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Ryan Maybee on His Kansas City Speakeasy Manifesto

This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.

[Photo: Brandon Cummins/courtesy Manifesto]

As Ryan Maybee tells it, his varied resume truly "embraces" the title of bartender: He's a certified sommelier who has opened both wine bars and cocktail parlors in Kansas City. "Especially now, since the whole craft cocktail thing has really blown up, [people] probably don't associate bartenders with wine quite as much," he says. "But honestly, I feel like, as a bartender, embrace the title of bartender: You really should have as much knowledge as possible across all realms." Maybee got his start as part of the opening staff of Kansas City's fine-dining restaurant Pierpont's at Union Station, and by 2006, he'd opened his own place: a casual downtown wine spot, JP Wine Bar. In April 2009, the 48-seat speakeasy Manifesto opened its subterranean doors, offering creative riffs on classic cocktails — like the "Smokin' Choke," featuring applewood-smoked Four Roses bourbon — and an old-school vibe. (The list of "House Rules" politely requests: "Gentlemen, please don't approach uninterested ladies.")

Manifesto opened as accompaniment to the upstairs (but unaffiliated) restaurant, 1924 Main, and when the restaurant closed the following year, Maybee was also forced to shutter the speakeasy, just as we "really had some momentum going," he says. "Things were going great." But by the end of the year, Maybee and a new partner, chef Howard Hanna, would take over the entire building, featuring a new above-ground restaurant, the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, to pair with Manifesto. Things picked right up from where they'd left off: Manifesto has since earned its share of accolades, including a spot on the Eater Cocktail 38 and Esquire's 2013 Best Bars list. Maybee recently chatted with Eater about Manifesto's reservation policy, the hidden political meanings in its cocktail names, and where the KC cocktail scene may be heading in five years.

I wanted to start by asking how you got into wine. I feel like it's rare for bar owners to specialize in both wine and craft cocktails.
At Pierpont's, it was an affluent clientele, and we had a really deep wine list: over 500 bottles and a massive back bar, as well. I was really, really green and had a very limited knowledge of any of this, and I guess from a strictly capitalistic point of view, I realized right away that I was going to be much more successful, make better money, and have an easier time pleasing our guests if I had a better knowledge. So, the first thing that I got into was wine... Within the five years that I was working there, I went from being a complete novice to, by the time I left, I was a sommelier and running the wine program for the restaurant.

On that note, tell me a little bit about JP Wine Bar. I know it's closed now, but when you opened it, what was the idea behind that concept?
At the time, in Kansas City — we opened here in 2006 — if you wanted to go have a glass of wine, you went to a nice restaurant. But being a bartender, I really liked the idea of taking wine to another level, as far as being in a bar atmosphere that was fun, casual, laid-back, and giving people an opportunity to be turned onto some new wines that otherwise they wouldn't have sought out on their own. When you're talking about some wines that are really hard to pronounce [or] they're coming from weird regions, a lot of times those wines didn't get ordered because there's an intimidation factor. So, the concept behind JP Wine Bar was to make it fun.

Let's talk about Manifesto. It's a reservation-taking speakeasy, which is not your average cocktail bar.

We didn't want to just pack the bar full of people and have a line going up the stairs.

The whole reservation-taking speakeasy thing was more or less a product of necessity and circumstance as opposed to, "This is how I want the bar to be run." I subleased a basement space, and because of the nature of it being subterranean and very small, we were more or less in a situation where that was the best way to operate the business. It's a 100-year-old building with a narrow staircase; we didn't want to just pack the bar full of people and have a line going up the stairs. It would make it really uncomfortable.

[Photo: Facebook]

Taking reservations was really a means for us to provide a higher level of hospitality. We've only got 48 seats. And if we get busy to the point where we would like to be, then I was afraid people would say, "Oh, we can't get in there, so let's not bother." But if we take reservations, make a reservation as far in advance as you'd like, we'll take care of you. So, it was never a means to create this air of exclusivity. In fact, it was just the opposite: We were trying to be as inclusive and accommodating to everyone as possible.

Tell me about your process for creating a new drink. Where does the inspiration start for you?
We definitely take inspiration from classic cocktails. I can probably take every single cocktail on our menu that's an original recipe and draw some lineage to a classic... I typically start with a three-pronged structure of base spirit, with a sweet and bitter, or sugar and acid. Those are basic building blocks, and from there, you can tweak it a little bit; add different secondary ingredients and flavors to give it a little more complexity. We don't get too crazy with the number of ingredients. I think five ingredients is about the most you'll ever see, unless you're looking at a tiki drink when you're combining different kinds of rum to create complexity. For the most part, a five-ingredient drink is about the most you'll ever need, and a lot of them are only three.

What about cocktail names?

There's a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek political skew to the concept of Manifesto.

