For St. Louis, It's Been 100 Years of Cocktail Bliss

Cocktails at the Royale, one of St. Louis' premiere places for a drink.
Cocktails at the Royale, one of St. Louis' premiere places for a drink. PHOTO BY MONICA MILEUR

At high noon on a Sunday in May 1917, 50 ladies and gents adorned in their Sunday church-going best descended upon the Central West End residence of St. Louis socialite Julius Walsh for what, tradition holds, was the first-ever cocktail party.

Outfitted with an "equipped private bar," then-fashionable libations flowed throughout the Walsh home at 4510 Lindell Boulevard, notes Eric Felten, who wrote the definitive account of the event in the Wall Street Journal in 2007. Previous theme parties had served alcohol, sure, but guests were more likely to gather around a bowl of egg nog than sample the day's version of mixology. Yet at this midday affair, there were "Bronx Cocktails" and "Clover Leafs," highballs and gin fizzes, manhattans, martinis and sazeracs. Within weeks, writes Felten, the cocktail party was a St. Louis institution, spreading across the city before making its way across the pond seven years later, eventually becoming the gold standard for sophisticated gatherings across the globe.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of what is arguably our city's greatest contribution to the international food and beverage scene (Provel cheese aside), we can't help but see the thread that connects our cocktail past with the present. In the 100 years since Mrs. Walsh opened her manse to those afternoon imbibers, St. Louis has been a microcosm of the country's cocktail scene. Sometimes, you need only consider a single drinking establishment to take the nation's cocktail pulse.

Consider Planter's House, today the city's premier cocktail bar and home to its most recognizable barman, Ted Kilgore. Named after the illustrious Planter's House Hotel, the bar pays homage to the city's rich cocktail tradition, in which the country's first celebrity bartender, Jerry Thomas, literally wrote the book on drinks in the 1860s. Thomas counted Lincoln, Grant and Dickens among his patrons before Prohibition would all but destroy the notion of quality cocktails.

Today, the name Planter's House is again synonymous with top-notch drinks, as is the city as a whole, thanks to pioneers like Kilgore, the Royale's Steve Smith and the many talented professional bartenders who had the vision to realize that, as diners became more and more interested in the food they consumed, they were just as likely to care about their drinks. These noble craftsmen and women saved us from the hellscape of watery vodka Red Bulls and appletinis, ushering in a cocktail renaissance that has resulted in the high-quality drinks we now take for granted.

This guide is a celebration of the scene they've created, the drinks they've concocted, the restaurants that have given them a platform and the patrons who've dared to drink outside their comfort zones. In that spirit, we've compiled a list of the city's best cocktail bars, a roster that, while not exhaustive, is a field guide to the city's must-visit drinking establishments.

Additionally, you'll find suggestions for where to get the best sangria, some wonderful mezcal-based drinks, and — when you just want an ice cold beer or shoot of well whiskey, neat — the city's ten best dive bars, one based on the extensive research we did for last year's dive-focused bar guide. Oh, and we've even got a list of suggestions to get you out of your drinking rut .... whatever it happens to be.

Like the libations on offer at Mrs. Walsh's house or the densely described elixirs that populate the cocktail menus of the city's best watering holes, we hope this guide provides something for everyone, regardless your particular tastes. May you use it to help you drink your way through St. Louis' rich history, soak up our present and get a taste of what is to come.

Our 2017 Bar Guide hit the streets this week. Look for a copy in most spots where the RFT is carried.

About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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