I’ve always struggled to find my “signature drink.” My comfort zone is beer, and when choosing a cocktail, I go for whiskey-based drinks like an Old Fashioned. Last Thursday I dove head first into the world of craft cocktails at the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival. One festival event, the Midwest Melee competition, brought together teams from around the Midwest — Kansas City, Denver, Chicago and St. Louis. Each team included four bartenders, one woman and three men. The event was held at Dark Horse Distillery in Lenexa, a small-batch distillery that was also a sponsor.
Here’s where the fun started. Each team made four cocktails, each containing a product from the event sponsors: Dark Horse’s Reunion Rye whiskey and Rider Vodka, Appleton Estate Rum and Samogon, a Russian white spirit. That meant 16 drinks for attendees to try, if you could handle it. A judging panel chose a favorite drink, and the rest of the audience voted for two fan favorite teams.
Once the competition began, a mad rush hit each of the stations. Thirsty people gathered and watched as shakers flew, stirrers swizzled and the final product garnished with a flourish. Initially I was told we would get a small sample of each, but I quickly learned the plastic cups were filled to a generous 8 ounces.
Overwhelmed by the options, I stayed as close to my liquor of choice as possible and picked up the Chicago team’s Reunion Rye cocktail. This rye whiskey is aged in oak barrels, which gives it a spicy finish. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, but the strong spicy flavor masked the other ingredients in the drink. I might as well have ordered the whiskey neat. Because of the loud music and noise of the crowd, you could hardly hear the bartenders when they described their designs. It was a rough start to my adventure, but I didn’t let it slow me down.
Soon enough I was triple-fisting cups, sampling anything I could get my hands on. Guilt set in as I abandoned some of the drinks. I wanted to finish them all because they were so delicious, but knew there wasn’t enough time. The rest of the audience shared my mindset, only sampling drinks before setting them aside for something new.
After the initial frenzy, it was easier to talk with the bartenders. The ingredients for each drink blew me away. The Kansas City team served a mint julep topped with a cloud of mint cotton candy. Denver’s had rum and vermouth mixed with homemade root beer bitters. No two tasted the same, even though the teams used all the same base liquors.
I thought the whiskey overpowered other ingredients in most of those concoctions, so I found myself gravitating toward the more innovative balanced creations that used vodka and rum. After this competition, I wanted to swear off rum and Cokes for life in favor of craft cocktails.
My favorite was the Breakfast of Champions from the KC team, which included Paige Unger of Extra Virgin, Scott Tipton of The Kill Devil Club, Brock Schulte of The Drum Room and Beau Williams of Hawthorne and Julep. (Unger went on to win the festival’s big bartender competition on Sunday night.) Their cocktail was a creamy combination of vodka, homemade coffee liqueur, fleur de sel caramel ice cream and nutmeg garnish — a glass filled with that seemed like a decadent milkshake. My second favorite came from the St. Louis team. Its Samogon Melon Ball mixed Samogon, Cocchi Americano (a vermouth-style aperitif from Italy), and a pineapple-orange puree, and was served as a mini snow cone. This drink belonged poolside.
After two hours of sampling, the votes were in. St. Louis took top honors from the judges for their Samogon snow cone drink, as well as fan favorite. Confetti flew and cheers echoed as they were presented with a trophy. By this point — no surprise — the crowd was a little rowdy. I sampled at least 12 of the 16 creations offered, taking notes to keep track.
Maybe I’m finally growing up, and it’s time to move past my college student drinking habits. After the competition, the larger price tag on craft cocktails that I had always complained about finally made sense. The cost is rooted in the quality of the product as well as the effort and talents of the bartenders. The liquors are smoother, the flavors more complex and the combinations more vivacious. And the hangover after those 12 (small) drinks was not nearly as bad as I’m used to.
Andrea Olsen is a weekly contributing columnist who writes about her adventures in Kansas City. She’s never met a dive bar she didn’t love. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram: andrealolsen