The northwest corner of 20th Street and Main emerged in 2011 as a sort of mini culinary epicenter of Kansas City. The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange quickly came into its own as a smart destination for fresh, progressive plates. Down in the Rieger's basement, the pseudo speakeasy and pioneering mixology lounge Manifesto reasserted its reputation for shaking and stirring the tastiest cocktails in town. And most weekend nights, the silver Port Fonda food truck could be found camped out in the parking lot, bumping hip-hop over its speakers and serving upscale Mexican street food to a tottering line of eager customers.
It's easy to forget that the spot was more or less a dead zone for almost an entire year prior to this renaissance. Manifesto, which opened in 2009, was forced to close when 1924 Main, the restaurant upstairs that preceded the Rieger, abruptly shuttered in early 2010. (Their liquor licenses were connected.)
"When we went on hiatus in 2010, we tried to keep the Manifesto brand alive a little bit," says Beau Williams, general manager at Manifesto. "[Owner] Ryan [Maybee] and I started this thing called the Traveling Cocktail Club, where we'd set up at different bars around town for a night. So we'd come and serve craft-oriented cocktails at Pierpont's or BRGR or Justus Drugstore. But then with the Rieger opening, and Manifesto opening back up, we kind of naturally stopped doing it."
Bartender Dylan Sly arrived at Manifesto shortly after the reopening, following a stint mixing drinks at R Bar. Sly shares with Williams an earnest appreciation of the history, culture and science of cocktails, and had in mind a "sort of similar but sort of totally different idea" as the Traveling Cocktail Club.
"I'd wanted to start a cocktail catering company for a while, kind of a Manifesto-at-your-house type of thing," Sly says. "The name 'Traveling Cocktail Club' was out there, and I thought it was a good fit, so I asked Beau and Ryan if I could use it, and they said sure. Then I realized I needed Beau and a few other people to help out with the business."
Sly and Williams recruited a couple of others — the Rieger's Justin Richardson and Manifesto mixologist (and 2011 Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition winner) Valdez Campos — and have been gradually elevating the concept. They're available for parties, dinners, corporate events — any affair where the guests might be charmed by their miles-deep cocktail expertise.
"What we do all kind of depends on the size of the gathering and what the theme of the party is and what the organizers want from us," Sly says. "In my mind, the ideal situation would be, we go into a house or party or space, and we have a scratch bar set up, so somebody can come up and order a Sazerac or a Ramos gin fizz, and we have everything on hand to make it. Or we can do a limited menu that lists the ingredients and features drinks we've invented."
One hitch to the idea is the labor-intensive nature of crafting a first-class cocktail. At a place like Manifesto, patrons expect to wait a few minutes for their drinks — the vigorous glass shaking and careful garnishing are part of the draw. Would more traditional drinkers — the Scotch-loving lawyers, the vodka-true Mission Hills wives, the impatient livers of every social strata — give a damn about elderberry?
"To me, that's a big part of this: getting these cocktails out there to people who might not come into contact with them otherwise," Williams says. "I think there are people and organizations interested in hosting parties where the best cocktails you can get in this city are being served."