Where to Drink in Kansas City, One of America’s Most Exciting Cocktail Cities
New York, San Francisco, LA, Miami, Chicago and…Kansas City? Yes, this unassuming Missouri stalwart is well on its way to becoming a veritable superstar in the world of cocktails thanks to a growing crop of world-class drinking dens manned by some of the brightest barkeeps in the country.
As it turns out, KC has been a drinking town for centuries, famously thwarting Prohibition in favor of mobster-run gin joints, their doors flung wide open with defiant aplomb. So, it only makes sense that this scrappy town has finally come back to claim its former top-shelf glory.
If you’re looking for a quick, easy and yes, downright cheap, drink-cation this summer, it’s time to book your tickets and ready your palates—here’s how to sip your way through America’s newest boozy boomtown.
At this Country Club Plaza-area rooftop oasis atop the new Fontaine hotel, chef Kevin Nicholls’ locally sourced shareables back an ambitious craft cocktail program. Beneath the fresh, contemporary dining area—greys and creams, polished wood tables, mosaic tile floors, globe pendant lights, wine racks aplenty and a glass-encased fireplace—lies a sleek sunken lounge marked by a curved slate grey bar, soaring ceilings and lots of happy Kansas Citians. Potent elixirs like the warming, butterscotch-scented Brown Butter (brown butter washed Four Roses, demerara, aromatic bitters) and the earthy How High the Moon (mezcal, Pasubio Aperol, celery bitters, Maldon salt) set the tone against sweeping cityscape views. The best part? The bar opens up onto an open-air terrace with fire pits, patio loungers and a gorgeous rectangular pool gleaming in all its early summer glory.
901 W. 48th Place, Kansas City, MO 64112 / (816) 437-8420
To find this Crossroads hideaway, head through an alley, down some stairs and into a waiting area lit by a glowing industrial-style lamp. If the light’s green, a knock on the door gets you into what was once a boiler room—a hulking iron boiler sunk into the front room gives it away—and then to a dimly lit space akin to a turn-of-the-century parlor. At its center is a small sectioned-off bar where proud proprietor Jill Cockson holds court.
The Nebraska native spent most of her 20-odd year career at Lincoln’s lauded The Other Room, a role which got her a James Beard semifinalist nod in 2015. But KC eventually beckoned. “I knew I wouldn’t ever get majority ownership in Lincoln, so when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it,” says Cockson, with a friendly smile. “I went to college here, so I knew the scene and everything going on here. It was exciting and it didn’t break the bank. As they say, if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.”
This is a speakeasy fan’s speakeasy. Cell phones are restricted, conversations are kept at a low murmur, a Moleskine logs the tabs (“The original POS system.”) and the Pre-Prohibition-style menu runs deep. Tasty numbers like the KC Royal Tea (local gin, Yellow Chartreuse, housemade honey-bergamot syrup) and the Kansas City (local whiskey, two types of sherry, Angostura, flamed orange twist) smack of hometown pride while the cheeky anecdotes accompanying each item as well as the hand-cut ice, hefty, crystal clear cubes bearing the bar’s logo (Cockson’s metalworker fiance made the embossing rod) provides personality. God is definitely in the details here.
210 W 19 Terrace, Kansas City, MO 64108
Housed in a 19th-century horse stable, this cheery distillery and tasting room has been keeping the good hipsters of the Crossroads district happy with housemade gin, vodka and Kansas City’s first ever native-born absinthe for just over a year now. Lifted’s vapor-distilled gin is bright, approachable and particularly cocktail-friendly, which is a good thing, considering their sundrenched tasting room—with its reclaimed wood fixtures, retractable garage-style front wall and view of the distillery—doubles as the neighborhood’s go-to for an afternoon nip. Try an aptly-titled Crossroads Sour, which marries gin with blackberry, lime, Cointreau, orange bitters and Angostura in a summery liquid embrace. It’s just as sweet, fun and charmingly offbeat as the ‘hood itself.
