Marked by its iconic Gateway Arch, the tallest manmade monument in the Western hemisphere, St. Louis is Missouri’s second-largest city after Kansas City. It sits near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, with over 300,000 population in St. Louis (STL) proper.
On a recent snowstorm-laden visit, I dug into The Gateway City, until returning again for more research months later. Having a few very early childhood years in Kansas City, my knowledge of STL has been minimal though I have some MO roots, but I quickly soaked up the hard-working, yet laid-back chill of STL and its unique history.
The city was officially founded in 1764 by French fur traders who named it for France’s Louis IX. In ensuing years, the city was ceded and retroceded from Spain, back to France, then sold to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase, becoming a major port city on the Mississippi River in the 19th century. Though decidedly mid-sized today, from 1870 through 1920, it was the fourth-largest city in the country.
Whether W.C. Handy’s iconic 1914 song “St. Louis Blues,” or downtown STL’s National Blues Museum, STL has a rich history of blues music that continues today (not to mention ragtime pioneer, African-American composer and pianist Scott Joplin rose to fame in STL in the early 1900s). The city gave birth to blues masters like Albert King, Henry Townsend, Lonnie Johnson, Little Milton, Eva Taylor and rock ‘n roll legend Chuck Berry.
All of this influences STL’s drink scene, flush with blue collar bars and an established distillery trail: www.distillerytrail.com/directory-distillery/listing/st-louis-distillery. Though over an hour out of STL, Wood Hat was a Missouri craft distilling pioneer since 2013. Founder Gary Hinegardner’s wooden hats are part of the lore, while the distillery produces bourbons, corn whiskeys and cordial from locally grown fruits and grains over a wood-fired still.
Big O is a husband, wife and son ginger liqueur producer, alongside other Missouri distillers like Pinckney Bend, Defiance Whiskey and Movados. In St. Louis proper, Spirits of St. Louis opened MO’s first micro-distillery restaurant in 2008, producing J.J. Neukomm Missouri Malt Whiskey (an American single-malt using cherrywood-smoked malted barley) and a tequila-style agave spirit.
Our distiller interview this issue, StilL 630 was founded by Dave Weglarz in 2011, opening in 2013 in a former Hardee’s in downtown STL. St. Louis Distillery focuses on vodka and whiskey, sourcing toasted two-row malted barley. More craft distilleries in or near STL include Switchgrass Spirits, Square One Brewery & Distillery, Soulard Island Spirits and 1220 Artisan Spirits, the latter producing a range of gin, amari, RTDs and aperitifs.
While behind Kansas City and some Midwest cities (certainly the broader national scene), STL’s cocktail (and restaurant) renaissance has grown steadily in recent years, the bar side pioneered by Ted Kilgore prior to opening Planter’s House in 2013 (more below), and by our bar manager interview this issue, Natasha Bharami, who opened the Gin Room in 2013.
While not exactly flush with groundbreaking bars, solid cocktails can be found around the city, whether basic classics at modern Italian destination Louie (www.louiedemun.com), or intimate Akar (https://akarstl.com) with gracious chef Bernie Lee, offering a spare few balanced cocktails like Serai: lemongrass-infused tequila, lime, Thai chile simple syrup, cilantro liqueur. STL dive bar favorites include the likes of San Loo, CBGB, Riley’s, Tick Tock Tavern, Heavy Anchor and Famous Bar.
Among STL’s legacy eateries, BBQ is what they’re most known for, whether icons like Pappy’s Smokehouse or modern day favorites like Salt+Smoke, which is also focused on bourbon. You’ll find Italian-American delis over a century old (like Gioia’s) in long-established Italian-American neighborhood, The Hill, and STL classics like Blues City Deli, which serves some of best sandwiches in the Midwest.
In a city where dive and beer bars reign, these ten are pushing ahead in cocktails in spirits.
Pre-2013 at Monarch and Taste by Niche, Ted Kilgore was ushering in the cocktail renaissance in St. Louis. He and wife Jamie with business partner Ted Charak opened Planter’s House in 2013, housed in a historic STL building. Hidden inside is the more intimate Bullock Room and its U-shaped bar. In 2018, the same team went on to open Small Change, more of a dive bar with quality drink. Ted’s expertise has evolved to the place where nuanced house spirits blends and quality draft cocktails (Gin-Soaked Boy is a fine example of both, a draft cocktail blending Citadelle and Nolet’s gins, Ransom Old Tom Gin and sloe gin with lemon, fino sherry and cinnamon syrup), play each spirit off of the other. It’s the kind of menu hiding layers of flavor and technique, in the hands of a master and experienced palate. Fill up on nurturing dishes like grilled celery root, Swiss chard and caramelized onion in red curry sauce.
