Not long ago, during my daily, useless Internet travails, I happened upon a website about artisanal pencil sharpening. (There is even a book out now inspired by it, called How to Sharpen Pencils. John Hodgman is involved.) After a few minutes of research, I determined that the site was a parody of some kind. But that it was unclear to me whether it was a Portlandia-style spoof is a testament to the current absurdities of artisanal culture.
Our local mixologists get points for at least being out ahead of the curve on the pretending-like-we're-in-olden-times trend. The folks behind the bar at Manifesto were clubbing ice blocks with wooden mallets a good few years before pickling returned to our lives and $9 jars of Missouri elderberry jam became a thing. And most KC mixologists don't even have handlebar mustaches, which allows me to excuse the vests. It also helps that the drinks they pour — or, if you must, craft — taste amazing. I have never regretted a single order at Manifesto, Westport Café, Grünauer, the Rieger, or any of the other specialty cocktail joints in town. The drinks are always impeccably executed and presented.
This momentum peaked last week, at the debut of Paris of the Plains, a festival celebrating cocktail culture brought to us by Manifesto owner Ryan Maybee. Among the featured events were mezcal seminars, fancy dinners, parties and a bartending competition. One of these days, somebody is going to come over to my apartment, slap me around, dunk my head in a sink like Gene Hackman did to Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers, and make me sober up. But we are not there yet, not quite, and so I ventured out to see about all these booze-related events.
Friday night marked the first time I have ever entered a Power & Light establishment after 9 p.m. on a weekend. Why? Because of the Kill Devil Club, a new jazz venue and cocktail lounge that has taken over the upstairs space formerly occupied by the Peachtree Restaurant. Maybee consulted on the venue, which emphasizes fancy rum drinks, and Friday was the invite-only soft opening. Upon arrival, I was handed a laminated media pass attached to a lanyard to hang around my neck. I surveyed the packed room. Everybody looked very glamorous. The waitresses were wearing red flapper dresses. Mark Lowrey led a large ensemble, the New Jazz Order, through a set of big-band-style Count Basie tunes. Waiters circled with plates of tiny, obscure foods.
"Do I have to wear this thing?" I asked the PR woman.
"Yeah, just so people know you're media," she said. But what she really meant: I want to make it clear to the other people at this party that the only reason there is a poorly dressed bridge troll here is because he's writing about it.
Tanqueray sponsored the party, and so the menu consisted of five gin-based craft cocktails. The bartenders were slammed all night, and it makes you wonder whether artisanal drinks, which take at the least a couple of minutes to whip up, are feasible at a busy, swinging jazz club. "I'll have whatever the easiest drink to make is," I told the bartender, after watching her race around for 10 minutes. I don't know what all was in it. Champagne, maybe? Some berries? It was beside the point.
Opening-night parties aren't a great yardstick for how well a new club is going to do — everybody wants in on that VIP, free-booze action — but I think the Kill Devil Club might work in spite of its P&L location. For one, Maybee's name draws a lot of water; he's one of the few bar-restaurant guys in town capable of transcending the cheesy funporium reputation of Cordish's entertainment district. Inside, the space is ideal for jazz and dancing — the interior is sleek, the lighting nice and dim. Don't even get me started on the bathrooms. The men's room is large and wooden and cozy, and the live music is piped in through speakers. The stall doors are so heavy and secure that I wanted to camp out in there. It seemed too glorious and private inside to simply urinate. "I am alone and in desperate need of company," I texted a bartender friend from inside the stall. I stretched for a minute, then unnecessarily blew my nose. Out of ideas, I reluctantly exited the stall, and, soon after, the party.
The Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition was held Sunday night at the Uptown Theater. Mixologists from local smart-cocktail establishments like the Farmhouse, Extra Virgin, Justus Drugstore and Port Fonda were on hand, but so, too, were folks from joints in Colorado, St. Louis, Chicago, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia. Each contestant prepares a signature drink, and pours it onstage before a panel of judges. Then the judges ask the contestant to pour a traditional drink with emphasis on various flavors. At the end, they tally up the scores they've given and crown a winner. Also, in the background onstage, there are Quixotic girls swinging around half-naked on trapeze bars.
In the Conspiracy Room — the events space near the entrance of the Uptown — you could sample each contestant's signature drink, and as it happened, the only one I tried was the winner. It was made by Chris Conatser of Justus Drugstore, and it was basically a Manhattan with brandy instead of whiskey. Conatser also made the vermouth with local Boulevard beers. Spices and syrups were involved, and it was garnished with a cherry-flavored almond.
The big jerk who lives in my brain was jumping up and down and waving his arms, begging me to make a wisecrack about how unbelievably precious the drink was. (Almond pairing! Local vermouth! You can't make this stuff up!) But then I sipped the concoction, and he quieted down. Damn, I thought, this thing is fucking tasty.