1734 Cherry St, Kansas City, MO 64108 / (816) 866-1734
With its glossy dark wood, sliding library ladders, Art Deco-style cut-mirror chandeliers, comfortable seating and sports on the projector, Julep hovers somewhere between a sophisticated whiskey den and a relaxed neighborhood pub—albeit one that stocks a ridiculous amount of Pappy Van Winkle among other boozy rarities. The staff is as friendly as they are talented, adroitly stirring and shaking their way through the comprehensive bar menu. Highlights include anything whiskey, like the many Old Fashioned and Mint Julep variations (go with the Frosty, a sweet, earthy mix of root beer-infused bourbon, sugar and mint) in addition to the Bible-thick bottle list. Other spirits get their due in the form of the tiki-inspired A Toast for Jost (aged rum, chai-spiced coconut cream, pineapple, orange, Angostura, nutmeg) and the light, aromatic Garden & Gun (gin, honey, lavender, lemon, orange bitters). As for snacks, the playful Southern comforts steal the show. Go ahead and pair your Pappy with a suped-up bologna and cheese (artisan bologna, housemade pimento cheese, sharp cheddar, house BBQ) for the ultimate high brow-low brow experience. If you’re looking for something a bit more exclusive, inquire about Soft Conspiracy, a swanky lounge hidden behind a door near the bar, for tableside cocktail service and upscale small plates.
From its snazzy Art Deco tasting room (think: tufted leather, pressed tin, a handmade walnut bar) to its top of the line production area, basement barrel room and airy loft-style event space, this destination-worthy Crossroads distillery pays homage KC’s scandalous past. The Tom in Tom’s town is none other than Tom Pendergast, the famously corrupt political boss who kept the city adamantly wet all through Prohibition, cementing the newly minted Paris of Plains’ long-lasting love local affair with the devil’s drink.
"I love being a part of the Kansas City cocktail scene, it's a part of my DNA,” says co-owner David Epstein, a KC native who took a leap and left his adopted New York City to open the distillery. “In fact, I think every Kansas Citian has a bit of bootlegger in their ancestry. That's who we were and that's who we’ll always be."
Booze might not be illegal any longer but that’s no reason not to savor every sip. First, tour the distillery and taste your way through the portfolio’s award-winning vodka, American-style gin, bourbon and whatever else they’ve got cooking as a part of their one-off Pendergast Machine experimental series. Then hit the bar for a revitalizing Shoot the Messenger (vodka, local cold brew coffee, stout syrup) or the fiery Angry Goat (bourbon, Lillet Rose, strawberry habanero syrup, lime). Bar bites like fried sriracha pickled green beans and a juicy bacon-cheddar burger smothered in bourbon-spiked ketchup should keep you going.
1701 Main St, Kansas City, MO 64108 / (816) 541-2400
“We’re a young enough scene that you can’t get away with poor quality,” says SoT General Manager Taylor Johnson, who, along with the rest of this gem’s crew, assuredly live up to her word. Dubbed as a “secret garden party-themed haven,” this Crossroads hideaway combines a Pinterest-worthy aesthetic complete with quirky glassware, teal leather banquettes, custom-patterned wallpaper and a large backyard strewn with greenery, with a cocktail program fit to roll with the best of them. Of note is the bar’s exceptional command of offbeat ingredients like the vegetal kiss of pea shoot in smoky mezcal- and green chili-based Back in the Tall Grass and the Spring Fling’s tangy dose of strawberry Campari jam, adding umph to the floral lavender- and jasmine-smoked gin. To pair, the snack list is brief but delicious (pro tip: get the charcuterie).
1521 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108 / (816) 842-8482
You know those people who were born to do what they do? The ones that have turned something they not only love but seemingly effortlessly excel at into a full-time job? Monarch head bartender Brock Schulte fits that bill to a T. Be they thoughtful Negroni twists like the Dufftown Monarchy (The Balvenie 15-year Sherry Cask scotch, Aperitivo Rinomato, Amontillado sherry, rich sweet vermouth) or coupes brimming with the tropical martini-inspired Chestnut Tiger (gin, kiwi, black sesame, mirin, yuzu ponzu) his diverse panoply of creations is worth a plane ticket to KC alone.
And in terms of ambiance, Schulte’s masterful libations mirror the interior’s tasteful ambiance. A glimmering swarm of 1,000 acrylic butterflies floats over the central marble-topped bar, surrounded by loungy velvet and leather seating and large-scale modern art, all cloaked in a white and slate grey palate. Stashed in the back is a handsome reservable VIP room stocked with a coveted array of high-end spirits for a more intimate escape. It’s upscale for sure, but that’s not to say it’s stuffy. This is Kansas City, after all.
