important thing to educate or turn someone on to a new type of cocktail, but the most import and rewarding thing is that they have a good time regardless of what they’re drinking”.  From my perspective as a customer, it’s not much more difficult than finding something you like and getting to know the people who do it best.  Enthusiasm and a willingness to try something new both go a long way.

Before I left, I had to ask one more thing about the darkness….did the staff take turns on who was Riddick and who were the monsters from Pitch Black?  I never got a straight answer to that.  I like to think it’s happening down there a lot.  Or that scene at the end of Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill and Clarice are down in the basement and he has those night vision goggles.  Manifesto works on so many levels.

 

 

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