"What's going on? How's the day shift?" Mark Church asks two women who melt into their stools just after 4:30 p.m. at Grünauer's Wunderbar.
The women are both dressed in black shirts and pants. They're drinking after their shifts as servers at another restaurant.
"Terrible. Our air conditioner is broken," one of them tells Church. Her cheeks are the rosy pink of a kid on the playground. "But it feels so good in here."
"Your makeup looks OK," Church says. "You guys can just go in the walk-in [cooler] if you need to."
They laugh. Church pours.
Before talking with me on this Wednesday afternoon, Church, 27, slides a steel church key out of his pocket and places it on the bar table in front of him. A Kansas City artist made the bottle opener for him and engraved his name on the handle.
"Church on a church key," he says. "It seems appropriate."
It's made from the same steel as airplane cladding, so it has been hard on his H&M jeans. His white shirt, the sleeves rolled to crisp cuffs at the elbow, and gray vest are neatly pressed. His tie knot and his stubble are just at the far edge of casual professionalism: that cultivated look of uncalculated effortlessness.
Church is among the favorites heading into this weekend's seventh annual Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival. But first, the winner of the 2010 contest - it was known then as the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition - has to track down some Japanese citrus.
"I'm still trying to find enough yuzu to make 150 cocktails," Church says. "And I've got to play around with spherification because I'm making Pernod caviar."
In a clear departure from the world of schnitzel, Church is making a drink inspired by sushi, Seattle rain, and a passage from Japanese fiction.
"There was a description of peace that was after the rain but before the storm," he says, recalling a moment from a Haruki Murakami novel.
After the Rain But Before the Storm is made with yuzu, maple syrup, Strega, and wasabi-oil-infused Beefeater gin. Church has rendered the gin through a process known as a fat wash, which Church and fellow bar manager Scott Beskow (who was a longtime fixture at M&S Grill) regularly use to flavor drinks at Grünauer with the essence and flavor of beef or pork or any other protein the kitchen has on hand.
"You add the oil to a spirit, shake the hell out of it, and then throw it in the freezer and let chemistry do its work," Church says. "You can pick off the fat, and then you get all the flavor without it being heavy or having to add extra liqueur."
It's a bar strategy that features only one or two spirits but plenty of infusions and spice components. But Church expects to encounter equally innovative ideas during the competition.
"There are some really good dark horses," he says. "There's Scott Tipton at the Kill Devil Club. There's Paige [Unger of Extra Virgin]. She's a perfectionist, so she makes great competition drinks. I would like to put myself up as a dark horse, but everybody is shooting for Beau [Williams of the forthcoming Hawthorne & Julep]. He's probably the best bartender in the city and he's been second and third. He's probably the favorite."
I ask Church to make me a drink, and he mixes me two. The first involves a shrub made with strawberries steeped with black peppercorn, white balsamic and balsamic vinegar. It's usually served with gin, but Church opts for mescal (he has been drinking it regularly mixed with grapefruit Jarritos on Sundays at Port Fonda) and adds orange cream citrate in lieu of bitters or juice.
The second drink is what Church dubs the Penultimate Order - a riff on the classic Last Word. It has Rittenhouse Rye (Church likes the punch from the higher proof), Byrrh (fortified wine), Génépy des Alpes, and lime juice.
"This is making rye a way to start a meal rather than finish it," he tells me. "It's turning rye into an aperitif."
One of the black-clad servers returns to the bar. "Could I get another?" she asks, gesturing to her empty wineglass. "I'm sorry, though - could I get it with a bit of ice?"
"Stop it. You're fine," Church says, then pours her a chardonnay with ice.
This is why people like it here. Church has carefully assembled Grünauer's wine list, sourced from Europe, but he's more than willing to plop a couple of frozen cubes of water if that's what makes you happy.
"It's not how I want it," he says. "It's how the guest wants it."
As the clock rolls toward 5 p.m., he shuttles back and forth from the bar to five tables. Church brings two glasses of water to a pair of women staring at the menu like it's a pop quiz.
"I have no idea what I want today," one of them says.
"That's OK," Church replies. "We close at 1:30 a.m., so you have time."
The women laugh. He pours. Church is in session.