The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Craft Cocktail in St. Louis

Dec 3, 2014 at 7:00 am
Cocktails at Brasserie. | Corey Woodruff
Cocktails at Brasserie. | Corey Woodruff

The snow was falling thickly in big wet flakes when Steve Smith and Tim O'Connell climbed into O'Connell's plum-colored 1992 Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe and pointed it north. It wasn't exactly the best conditions for a long road trip, but the two men were on a mission.

Smith had just purchased the Real Bar — an old-school, Bud Light-and-darts kind of place — on Kingshighway. At the time, he ran the Panda Gym on North Broadway where he trained and promoted young boxers, but he had always wanted to be a tavern keeper.

"No games, no darts — a space for good food, good drink and real interaction," Smith recalls of the vision for his new bar.

He also knew he wanted a serious-minded cocktail menu. This was unconventional thinking at the time, and Smith enlisted the help of O'Connell, a long-time friend, copy editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and amateur mixologist.

O'Connell knew right away what he thought his friend's new bar should offer.

"Truly excellent and balanced cocktails served by unassuming but serious bartenders to patrons who appreciated the effort," O'Connell says today. "That seemed to me to be something Steve should have in mind."

click to enlarge Tim O'Connell, Steve Smith and Robert Griffin at the Royale. | Corey Woodruff
Tim O'Connell, Steve Smith and Robert Griffin at the Royale. | Corey Woodruff

There were a few places O'Connell wanted Smith to see for inspiration. The snow didn't stop on that night back in 2005, but neither did they, not until they hit Chicago. They landed at the doorstep of an old red brick corner bar on North Milwaukee Avenue shaped like an open book of matches resting on its edge. Aptly called the Matchbox, it was known as Chicago's most intimate bar. Smith entered and took in the space: It was small and narrow, but a warm, inviting place to have a drink on a cold night in the Midwest.

The two men took a seat and placed their order.

"I think it might have been an 'Aviation,'" Smith says.

A sloppily mixed "Aviation" — which is typically made of gin, luxardo, crème de violette and lemon juice — can come out looking like dirty dishwater. But the accomplished bartenders at the Matchbox poured quality booze and combined it with fresh juices in precise ratios. The drink was perfect.

"The care they took with their garnishes..." O'Connell recalls, trailing off and shaking his head. "But it was not at all pretentious."

There really wasn't any place like it in St. Louis yet. Sure, there were bars where one could find decent cocktails, but more often than not these were fine restaurants or private clubs, places where the crowd was old and the atmosphere stuffy.

"If you wanted to hear the Stones played at proper volume, you had to go somewhere else, where what's served is a shot and a beer, places where, even if there was a knowledgeable bartender, he or she wasn't really set up for making cocktails, and you were basically a special kind of jerk to order one," says O'Connell.

Smith agreed that the Matchbox was exactly the sort of place that St. Louis needed.

By late spring of that same year, the Royale was open and rolling out a comprehensive list of quality cocktails.

"I wanted drinks suited to each neighborhood, its history and culture...sometimes the name, sometimes the flavor was appropriate," says Smith.

On the Royale's inaugural cocktail list, there was a drink named for each aldermanic ward. The "Subcontinental," described as "the perfect post-colonial potable," represented the 1st Ward, and was a combination of gin, cucumber juice, lime and Cointreau. To this day, it's still the bar's most popular cocktail.

They may not have realized it at the time, but Smith and O'Connell were helping to usher in the birth of the "craft cocktail" movement in St. Louis — though the term seems to be universally reviled.

"There's no such thing," groans former Sanctuaria manager Matt Seiter. "The 'craft' is bartending. Cocktails are just cocktails."

click to enlarge Matt Seiter, cocktail historian and former manager at Sanctuaria. | Corey Woodruff
Matt Seiter, cocktail historian and former manager at Sanctuaria. | Corey Woodruff

However, there does seem to be general agreement on what the term strives for.

"A craft cocktail is just a drink that's thoughtfully and mindfully prepared for a guest. It could be as simple as a perfectly made gin and tonic, a tiki drink with eight ingredients, an old fashioned," says Matt Obermark, currently distilling giant Beam Suntory's "World Whiskey Specialist," and the original brains behind Eclipse and Pi's cocktail programs. "What defines a craft cocktail is really a bartender that gives a shit about taking care of his or her guest and treats the job with respect."

