Cocktail nerds, take note: Smithville’s Justus Drugstore is not to be overlooked. The last several years have seen a serious up-tick in freshly-prepared, finely crafted classic cocktails in the spirit of pre-Prohibition era mixology. Many upscale taverns and fine dining restaurants around the country offer infused liquors or perhaps cherries that are brandied in-house. Like a few other joints in town, the folks at Justus certainly subscribe to this worldview, but they seem to take it about three steps further.
From a quaint but sleekly decorated storefront location in a small community about 20 minutes north of downtown Kansas City, Justus Drugstore proudly features a drink menu that can stand up to the biggest, fanciest, snobbiest drinkeries on the coasts. Lest that scare away any solid, populist Midwesterners within earshot, just know that this is not creativity for creativity’s sake. These drinks taste good. Some have the potential to blow your mind.
Booze is a much more interesting conversation topic when Chris Conatser is doing the talking. This guy is a fountain of knowledge about herbs, roots, flowers and plants. He also happens to be Justus’ bartender. Conatser stumbled into bartending after leaving a gardening job at Powell Gardens due to allergy problems. Over time, his knowledge of botany has led him to an interest in using growing things to flavor beverages. He lets nature inspire him; if he sees something interesting in the wild it might wind up in Justus’ Elixir du Jour the next day. “It’s much easier to think about things when you are walking in the woods and you smell it,” said Conatser. This kind of artistry led him to victory at the 2008 Kansas City Bartending Competition for his “Go Figure Cocktail,” and a third-place win at last year’s competition.
Like the food at Justus Drugstore, the bar fare subscribes to an assertion that fresh, local and seasonal ingredients trump mass-produced, prepackaged ones. “We are locked into the philosophy of the food,” said bar manager Jay Beavers. The abundances and shortages of the growing season affect what they are able to serve in the bar. March is a fairly thin time of year since items prepared with winter crops have started running out, and new growth has yet to start in earnest. Despite that fact you can sample some fascinating infusions such as chamomile bourbon, vanilla vodka and persimmon gin. “The persimmons have lasted because they handled the alcohol really well,” said Beavers.
If you enjoy even an occasional cocktail, you more than likely have a bottle of Martini & Rossi sweet or dry vermouth in your liquor cabinet. While several varieties are available in local stores, Justus’ house-made vermouth is a revelatory experience for the taste buds. Made with remainder wines, herbs, citrus and dozens of other ingredients, making vermouth was one of Beavers’ first ideas when he started at Justus Drugstore.
Since so few places make the stuff, he had a difficult time finding recipes, even on the Internet. “I looked quite a while for anyone willing to talk about it and basically all I got was history.” Beavers and Conatser tasted a variety of quality manufactured varieties and developed their own recipe. Each batch — which takes three weeks to mature — has been a learning exercise as they tweak and alter flavors. “Our last batch was our best definitely,” said Beavers, “and I think that’s been the progression since we started.”