Welcome to Girl Walks into a Bar, a weekly Gut Check feature that spotlights local bars and bartenders. This week Alissa Nelson profiles Taste by Niche bartender Ted Kilgore. Below is a Q&A with Kilgore, followed by a video of him mixing an El Maestro No. 1 cocktail.
The "10,000 Hour Rule" holds that a person can become an expert in his or her chosen field with 10,000 hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he suggests a general timeline of ten years to complete that training, at about twenty hours a week. Ted Kilgore went the full-time route and completed his transition from working for a perfumer to master bartender in five years of intensive study and practice.
His path wasn't necessarily a straight shot from eyedropper-wielding perfumer to eyedropper-wielding molecular mixologist, however. Facing a career change in his 30s, Kilgore decided to attend a small bartending school in Springfield, Missouri. The bartending scene in the early 2000s was a shadow of the pomp and flash of today.
Armed only with Mr. Boston's bartenders' guide -- "It was a mediocre guide, but it was all that I had and all that I needed" -- Kilgore read, studied and began traveling to New York to investigate that city's nascent craft cocktail scene. Along the way his focus began to shift from the drinks that every menu at the time required -- "chocolate martinis, raspberry martinis...anything in a V-shaped glass" -- to the pre-Prohibition focus of today. "I pursued more of the classic stuff," Kilgore says. "I still didn't know what I was doing, I freely admit, but I was making Sazeracs and I was the first one doing mojitos. It sounds lame now. But I was doing mint juleps and caipirinhas in early 2000. And people kind of understood it, but it was still a hard sell."
While Kilgore identifies only a handful of turning points as pivotal to his career, there were certainly monumental years. One was 2004, when he attended a drink clinic in upstate New York led by Gary Regan, a cocktail columnist and author. "That was the year when it all changed: I went to Tales of the Cocktail, met Dr. Cocktail [Ted Haigh], King Cocktail [Dale DeGroff], Drink Boy [Robert Hess] -- all these people who I'd read their stuff. And I knew I had to step it up."
That was also the year he decided Springfield had gotten too small. Fortunately for St. Louis, Chris Hoel, Monarch's sommelier at the time, had an opening. While the bars Kilgore was managing had expansive beer and wine menus, the move presented "an opportunity to leave beer and wine and focus completely on mixology and spirits."
In his three years at the Maplewood restaurant, Kilgore developed a cadre of local talent, bartenders who have since moved on to reinvent bar programs around the city: Michele Bildner at Brasserie by Niche, T.J. Vytlacil at Franco, Heather Dodderer at Herbie's Vintage 72, and Nate Selsor, who has taken up the mantel at Monarch. As one of the founding members of the U.S. Bartender's Guild chapter here, Kilgore continues to support the ever-expanding scene in the city.
Two years ago Kilgore took the opportunity to enroll in the Beverage Alcohol Resource program, a five-day intensive course of study. "Even though I had 80 books at the time on cocktails and spirits, I was studying every night," he recounts. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done." Kilgore marks the B.A.R. course as the true turning point in his focus on mixology.
Of course, his progress is easy to track from there: the move to the intimate and stylish Taste by Niche, cocktail recipes published everywhere from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Wall Street Journal, international buzz, and a prize-winning finish at this year's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Despite the accolades, Kilgore remains the hard-working and acquisitive student who put in so much time and energy in the first place.
He shrugs off the label of "celebrity bartender": "Some people say that I am, but I'm just a dude doing what he loves."
Here's to the next 10,000 hours.
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