The Bar at Justus Drugstore Rivals the Food

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.”

Slightly sweet and complex with a notable cherry flavor, their sweet vermouth comes closer to the aperitif Jonathan Justus enjoyed while living in Europe than anything he has encountered stateside. While most Americans do not commonly take vermouth straight, this variety is easily enjoyed over ice or straight in a cordial glass.

Looking at the multitude of bitters sitting behind the bar, one immediately gets a sense of the extent of creative genius at play. During a recent visit, Beavers set some out in front of me, tiny glass bottles with hand-written labels: masala chai, orange, cardamom tincture, cherry, hop, orris, celery, grapefruit. These highly concentrated concoctions are used mere drops at a time to add aromatic and flavor dimensions to any number of drinks. They also use a small copper still to extract flavor essences from flowers and herbs. Distilling allows for incredibly potent flavors for use in oils, bitters and waters.

Beavers used elderflower in developing the Silver Elder, a drink that was recently voted “Kansas City’s Signature Cocktail” by KC Magazine. A combination of house-infused vanilla vodka, gin, elderflower and citrus juice vigorously shaken into a froth with an egg white, the Silver Elder is definitely a crowd pleaser with its soft, tangy and slightly sweet flavors.

Beavers has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager, but also has a scientific background with a degree in Chemistry. Some years ago he took a break from bartending and worked as an emissions tester at power plants. “I got bored with sitting in smokestacks for 20 hours at a time,” said Beavers, so he quit and has been happily behind a bar ever since.

While infusing is probably the latest and greatest bar trend, the bartenders at Justus couple this single technique with a number of other methods, not to mention a local philosophy and an inquisitive spirit. Both Conatser and Beavers implied that having freedom to experiment has been extremely important to their present successes. When the infusing fad has come and gone, Justus Drugstore and its team of bartenders will still be mixing up some of the best and most interesting drinks in town.