[Laughs] I don't know if I want to reveal all the backstories, but I love — love — naming cocktails. It's such a fun process; that's one of the most rewarding and fun things about doing it. Usually there's some sort of hidden or obscure meaning in the name that references the ingredients of the drink, and a lot of times, if you look at classic cocktails, certain words and certain names meant a specific ingredient... I like to reference pop-culture a lot; I reference music often, I reference movies. Sometimes there's political references: There's a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek political skew to the concept of Manifesto, and it was just kind of out of happenstance that we're located a couple doors down from the Jackson County Democratic Club, which is the organization run by Tom Pendergast in the 1920s and '30s during Prohibition. If you know anything about Kansas City history, it was a pretty wild place during Prohibition and a pretty corrupt place. So, I'm kind of a history fanatic and there are quite a few allusions toward politics and Kansas City history.

[Photo: Brandon Cummins/courtesy Manifesto]

Do you have favorite regulars?
Absolutely. Anyone who's a regular is pretty much my favorite. [Laughs] But yeah, we have some really really great people. We try to take a pretty seasonal approach to the menu, and people are always excited to hear when we have a new menu. I've had a couple [regulars] that — and I don't condone drinking this much — but I had one guy drink the entire menu over the course of like, four days. He'd come in during happy hour, have one or two cocktails, go out to dinner and sober up — he lived in the neighborhood so he could walk home — and come back after dinner and have a few more. But, the last time we changed the menu, we had 32 drinks. So, he drank the whole thing in four days. I was blown away. I don't necessarily recommend everyone try that, but people like that, who are really excited about what we're doing, they're hard not to love.

Conversely, have you had to throw someone out of the bar?
Oh god. Many times. Not just Manifesto, but everywhere. Absolutely. I can't even tell you how many times. It's crazy. My career has pretty much always been in fine dining, upscale, nicer places, but just because that's the type of place, it doesn't mean that people aren't going to get out of control. I've broken up fights — not in Manifesto, fortunately — but I have in other bars. When I was at JP Wine Bar, we had multiple fights there. It was crazy. But unfortunately, yeah, I've had to throw my fair share of people out.

You had to briefly close Manifesto in 2010, then re-opened it a few months later. Was it difficult to keep momentum going during that hiatus?

If we did a pop-one once a month, it kind of kept that thirst alive.

Yeah, it was really challenging. Closing Manifesto was not something I'd ever wanted to do, it was just something that was out of our control... I started this thing called the Traveling Cocktail Club, where myself and my head bartender here started doing pop-ups at other bars around the city and offering Manifesto cocktails. So, if we did a pop-one once a month, it kind of kept that thirst alive. Fortunately, that kind of took off. We even had a night when we went to St. Louis, which is about four hours away from here, and did a few nights back-to-back there, which was awesome.

And the fact that we had the opportunity to take over the restaurant, and then do the restaurant on our terms — I partnered with chef Howard Hanna — it kind of added a lot of legitimacy to what we were doing. We weren't just piggybacking on the restaurant that was originally here: We were here on our own, doing something we really believed in, and it was really starting to take off. I think it added a whole lot of credibility to the whole thing, and people were really excited not just about the re-opening of Manifesto, but the fact that now there's a new restaurant coming along with it that's going to be bigger and better than ever.

The "Rail Spike." [Photo: Paul Ingold/courtesy Manifesto]

And ever since the re-opening it's snowballed in terms of the amount of press; does that attract the cocktail nerd crowd?
Yeah, we definitely get that. We get the cocktail geeks, we get the newbies as well. But I think what's even cooler about that: When we opened Manifesto five years ago, there really wasn't a cocktail scene in Kansas City. Now, you've got bars and restaurants all over that are making really great cocktails, and it's kind of elevating everybody. It's been great to see.

Where do you see the scene going, like five years from now?
I just hope there's more. I hope people continue to see that there's a lot of value in taking pride in what you do, and not just making good drinks, but caring about the fact that guests want something new. They want something different, they want some variety. So, if we can kind of lift the overall standard and say, "We've got a really cool thing going on here" — I think we already have that — if we can grow it and make it bigger, the more the merrier. I just want to see more of it.

And finally, what's your must-have Barkeeper tool?

My moment of zen is when I'm behind the bar.

I think you have to love it. This is a hard job, it requires a lot of patience and it requires a tremendous work ethic and great attitude. I think ultimately, you have to love it: You have to love serving guests, and you have to love providing hospitality to people. That goes beyond just providing hospitality to the people at your bar, but also showing hospitality toward the people you work with... there's a lot of other things that come with this job that can be really trying and can really wear you down.

Being an owner now, I have so many other responsibilities and things I have to do that I don't like — I don't like dealing with insurance companies or bankers or accountants, all that crap — but my moment of zen is when I'm behind the bar and teaching the bartender that's next to me, or making the person that's across from me sitting at the bar have a great experience. Then all that [other] stuff's worth it.

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1924 Main, Kansas City, Missouri 64108

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