As fraught as the term is, it's basically a convenient way to differentiate well-made cocktails from poorly made ones, and good attentive service from inattentive treatment. It boils down to three things, according to Jeffrey Morgenthaler in his definitive tome The Bar Book: recipe, ingredients, technique. These elements all finally came together in St. Louis at bars like the Royale, Sanctuaria and Pi in the mid-2000s, and the scene has flourished.

The proof is in the accolades. Blood & Sand bartender and co-owner TJ Vytlacil was named Mixologist of the Month by Wine Enthusiast. In 2012, Sanctuaria garnered a World's Best Drink Selection title from the annual Spirited Awards. In 2014, Taste in the Central West End was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program.

But in reality, St. Louisans are in the midst of a rebirth. Before Prohibition, the city had a vibrant, nationally recognized cocktail culture that rivaled any other city's in the nation — an important reason why the scene has come back as spectacularly as it has.

"The Royale didn't invent the cocktail, but it helped bring several elements together that people wanted," O'Connell sums up. "Well-crafted cocktails, curated music and an understated vibe."

A Royale a "Southside" and a sazerac. | Corey Woodruff
A Royale a "Southside" and a sazerac. | Corey Woodruff

In the mid-nineteenth century, St. Louis was on its way to becoming "the fourth city," and the Planter's House Hotel at Fourth and Pine streets was the place to be. Guests included Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman (just a major back then, when he lived in St. Louis on Locust Street) and Charles Dickens.

"It was Dickens' place in the West; he spoke very highly of it," says David Wondrich, a James Beard Award-winning cocktail historian and author.

Francis Grierson devoted an entire chapter of The Valley of Shadows, his classic on the coming of the Civil War, to the Planter's House. "To me it was St. Louis itself.... It stood for wealth, fashion, adventure, ease, romance.... With the eternal quaffing of mint-juleps, sherry-cobblers and gin-cocktails."

Planter's House was home to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, who became the first celebrity bartender after he authored 1862's How to Mix Drinks: Or the Bon-Vivant's Companion. It was the first book on cocktail-making published in the United States.

Thomas was a larger-than-life figure, diamonds on his fingers and his clothing, and always in a pair of kid gloves. He was a member of New York's Fat Man's Association (a group of corpulent and successful businessmen) and wore the look of easy prosperity. Thomas is sometimes credited with the invention of the "Martinez" (a precursor to the martini) and the Tom Collins. His signature drink was the "Blue Blazer," a kind of whiskey punch that was lit on fire and tossed back and forth between two large silver mugs.

"The novice in mixing this beverage should be careful not to scald himself," Thomas warned.

Although he had worked at bars throughout the country, the title page of his book listed just two where he had been "principal Bar-tender": the Metropolitan Hotel in New York and Planter's House in St. Louis. In his definitive biography of Thomas, titled Imbibe!, Wondrich writes that Thomas referred to himself as "presiding deity" at the Planter's House bar, which was "generally regarded at the time as the best in all the West." Thomas concocted the "Tom and Jerry" (a type of eggnog) while working in St. Louis.

By 1915, St. Louis was home to another star bartender. Tom Bullock was the first nationally known African American bartender, thanks in part to his highly regarded juleps that he served to politicians, businesspeople and wealthy visitors to St. Louis. He mixed outstanding drinks at the luxurious St. Louis Country Club from 1915 to 1919 (and probably after, though there are no records of bartenders employed during Prohibition). In 1917, he rose to even higher prominence after he published The Ideal Bartender, a classic on mixology, still believed to be the only such book written by an African American. The introduction is by G.H. Walker, great-grandfather to George W. Bush. Walker was pleased to "testify to [Bullock's] qualifications," calling the book "the best to be had."

Around the same time, St. Louis also hosted the world's first known cocktail party. It was thrown by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. at her home at 4510 Lindell Boulevard.

"Mrs. Walsh had invited 50 guests to her house — a mansion 'equipped with a private bar' — on a spring Sunday at high noon. Some guests came to the party straight from church; some had spent the morning in 'a motor promenade of the boulevards,'" wrote Eric Felten, the former cocktail writer for the Wall Street Journal, of the occasion. "Plenty of Bronx cocktails (gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth and orange juice) were served, as well as plenty of Clover Leafs (gin, grenadine, lime juice and egg white, garnished with a mint leaf). The stylish young men of St. Louis ordered a raft of Highballs."