What to Drink: It’s hard to go wrong with a cocktail here. Trying over six in a sitting, each was balanced and interesting. Electric Sheep starts with a botanical vodka and Chareau aloe vera liqueur, contrasted with lemon, orgeat and a Lambrusco wine float, exhibiting the ethos of a classic New York Sour, yet an entirely different taste profile. The house martini is a winner, while woody-nutty-fruity Law Bomb combines bourbon, apricot liqueur, Benedictine, Nux Walnut liqueur, clarified orange juice, chai bitters and basalm tincture. www.plantershousestl.com
Natasha Bahrami has been an important figure in gin globally and is our bar manager interview this issue. She opened the Gin Room in 2013 in/next to her parents’ beloved Persian restaurant, Cafe Natasha (yes, named after her), a destination for gins from all over the world, expertly crafted gin cocktails (and beyond) and ever-growing amari and vermouth selection. As her parents retired spring 2022, Gin Room has undergone a revamp with reborn restaurant (carrying on the familial hospitality and legacy), now Salve Osteria, helmed by chef Matt Wynn of NYC’s Hearth and Craft Steak, and STL’s Niche, Sardella and Taste. Their garden, flanking the historic brick building, charms in warmer months.
What to Drink: Natasha and partner Michael Fricker’s legacy of educating via blind tastings, seminars and flights continues, including that stellar martini flight showcasing gin flavors, viscosity and range. Having built out a collection of a few hundred gins, heavy on small batch and rare gins from around the globe, Natasha has upped the focus on amari, vermouth and bitters, including a new amaro cart with tableside service. Whatever the taste preference, whether citrus to vegetal-forward, refreshing to spirituous, there is a cocktail to suit in the extensive menu. Their Dirty Persian is a savory signature of London dry gin, sea salt and 8-10 year aged pickled Thai chili peppers. natashasginroom.com
Opened by Travis Howard and Tim Wiggins (of Retreat Gastropub and Lazy Tiger below) in September 2018, Yellowbelly is a bright, open, ever-packed slice of tropical fun, exuding Hawaii-meets-California vibes with Cali-born Tiki drinks. The food is damn good, too. Even as a second dinner, I couldn’t resist slurping up oysters in pineapple tepache, Nashville hot fried oysters with pickles, Faroe Islands salmon tostadas, carrots in chimichurri, macadamia nuts and eel sauce and rum-battered fried cod on a Hawaiian sesame bun with creole tartar sauce and slaw. Lead bartender Sam Linehan made us feel at home, while friendly, energetic vibes brightened up a snowy winter week.
What to Drink: Tasting six drinks, there was not a slouch in the mix. Though the pulque drink I tried recently is no longer on the menu, they always have a pulque drink (or two), featuring Mexico’s rare, milky, fermented maguey (agave) sap drink. The house Yellowbelly cocktail is a joyous mix of Appleton Jamaican rum, Duckett Gold rhum, coconut cream, turmeric, ginger falernum, pineapple and lime. Cold Shoulder is a clean, mezcal-forward beauty of San Luis Potosi and El Yope mezcals, house chartreuse and Lillet blanc, balanced by lime acid, kicked up with Thai chilies.
As an intimate bar-within-a-bar/restaurant (Yellowbelly), it may not seem worth calling out Lazy Tiger separately. But it is. Open September 2020 in the thick of pandemic, this is one of STL’s best bars on its own merit, totally different from the lively Caribbean vibes and tiki drinks in the front (opened by Retreat Gastropub owners Travis Howard and Tim Wiggins). More soothing and chill, its forest green walls set the backdrop for a subtle India-meets-Africa kind of casual-chic, complete with a tiger. The food menu is Yellowbelly’s, so you’re in good hands there. A small bar means usually one bartender at a time: we sat with Dave Greteman, who knows his spirits and provided a relaxed but informed experience. Their “less waste” focus is important, from reducing garnishes and perishable ingredients to sometimes replacing citrus with citric acid for tart/acidic balance.
