Kansas City has a nostalgic attachment to its Prohibition-era glory days. Many modern bars have subsequently sought to recreate, through rose-colored glasses, the magic of that era. It would have been easy for the Hey! Hey! Club, the premium cocktail bar in the basement of the J. Rieger & Co. Distillery, to follow. It’s a stately room with a throwback energy: Mind the elegantly upholstered booths, a fireplace and a table with a built-in chess set.
Instead, beverage director Andrew Olsen and bar manager Derek Branham have gone back further. Their menu has fifteen drinks separated into five chapters, starting with “Exploring the Wilderness and Heading West” and continuing through “Surviving the War and Building Our Future.” It’s a nod to Kansas City’s origin story from the 1830s through the 1880s.
The Paddle Wheeler, a period term for the type of steamship prevalent along the Missouri River, is a complex cocktail that pretends not to be. It’s a take on a 50-50 martini, Branham says, a classic drink with equal parts gin and dry vermouth. But the Paddle Wheeler has five ingredients. There is Edelbrand Vinars da Meila (an artisanal apple brandy infused with plum from distillers in Marthasville, Missouri), tequila, plum sake, blanc vermouth and Fino sherry. The skewered pickled apple ball garnish mimics a maraschino cherry. What you end up getting is a balanced, crisp cocktail—something eminently sippable and pretty to boot.
“The modern martini of the 1950s would take your head off,” Branham says. “Three ounces of chilled gin or vodka is maybe more than anyone needs at a given time. This cocktail is nice and easy, and it won’t knock you out on the first round.”
Updated 50-50 Martini
- 1 1/2 ounces Rieger’s Midwestern Dry Gin
- 3/4 ounces Dolin dry vermouth
- 3/4 ounces Dolin blanc vermouth
- Dash of orange bitters
Combine ingredients over ice. Stir, strain into coupe glass, and garnish with lemon twist or olive. “Splitting the vermouth portion of this cocktail recipe is an easy way to give some roundness to the drink while maintaining its soft, mature character,” Branham says.