By 1924, the cocktail party had spread to England, making St. Louis the origin of a cherished global institution.

It's a good thing America exported it, because just two years after the Walshes' party, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, and by 1920 intoxicating liquors were officially prohibited. Bullock apparently lived on until 1964, but little is known of what became of him after Prohibition. Of course, people continued to swill bathtub gin. But the exquisite concoctions compounded of the best and freshest ingredients began to die out under the new government restrictions. It was the beginning of the dark ages for cocktail connoisseurs.

"Blue Steel" by Matt Seiter. | Corey Woodruff
"Blue Steel" by Matt Seiter. | Corey Woodruff

In 1933, the madness ended with the repeal of Prohibition. But the light did not return to St. Louis, not yet. American palates had been assaulted by harsh illegal liquors and other dubious ingredients. Drinkers were accustomed to slapdash booze drinks.

"In the '30s, [craft cocktails] tried very hard to come back, then World War II messed everything up," says Wondrich.

In the '50s, vodka rose to prominence as an ideal base liquor, versatile because it's essentially flavorless. By the mid-'70s, vodka was America's best-selling booze. Vodka-based cocktails were the antithesis of the drinks championed by Thomas and Bullock and enjoyed by so many St. Louisans of generations past. Cocktails became utilitarian — flavorless doses of alcohol to be taken as needed.

"A cocktail should celebrate rather than disguise its base liquor," says Robert Griffin, currently the head bartender at the Royale.

There were, of course, some sporadic places where a man could get a proper drink, like clubs and fancy steak houses. But knowledgeable bartenders were almost extinct.

"The damage really started mounting up in the '60s and '70s. No new people were learning the skills," says Wondrich.

The martini craze took hold of the nation by the 1980s, but alas, these drinks were made with just about every ingredient but gin and vermouth. There were appletinis and chocolatinis and all sorts of other strange — and often sweet — concoctions.

"Candy drinks," says Smith with a dismissive wave.

When the tiki revival hit the Midwest in the '90s — with its mai tais and zombies, originally intended to be made with fresh fruit juice — harried bartenders relied on the convenience of canned and bottled juices and mixers. Bars like Tangerine on Washington Avenue and Pin-Up Bowl on Delmar Boulevard caught the wave, but Griffin remembers that these drinks didn't live up to today's standards.

"They suffered from sour mix and similar ills," he recalls.

Perhaps one of the few bright spots in this period was the bar at the Fox & Hounds Tavern at the Cheshire, and more specifically the man behind it: Mark Pollman. An eccentric who collected over 18,000 quotations about alcohol, some of which were published in a little book he titled Bottled Wisdom, Pollman was a real historian of the cocktail.

"He was never stumped by a request for a classic cocktail. He was a walking cocktail encyclopedia," says Seiter.

Pollman died in 2008 right before the great craft-cocktail craze was about to take St. Louis by storm. But before he succumbed to prostate cancer, he made a phone call to a young bartender — a relative newcomer he'd heard some buzz about. At the time, Pollman was too ill to drink any longer.

"How do you make a negroni?" the bartender recalls Pollman asking.

"Gin, sweet vermouth, Campari...stirred, up or on ice," replied the bartender.

"Mm-hmm," Pollman replied, then hung up. He died soon after.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but maybe Pollman was content that the torch had been passed. The bartender on the other end of the line was named Ted Kilgore.

click to enlarge Ted Kilgore at Planter's House. | Corey Woodruff
Ted Kilgore at Planter's House. | Corey Woodruff

Before he moved to St. Louis, Kilgore worked bars in Springfield, where he was trying to reintroduce classic cocktails to no avail. In 2006, he finally got the chance he had been waiting for — an offer to run the spirits and cocktail program at the experimental hotspot Monarch in Maplewood. (At the time Josh Galliano — now of Libertine-fame — was the chef.)

But before he took the job, Kilgore had to do some research.

"One of the first places I went to when I came up to check out the scene was the Royale. I think the only other place that was doing any kind of classics was the Pin-Up Bowl," he says.

Smith and Kilgore talked plenty of cocktail shop before Kilgore finally made the move with his wife Jamie, also a first-rate bartender. It was while running the cocktail program at Monarch that his interest in an old-school style began to take off. He went to well-known cocktail events like Tales of the Cocktail in New York (arguably the most important international event in the cocktail and spirits world). In 2007, he took the Beverage Alcohol Resource's (BAR) certification test and passed at a master's level. He hung around at some of the newest New York City cocktail bars, like PDT, Death + Company and Pegu Club.

