While the cocktail renaissance has swept the country (and globe) by storm over the past decade, it’s largely been relegated to metropolitan areas and college towns. But just because you’re off in the Great Plains in a town of 30,000 doesn’t mean you can’t treat your guests to handmade craft cocktails.
All it takes is some willingness to craft your own mixers, an open mind to honor the meat-and-potatoes of the speed rail, and not overreaching when it comes to mixology. Imbibe at the Depot Theater, where I’m the bar manager and head bartender, is the only craft cocktail bar in southwest Kansas, and while we’re only open for special occasions, we’ve been able to carve out a niche for hand-crafted cocktails on the dusty Kansas plains.
If we can do it, so can you.
Make friends with your local liquor store
Out in western Kansas, we’re served by a whopping two liquor distributors. Between those two distributors, you can pick up the lion’s share of what you need for a successful bar. However, if your local liquor store isn’t selling your favorite grappa, the chances are they aren’t going to stock it. Make friends with your liquor store owner. Talk cocktails, talk new and unique spirits that are becoming available to them. Liquor stores get point of purchase material on a constant basis. These ad slicks will give you a better idea of what your local supplier can actually put into your hands and can help you plan your bar and cocktail menu accordingly. Distributors will often gain access to limited distributions and will sometimes keep a specific spirit in their books if they know they have a steady purchaser. Just like hospitality behind the bar is key, get in good with your supplier and you’re golden.
Learn your clientele
The majority of patrons who come into Imbibe are live theater goers. By nature, they tend to be a little more adventurous, a little more culturally tuned in, and in turn tend to be a lot more willing to try a cocktail beyond a Jack and Coke. We also have a chef that we routinely pair up with (yes, it’s a dinner theater) to pair the cocktails with the meals. By focusing on complementary flavors, and pairing the drink with food, you’re able to introduce some more exotic flavors than people may be accustomed to.
You can’t neglect the standards, however. At Imbibe we have a featured cocktail that switches out on a regular basis. For every rum and coke, we sell at least two of the featured cocktails. As you build your unique bar list, you can start visiting older favorites while still introducing new drinks. Eventually your patrons will come to expect and look forward to the new cocktails. On the rare occasion we don’t have a featured drink, the number one question we get is what the new cocktail for the night is, followed by guaranteed mumbles of disappointment.
The must-have syrups
There’s no need to count on expensive store-bought syrups. Two super-basic syrups are what we rely on pretty heavily to do the heavy lifting at Imbibe. Simple syrup is going to be the backbone for your basic sweetening agent, and considering it is simply purified water and sugar, you’ll have easy access to the ingredients no matter where you are. For heavier, richer syrups, we lean on a red wine or herbal syrup.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup purified water
Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and cover. Bring to a boil. Uncover once it’s begun boiling and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until it thickens. Allow to cool, then pour into a sanitized bottle. Add 3 oz. of vodka to help prolong the shelf life.
Red Wine Syrup
- 1 cup dry red wine (we prefer a Shiraz for a powerful kick)
- ½ cup turbinado sugar, for a heavier mouthfeel
Combine the sugar and wine into a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Leave covered and reduce to a simmer for 8 minutes or so. Allow to cool and then pour into a sanitized bottle. This syrup gives any bourbon or dark rum drink a headier, velvety feel without becoming overpoweringly sweet.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup purified water
- 3 handfuls of fresh basil leaves
Thoroughly wash and dry the basil leaves. Add the water and sugar to a sauce pot and whisk. Add the basil leaves and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and leave covered. Allow to simmer about 15 minutes. Allow to cool and then strain into a sanitized bottle. Use basil for the summer, mint for fall, rosemary for winter, lavender for spring.
Re-create the bitters
Bitters are easier than ever to get your hands on, especially since aromatics don’t fall under potable alcohol regulations. That means you can scour places like Amazon and Sur la Table for sampler packs and full bottles of your favorite niche bitter flavors. However, if you want to go the full-on mixologist route, why not make your own? While store-bought Angostura is obviously the go-to for your standard bar, we’ve fallen in love with lavender bitters.
- 4 cups Everclear
- 1 tablespoon ginger root, shaved
- 3 tablespoons culinary lavender
- ½ tablespoon juniper berries
- 1 vanilla bean
- Orange zest from four oranges
- 2 oz. simple syrup
Combine all of the ingredients except the Everclear in a mason jar. Top with the Everclear and shake thoroughly. Let sit in a cool, dark place for two weeks. Shake once a day. After two weeks, strain through cheesecloth or coffee filter into sanitized dropper bottles.
When all else fails – Internet
Unfortunately, there are still a good chunk of states that you can’t ship alcohol to. However, if you’re lucky enough to be in a state that allows booze to be shipped across state lines, you can rely on websites such as Caskers, DrinkUpNY, or Total Wine. Between shipping costs and various state taxes, this can quickly become expensive, however.
In the end, all you need to stock your rural bar is a drive to create unique cocktails and a willingness to listen and adapt to your patrons.