Welcome to Girl Walks into a Bar, a weekly Gut Check feature that spotlights local bars and bartenders. This week Alissa Nelson profiles Taste by Niche bartender Ted Kilgore. Below is a Q&A with Kilgore, followed by a video of him mixing an El Maestro No. 1 cocktail.
The "10,000 Hour Rule" holds that a person can become an expert in his or her chosen field with 10,000 hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he suggests a general timeline of ten years to complete that training, at about twenty hours a week. Ted Kilgore went the full-time route and completed his transition from working for a perfumer to master bartender in five years of intensive study and practice.
His path wasn't necessarily a straight shot from eyedropper-wielding perfumer to eyedropper-wielding molecular mixologist, however. Facing a career change in his 30s, Kilgore decided to attend a small bartending school in Springfield, Missouri. The bartending scene in the early 2000s was a shadow of the pomp and flash of today.
Armed only with Mr. Boston's bartenders' guide -- "It was a mediocre guide, but it was all that I had and all that I needed" -- Kilgore read, studied and began traveling to New York to investigate that city's nascent craft cocktail scene. Along the way his focus began to shift from the drinks that every menu at the time required -- "chocolate martinis, raspberry martinis...anything in a V-shaped glass" -- to the pre-Prohibition focus of today. "I pursued more of the classic stuff," Kilgore says. "I still didn't know what I was doing, I freely admit, but I was making Sazeracs and I was the first one doing mojitos. It sounds lame now. But I was doing mint juleps and caipirinhas in early 2000. And people kind of understood it, but it was still a hard sell."
While Kilgore identifies only a handful of turning points as pivotal to his career, there were certainly monumental years. One was 2004, when he attended a drink clinic in upstate New York led by Gary Regan, a cocktail columnist and author. "That was the year when it all changed: I went to Tales of the Cocktail, met Dr. Cocktail [Ted Haigh], King Cocktail [Dale DeGroff], Drink Boy [Robert Hess] -- all these people who I'd read their stuff. And I knew I had to step it up."
That was also the year he decided Springfield had gotten too small. Fortunately for St. Louis, Chris Hoel, Monarch's sommelier at the time, had an opening. While the bars Kilgore was managing had expansive beer and wine menus, the move presented "an opportunity to leave beer and wine and focus completely on mixology and spirits."
In his three years at the Maplewood restaurant, Kilgore developed a cadre of local talent, bartenders who have since moved on to reinvent bar programs around the city: Michele Bildner at Brasserie by Niche, T.J. Vytlacil at Franco, Heather Dodderer at Herbie's Vintage 72, and Nate Selsor, who has taken up the mantel at Monarch. As one of the founding members of the U.S. Bartender's Guild chapter here, Kilgore continues to support the ever-expanding scene in the city.
Two years ago Kilgore took the opportunity to enroll in the Beverage Alcohol Resource program, a five-day intensive course of study. "Even though I had 80 books at the time on cocktails and spirits, I was studying every night," he recounts. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done." Kilgore marks the B.A.R. course as the true turning point in his focus on mixology.
Of course, his progress is easy to track from there: the move to the intimate and stylish Taste by Niche, cocktail recipes published everywhere from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Wall Street Journal, international buzz, and a prize-winning finish at this year's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Despite the accolades, Kilgore remains the hard-working and acquisitive student who put in so much time and energy in the first place.
He shrugs off the label of "celebrity bartender": "Some people say that I am, but I'm just a dude doing what he loves."
Here's to the next 10,000 hours.
Favorite drink to drink? [hems and haws for a while] A manhattan.
Favorite drink to make? Anything with green chartreuse in it.
Drink you hate making? I don't know about hate. I hate the smell of Red Bull, so I will not pour a Red Bull and vodka for less than $100. In advance.
Favorite drink you created yourself? The Purgatory: green chartreuse, rye whiskey and Benedictine. It would be the most infamous by far. Gary Regan wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. It's traveled well; it's appeared on various drink menus across the country and overseas. It's a little potent; I've never drunk more than one and I wouldn't recommend that anybody drink more than one. But the herbal notes and the rye whiskey make it one of my absolute favorites.