"To say I was heavily influenced by the New York scene would be almost an understatement. A month after I took BAR, I changed my menu at Monarch, removing all vodka drinks and adding such classics as 'Last Word.' My goal back then was to change how people thought of drinking," Kilgore says.

In 2009, he left Monarch to create a program at Taste for chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft, to huge success.

"He was really the first in St. Louis and one of the national pioneers of the cocktail boom," Vytlacil says of Kilgore.

The Royale may have been instrumental in kick-starting a cocktail renaissance, but 2009 seemed to be the tipping point. The same year Kilgore created the cocktail program at Taste, Matt Obermark started the cocktail program at Eclipse Bar.

click to enlarge Matt Obermark, Beam Suntory's "World Whiskey Specialist." | Corey Woodruff
Matt Obermark, Beam Suntory's "World Whiskey Specialist." | Corey Woodruff

"When I opened both the main bar and rooftop bar for Joe Edwards in 2009, he wanted to have an extensive and quality spirits selection as well as a classically inspired cocktail menu," Obermark recalls. "It wasn't perfect, and there was a huge learning curve, but offering a menu with classics and twists on classics made with fresh ingredients and quality spirits was a huge hit."

He got to know the owners of Pi, and by the end of the year, he crossed Delmar Boulevard to create a new cocktail program for them as well. Soon he was managing Pi's three locations.

Also in 2009, Seiter began managing the cocktail program at Sanctuaria, what he called "the dive bar of cocktail bars." He didn't carry any mass-marketed brands. He sourced antique glassware. The bartenders were casually dressed. Under his watch, Sanctuaria became one of the first bars in the nation to put cocktails on tap. Now he teaches other bars how to do this.

From there it was off to the races. In late 2009, Brasserie by Niche opened with its own cocktail program. Layla Linehan, who also earned her stripes at Pi and Monarch, is the current bar manager.

"Regardless of what is on my drink menu, the most important thing to me is, 'Am I able to make something for my customers that they enjoy?'" she says.

Vytlacil opened the members-only Blood & Sand with Adam Frager in 2011.

Then Kilgore brought all of St. Louis' cocktail history full circle when he opened Planter's House with Ted Charak at the end of 2013. Upstairs is the intimate Bullock Room, a nod to Tom Bullock. In its short tenure, it has become the premiere cocktail bar in St. Louis, just as its namesake was in the mid-nineteenth century.

"St. Louis has been traditionally a beer town, and will probably always be," says Kilgore. "But we had a couple of guys that made St. Louis a cocktail destination in the early days, and we are trying to honor and move that tradition forward."

click to enlarge Layla Linehan, bar manager at Brasserie. | Corey Woodruff
Layla Linehan, bar manager at Brasserie. | Corey Woodruff

On a recent afternoon, Smith and O'Connell are at the Royale's bar, each drinking an ethereal-looking "Aviation," just as they did back in 2005 at the Matchbox in Chicago.

A lot of great things have happened to the cocktail scene in the city since O'Connell and Smith realized that dream they shared on a long winter's drive. Smith is now the co-owner of another bar, the Tick Tock Tavern. He passed the bar-management torch at the Royale to Robert Griffin.

"We haven't expanded so much as refined," he says.

Plenty of bars and restaurants in the area now offer well-made classic cocktails and new inventions — Cleveland-Heath, the Gin Room, the Good Pie, Layla, the Libertine, Mission Taco Joint, Olio, Small Batch — the list goes on. It's an embarrassment of riches.

Smith and O'Connell are humble about their contribution. They say that their talents as mixologists have been far surpassed by guys like Kilgore and Griffin.

"It's exciting to see bartenders taking it to another level today. What unites those great talents is that they also embrace the ethos of understatement, even guys who are putting together concoctions that require really involved and complicated preparation," O'Connell says.

Regardless, Smith ended up with exactly what he wanted: a place for good food, good drink and real interaction. Asked what he's most proud of, Smith looks around the Royale.

"Having the proper balance between a regular tavern and things of finer quality."

Accessible, well-balanced, yet refined — just like the perfect cocktail.

Follow Patrick J. Hurley on Twitter at @VeganDrunkard. E-mail the author at [email protected].