“The Monarch is a special place because it’s somehow sophisticated and high-end but also really laid back and easy going,” says owner and seasoned architect David Manica. “It’s everything I wanted it to be: A highly social and elegant atmosphere where everybody can meet to have great drinks and a lot of fun without pretense. Honestly, I’ve never been anywhere like it before.”
4808 Roanoke Pkwy, Kansas City, MO 64112 / (816) 437-7912
At once poised and laid back, this Westport Champagne bar is a welcome respite in a section of town with a bit of a rowdy, late-night rep. Inside, what seems like hundreds of candles illuminates the narrow space where a long marble-topped bar set against crisp white subway tile contrasts with heavy drapes, a line of bistro tables, and gilded mirrors hung above a small upright piano. A serene brick-laden side patio completes the romantic Parisian vibes. One step in and the description written on the bar’s website rings true: “We’ve got French flair and a Midwestern heart and we’re bringing Champagne to the people.”
If you’re in the mood for bubbly, you’ve arrived. The hand-picked selection spans Euro favorites and obscure Missouri sparklers alike. But we're here to talk cocktails, so focus on the seasonally-inspired lineup of inventive, largely aperitif-driven concoctions like the refreshing Avalon Springs and the Bull (Pimms, Lillet Blanc, ginger, lemon, mint, sparkling wine) and the Dapper Slipper, a twist on the Glass Sipper featuring local J. Rieger & Co. whiskey, Génépy des Alpes and red vermouth. Of course, the usual Champagne-spiked suspects like French 75s and Aperol Spritzes are also on hand, each pairing perfectly with any one of the decadent snacks on offer. Caviar service, anyone?
4149 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64111 / (816) 255-3934
James Beard award-winning husband and wife team Colby and Megan Garrelts are behind his nearly 15-year-old Westport gem. The locally-sourced New American cuisine, served in three-, five- or seven-course tastings, makes it a top date night destinations. But the real draw, if you ask me, is the bar, where a skilled crew whips up choice tipples for a loyal crowd feasting on hearty a la carte shareables. Here, seasonal offerings like the Rosetta (chili-infused tequila, white chocolate liqueur, beet shrub, lime, berry beer) and Down and Derby (bourbon, peach eau de vie, sweet vermouth, Amaro Nonino, Angostura) pop against solid standards like the Negroni Blanco and an herbaceous spin on an old-school milk punch.
While there’s never a bad time to go, you’ll want to schedule a happy hour visit. Six dollars gets you your choice of five different classics including a soulful Gold Rush, neatly balanced Hemingway Daiquiri and a delicate, perfectly tart Pegu Club to rival the famed New York hotspot sharing its name. Save room for an order of smoky BBQ spice-specked pork rinds, crispy Brussels and warm bacon popcorn doused with truffle oil and nutty Isabella cheese, and you won’t even need dinner (another round or two, however, is definitely on order).
900 Westport Rd, Kansas City, MO 64111 / (816) 561-1101
As KC’s reigning cocktail champ, it’s hard to find fault with anything made by Manifesto creator Ryan Maybee, and that goes double when it comes to this pioneering Crossroads speakeasy, which helped usher KC into serious cocktail territory back in 2009. It doesn’t hurt that Maybee decided to stash his intimate refuge in the historic Rieger Hotel’s actual basement speakeasy, once frequented by the likes of Al Capone. These days, the standard-setting Rieger restaurant occupies the ground floor (a cocktail hotspot in its own right) and while the building may have cleaned up its act, Maybee’s underground nook is still as boozy as ever.
The vibe is part classy, part hopping and with just a dash of spooky charm, an ideal late-night haunt. To enter, guests who’ve snagged a reservation make their way down the restaurant’s back steps before saddling up to the long bar to pick their poison from an ample list of handcrafted options. The theme is definitely less is more, here, with most recipes involving just a few choice components—so often the mark of a mixologist who knows what they’re doing. Curious seasonals like the palate-tickling Alpine Cherry Frappe (absinthe, Laird’s Applejack, Luxardo Sangue, spiced pepita orgeat) share space with well-honed house signatures like the powerful Tempest (Gosling’s Black Seal rum, five pepper-infused tequila, lime, ginger) and a traditional vodka sour called Stay Wet, a nod to KC’s Prohibition-adverse past. Expect to see quite a few locally distilled J. Rieger & Co. spirits on the menu, too—Maybee, in true pioneer fashion, co-founded the uber-popular brand.
1924 Main St, Kansas City, MO 64108 / (816) 536-1325