What to Drink: Cocktails are interesting, complex yet crushable, ranging from multiple gin cocktails to rum and agave drinks (including rare-in-these-parts Mexican raicilla). Humble Brag is a standout drink of forbidden rice-steeped cream of coconut in Kansas City’s J. Rieger Gin with the welcome funk of Haitian rum, salted banana and lemon. Fever Chills, dubbed ”an earthy Sazerac gets dressed up to go salsa dancing,” showcases rye whiskey with two craft Fernets (Fernet Pianta and Geijer Spirits’ California Fernet), the bitterness enhanced by charred poblano peppers, bird’s eye chile, absinthe and an umami hit of msg. www.lazytigerstl.com
Frazer’s is an under-the-radar St. Louis restaurant/cocktail bar and casual locals’ favorite. Some drinks are a touch sweet and oversized (like the otherwise fun, smart combo in Float Trippin’ of bourbon, Green Chartreuse, IBC root beer, absinthe-kissed vanilla ice cream — it’s less cocktail, more boozy root beer float, ideal for dessert). The playful spirit of the place comes through especially in its cocktails, one graced with Lay’s potato chips, another with a “back” of the “champagne of beers” (Miller High Life). Friendly staff make the romantic dining rooms and chandelier-graced, dramatic-floor-tiled bar welcoming, the only glaring distraction being a TV above the bar. It’s a cozy place to warm up on a cold night or enjoy sidewalk seating on a warm one.
What to Drink: The most realized drink of the few I tried was Pho Sho, an ode to Southeast Asia with Vietnamese pho soup inspiration, down to being served in a bowl. Pho Sho reminded me of tom kha gai-inspired (Thai coconut soup) cocktails I’ve tasted globally over the years. Here, curry-infused cachaca and rum are creamy with coconut gomme syrup, the cachaca’s grassiness further enhanced by lemongrass-verbena tincture and lime juice. It’s a beauty. All That and a Bagga is the aforementioned Lay’s chips cocktail, a bag of salty chips partnered with the tart-sweet-savory hit of pisco, amaretto, banana, lemon juice, egg white and a seasoning of classic St. Louis’ Old Vienna Red Hot Riplets BBQ chips.
Lucky Accomplice is a worthy restaurant stop in STL from chef/owner Logan Ely, who has cooked in kitchens as notable as Blue Hill in NYC and Shift in STL. Ely exudes a deft east-meets-west touch in his creative dishes. Corey Moszer partners on the bar side, collaborating on cocktails with a team including bar assistant Leila Miller. Comeback Szn features Bols Genever and dark cherry vodka, gaining spiced, nutty layers from house pistachio orgeat, Cardamaro and lemon. I wished to taste more dill, funky blue cheese and the vinegar hit of the shrub in the vodka grain-and-peppercorn-forward And the Beet Goes On. A blend of blue cheese-washed 1220 Spirits Vodka, dill-infused Cocchi Americano and house beet peppercorn shrub, the more exciting flavors were muted, but overall cocktails are well made and crushable.
What to Drink: Dad’s Favorite Ice Cream may have been the most realized and playful of my visit, a silky cocktail clarified with coconut milk, featuring Duckett silver rum, Tempus Fugit creme de menthe and Giffard creme de cacao, enhanced by lemon and mint syrup. The result is minty, chocolate-y goodness evoking a grown-up’s boozy mint chocolate chip ice cream without going too sweet. www.theluckyaccomplice.com
Open December 2021, Platypus is that best of both worlds kind of dive bar with serious bartenders behind it (having fun here): co-owners Tony Saputo and Meredith Barry (Barry ran bars like Grand Tavern, Saputo spots like The Midwestern). Platypus keeps it real with a chalkboard of five rotating house cocktails, a boozy slushy and classics by request. Chef Grant Heman’s DuckBill rotates bar food offerings, with the (irresistible) mainstay of buttermilk brined and fried Chooch’s Gourmet Popcorn Chicken — named for his daughter — plus house sauces like ranch or sweet chili. On the veggie side, there’s uber-crispy tofu or caramelized brussels sprouts in agave mustard. The bar’s spacious three rooms run from the main room centered by a massive bar and graffiti art/murals (Jason Spencer painted the giant platypus mural), a mid-room with seating and pinball, on to back dining room and food window, plus a back patio. Photographs of industry friends who have passed away line the rooms, giving the relaxed, dim space a meaningful touch.
