Last month, imbibers from around the globe flocked to Kansas City, Mo., for the second annual Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival—or PopFest as it’s affectionately known. Nearly every event was sold out; most seminars were standing-room-only.
“It was overwhelming, in a good way,” says Ryan Maybee, who, along with spirits expert Doug Frost and local bartender and media producer Brandon Cummins, launched the event to spotlight Midwestern drinking culture.
Maybee, a KC native, is a proud ambassador of his city’s rising cocktail scene. This role comes naturally to the owner and barman of Manifesto, the sexy, speakeasy-like establishment he opened in 2009. Upstairs from it is the restaurant Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, a collaboration between Maybee and chef Howard Hanna, which boasts an equally thoughtful beverage program.
Although both drink lists embrace “the same fundamental balance,” Maybee points out that Manifesto leans towards spirit-forward concoctions like his wildly popular Smokin’ Choke (applewood-smoked Four Roses Bourbon, maple syrup, Cynar, Peychaud’s Bitters), while the ones at Rieger, such as the Pendergast (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Bénédictine, Angostura Bitters), are meant as subtle companions to the food.
But craft ingredients, like fresh-squeezed juices and house-made sodas, weren’t always Maybee’s forte. When he stepped behind the stick for the first time in 1999, at the elegant steakhouse Pierpont’s at Union Station, he pumped out a myriad of Chocolate Martinis and Cosmopolitans as a way to make extra money while studying business management.
“The owner had an appreciation for the classics,” he remembers. “Emphasizing Sazeracs and Negronis was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t take off.” It did, however, inspire Maybee, who stuck around for five years, dreaming up a 48-page cocktail list and becoming the restaurant’s sommelier. Eager for a new adventure, he left for a stint in the wine-wholesaling world until bartending tugged at him once again.
As co-owner and managing partner of the now-closed JP Wine Bar and Coffee House, he satisfied locals with sherry cocktails, and, after a visit to Milk & Honey and other top watering holes in New York, he created an ambitious bar menu featuring only ingredients made from scratch.
The trip also led him to open Manifesto, which helped usher in a new era of pioneering bars. Not that long ago there were so few Kansas City joints “taking pride in their cocktails,” says Maybee. “Now, it’s almost a given.”
Lucky for us, those business classes led him to realize early on that he “wanted to be my own boss.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.