What is the worst drink you've ever had? It was at a defunct fine-dining establishment that I'd spent a lot of money at. I'd ordered a classic martini and my wife ordered a sidecar. The sidecar was one of the worst things ever: bright green, and in a highball [glass], and it's supposed to be straight up. I mean, it's three ingredients, how do you mess that up? It was awful. But the worst thing ever was that when they brought me my Bombay martini it had dry ice in it. I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders.
Favorite nonalcoholic drink? Water.
Favorite drinking ritual? I love lemon and my wife really loves lemon, so using a nice twist on a martini or a manhattan. I always do the same things: I cut it nice and wide, long, thinnest I can get off a peel. And I try to use all of the oil, expressing it over the top of the martini, and on the rim and sides of the glass. Every job I have, it's got to be the same thing, every single time. And I love seeing it, an ice-cold martini, straight up, wet, gin, with all that oil on it and the anticipation of tasting that. Just smelling the surface before taking a drink.
What do you drink when you're...on a plane? If I'm flying American, Wild Turkey. Generally whiskey.
...at a wedding? Anything with Champagne.
...at your parents' house? Anything in a flask.
...trying to get drunk? That might be a good time for Booker's, or green chartreuse.
Favorite canned beer? Modelo.
Worst/best thing you've ever seen happen in your bar? One of the best nights I think I had was when I got to mix a drink for Doug Cross, one of my instructors [in the B.A.R. course]. And the worst for me was that I missed a fight between the sauté cook and the owner [of a bar/restaurant in Springfied] where the owner got clocked in the head with a frying pan. That was the worst because I really wanted to see the owner get hit in the head with a frying pan.
How do you keep yourself occupied on a slow night? Bar books. Maybe blind tasting with my staff. That keeps you occupied and thinking. One night I came up with my own house vermouth, because I had time to zest a whole bunch of grapefruit and blood oranges.
Who would you most like to have a drink with? A lot of people I've said I'd like to have a drink with I have had a drink with. [Kitchen staffer Nate chimes in: "What about the Chartreuse monks?" "They don't speak!" "Might be better that way."] I always wanted to meet Booker Noe. One of my favorite whiskeys of all time is Booker's. I always wanted to meet him before he died. He was the master distiller for Jim Beam.
Where are you most likely to be found when you're not in this bar? Usually in my basement -- that's where my bar is at home.
Best hangover cure? Water, and lots of it. And food. And if you're up for it, a Campari and soda or a Campari and grapefruit.
Most unusual liquor you've ever seen? [Immediately gets up and goes behind the bar to take down a bottle...] I don't know about "unusual," but it's certainly one of the worst-tasting things. It's only available in Illinois, and familiar with Dutch Germans, I think. It's a wormwood liqueur, and it one of the bitterest things I've ever tasted. [Kilgore fetches some water, then pours a small sample into a glass. Nate interjects again: "Somebody said it tastes like a shoe that's been floating down the whole length of the Mississippi."]
If you could start a band, what kind of band would you start? My inclination is to say punk/metal, but I don't know how to describe it. One of my favorite bands is a band called Clutch -- I guess they're more space-rock metal, but I'm a huge fan of [lead singer] Neil Fallon's voice. And one of my other favorite bands is Social Distortion.
Best/worst drinking holiday? The worst drinking holiday is Cinco de Mayo, because we are not Mexican. But St. Patrick's Day is a close second. Really any holiday with a pub crawl involved is bad news.
Biggest tab you've ever seen? It was just one guy, who spent like $1,600 and then tipped $500 on the bill. There was a guy who spent $550 and got an appetizer and a couple of bottles of wine. And then tipped me $100 on top of that. I found out later that he went to prison -- he was a con artist.
Drunk food of choice? Thai food, if I can get it.
Three adjectives that describe your bar: Cozy, friendly and tasty.
My bar is the only bar in St. Louis where... you can get a whiskey-barrel-aged cocktail.
Taste by Niche 1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755