What to Drink: Look for ever-rotating fun like a flip (yes, whole egg) with three kinds of amaro, or drinks like Devil’s in the Deets (Una Vida tequila, cassis, amaro, arak, blood orange, ginger beer). If you’re lucky, you might get to try Barry’s nuanced White Negroni, playing off the strawberry notes in 1220 Spirits’ barrel aged gin with Luxardo’s Bitter Bianco, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay wines and Yuzigurre rose vermouth. www.drinkplatypus.com
Blood & Sand
Blood & Sand is chic in a sort of luxe Vegas hotel lounge way (down to the often $20 and up cocktails) that can be off-putting for some. Add in the membership factor, and it seems even more so. But the space is open to all and customization, discounts and perks make the affordable membership viable, while anyone can visit the red booth-lined dining room for a tasting menu, a la carte food or cocktails at the bar under chandelier and green living wall. It doesn’t exactly feel like STL with ambitious menus, but the approach is needed in a city leaning casual/dive bar (case in point: bar food like char siu octopus in grilled pineapple-daikon slaw, squid ink sambal, smoked black sesame seed paste). When it works, it works. The team includes owners T.J. Vytlacil and Adam Frager and beverage director Brad Phillips, who originally hails from STL but spent years in NYC, including being on the opening team at the original, much-lauded Employees Only.
What to Drink: Alongside classics like a Hanky Panky and, of course, a Blood & Sand, house drinks are named after songs ranging from hip hop to rock. Despite the rough name (a Samantha Fox song), Naughty Girls Need Love Too was one of the most seamless, balanced drinks, a mix of gin, Fernet, Giffard Creme de Pamplemousse Rosé, blood orange shrub, lime and simple syrup. Way 2 Sexy — in its gorgeous blue and white glass — was more exciting on paper than on the palate, mixing a few of my favorite rare spirits: eaux de vie (Maison Ferrand Mathilde Poire Williams) and genepy with Amrut Nilgiris Indian Dry Gin, spiced pear, honey, lemon, citric acid. After trying five cocktails, number one was the savory-silky-vegetal Do I Wanna Know? The Arctic Monkeys’ named drink features corn-forward Mezcal Vago Elote, mezcal, celery, lime cordial and lime. It’s worth going in for alone, while the broad reach of this menu is important in diversifying STL’s cocktail scene. www.bloodandsandstl.com
Open in pandemic in May 2021, a painting of Redd Foxx welcomes at the downstairs bar, with “Home Alone” on the TVs during my visit (usually, I’m anti-TVs in bars, but movies like this added to the fun). A black booth-lined side room is elegant-rustic lined with art deco lamps illuminating taxidermied heads, from a turkey to a turtle. Friendly, laid back staff confirmed the Hoosier spirit I was already feeling. In fact, as you weave from the strikingly-designed upstairs bar and performance stage, to the back garden “campground,” including a campfire lined with tree stump seats, a bar and “Pastor Dave’s Shelter,” I felt like a kid at summer church camp in Big Bear… but with drinks and a range of smashburgers, grilled cheese and tomato-y tomato soup.
What to Drink: Bar manager Chelsea Pfister and team craft an easy-drinking menu of crushers like Havana Oh Na Na, letting the subtle funk of Plantation 3-star rum shine, enhanced by Lazzaroni Amaretto, orgeat and fresh lime juice. Local 1220 Spirits’ butterfly pea flower blue-purple Blue Morpho gin goes floral with Giffard Violette liqueur, lavender syrup, egg white and lemon juice in the June Bug cocktail. www.thegoldenhoosier.com
Little Fox is a restaurant first and foremost, one with a tight natural and small producer wine list — the best I’ve seen in town besides at The Gin Room and their natural wine shop/bar Grand Spirits Bottle Company. Here I tasted some of the best dishes in STL after visiting roughly 40 spots. Whether delicately spicy-meaty ‘nduja croquetas or blissfully funky-spicy Calabrian chili and Italian fish sauce short ribs and grilled cabbage, chef Craig Rivard (who runs the restaurant with wife Mowgli) nails elevated comfort food. The space feels sunny, retro-1980s, even on a snowy night in its soft blues, peaches and pinks. The bar sits in a separate room, allowing for an easy drink stop. Cocktails here may not push boundaries but are well crafted, balanced and made from a focused selection of quality and small batch spirits, including a solid amari, aperitivo and vermouth selection.
What to Drink: hile you’ll find classic cocktails like a Bicycletta (or tired/ubiquitous Boulevardier) on draft, you’ll also see more rare classics (one of my all time faves): Army and Navy. A couple of house cocktails stand out, namely Kick Drum, a subtle blend of aquavit, dry vermouth, lemon, white sesame, white peppercorn and beet syrup, frothy with egg white. www.littlefoxstl.com