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: Greg Rannells]
If Ted Kilgore had stayed on his original career path, his regulars would be more likely to wear his liquids than drink them. But at 31 years old, the Missouri bartender swapped vats for jiggers, leaving his longtime job in the industrial perfume industry to go behind the bar. "Memorizing recipes and pouring liquids was an easy transition," Kilgore says now. "It was kind of like I found my home." In 2006, Kilgore, the newly minted bartender, moved from Springfield, Missouri to St. Louis, soon landing two high-profile gigs: First at the (now-closed) 300-seat Monarch Restaurant, where Kilgore garnered a following for his use of classic techniques and fresh juices, then by launching the bar program at chef Gerard Craft's Taste by Niche.
But late last year, after a year's worth of build-outs, Kilgore and his wife/fellow bartender Jamie Kilgore opened the doors to their own establishment: Planter's House, a 60-seat bar with a separate lounge area, Bullock Room. Kilgore recently chatted with Eater about cocktail creation, how to run a successful business, and his passion for craft cocktails: "That's one of the things that people always say — oh, the cocktail trend — I'm so over it," Kilgore says. "They're saying cocktails as a quality product, thoughtfully put together, is a trend? It's totally not a trend. It's not going away; I'm not going to ever stop as long as I have access to a bar."
What was the cocktail scene like in 2006 when you moved to St. Louis?
"You'd go to a fine dining restaurant [and] pay about $12 for an under-diluted, overpriced drink."
I had been to the New York Tales of the Cocktail the year before, in 2005, when I was still in Springfield. My thinking was: Certainly , there's going to be a lot more places into those kind of drinks [in St. Louis]. When I got up here, I realized that it wasn't the case really. There were bars that were trying to do classic stuff, but they didn't understand the importance of quality of product and fresh juices. I was the only one in town at the time using fresh juice for our program.
It was really difficult at that time to go some place and get a drink that people really paid attention to the quality of. There were still a lot of the martinis — there still are for that matter — but there's a lot more people that understand the quality better. Back then, you'd go to a fine dining restaurant, pay about $12 for an under-diluted, overpriced drink, and no one really knew any better. They didn't care.
Planter's House. [Photo: Greg Rannells]
How did you first connect with Gerard Craft and start talking about the Taste project?
I knew I wanted to do something different because I just was hungry to have the time to craft cocktails in a smaller environment and be able to make a connection: [Be] one-on-one with customers all the time, and not having people just go, "double Absolut Citron and Red Bull." I'd heard he was working on this project. I stayed at Monarch for about three-and-a-half-years mainly because there was nowhere else in town for me to go. I was seriously considering relocating to a different market.
I actually had just gone onto Niche's website and emailed him. I think it was on a Sunday night. He called me the next day at like 9:30a.m. and we had a brief conversation. The next day, I went and looked at the space and talked to him for about an hour-and-a-half about what he was looking for, what he wanted. He basically told me that if I came on board I would have free reign over everything. The beverages were up to me and I could do whatever I wanted.
So what was the cocktail program like at Taste?
"It was a lot about what kind of fresh ingredients I could get from the kitchen."
It was definitely way different than anything in town. It was the first actual cocktail-driven establishment in the city, based solely on crafted cocktails. It was a very tiny bar, too. We didn't have room for a lot, so I only had about 100 spirits. It was a lot about what kind of fresh ingredients I could get from the kitchen and just creating something new every single day. We would change the menu not every day, but if something went out, we would immediately replace it with a new cocktail. So, it was a lot of transitional stuff. The menu would never stay the same.
Bullock Room. [Photo: Greg Rannells]
So what made the timing right to open your own place last year?
One of the big impetuses for me was: Doing Taste, I was involved a lot from day one in design and putting the entire space together. And I'm getting a little older now: At the time, I was 45 and I was like, "When I turn 50, I don't think I want to work for someone else." I was trying to decide like my next move. Taste is great, but I was just working so many hours, and 70 to 80 hours a week [working] for someone else is fine if you're young, but I was just like, "If I'm going to work this many hours, I might as well do something that is going to invest in my future."
My wife was just like, "You need to open your own place." After she said that, I was kind of pondering it and thinking about what makes a good project and what would work as far as the city of St. Louis.
For someone who hasn't been there, describe the two concepts: You have the Planter's House and the smaller Bullock Room.
"If I open a cocktail bar that's just 35 to 40 seats, it's going to be really difficult to realistically make money."
I had an idea at one time — which I talked to Gerard about — doing kind of a classic cocktail bar which was an homage to Tom Bullock, who was the principle bartender at the St. Louis Country Club. He wrote a cocktail book in 1917. And that kind of led me to think: If I open a cocktail bar that's just 35 to 40 seats, it's going to be really difficult to realistically make money and actually make a decent living.
Then I started researching St. Louis history and I found stuff about Planter's House, and Planter's House being a turn-of-the-century mecca for everything that was modern. I thought: "What if I combine both concepts: Planter's House bar, it's a volume bar and it's a little more relaxed and neighborhood-y, we do great cocktails but they also have great food... and then the Bullock Room, which is a lot more posh and country club-esque." [...] Upstairs [in the Bullock Room] we're able to do higher end stuff and challenge people about the product and talk about our vintage whiskey selection or our 40 rums or whatever. It's a lot more interactive and quieter.
How do you conceptualize new cocktails?
The first thing I do when I'm writing a menu is I'll actually do sort of an outline. I'll outline the categories and what I want to do. What I tried to do here [in the Planter's House] was to make things not necessarily the classic cocktail categories like the upstairs menu: It's kind of like the genre of the cocktail, what to expect as far as the style. I decide on the categories and then I decide what types of spirits I want to do.
[Photo: Greg Rannells]
But usually I'll get stuff out and then I'll think about what flavors are coming in the season, what the kitchen is using and what I can utilize. Like right now, we have a lot of seasonal stuff that our pastry chef is doing. We've got a lot of syrups left over after making jams and jellies, so we have raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, things like that we're cross-utilizing.
I actually read a review that called your cocktail menu "intellectually curious": Would you agree with that?
I don't remember reading that but that cracks me up because... I had to kind of restrain myself [when creating this menu]. I kind of do it in my own way, people may not know what they are drinking: They will look at the menu and they will go "What's Capaletti?", but I try to make up by not being serious with the names as well as the categories. That's one thing I think young bartenders forget: I haven't had a lot of jobs because I spent a lot of time building trust in people, you know?... You have to be willing to really spend the time and people will appreciate it. I've been there eight years and there's not a day that goes by that people don't walk through the door and they're like, "I only drink vodka but I'm here to just try a cocktail." They will be drinking something that they've never heard of before, but they are like, "Yeah, this is amazing." There's that level of trust.
What's the usual clientele like? Does it sway more toward experienced drinkers or those folks who are coming to you specifically to try new things?
"You've got to make a living. That's one of the things that I think a lot of people forget."
I see a ton of regulars. I have people that have been coming to see me for eight years: I even have people come up from Springfield, Missouri where I was before and seek me out. But there is a large amount of people that are new to this experience, and because we have way more space here than Taste, we see a lot more walk-ins. We're not turning anyone away like we did at Taste. It's a lot more accessible and that was kind of my general idea: We wanted to be a destination, but we also want to service our neighborhood.
[Photo: Greg Rannells]
That's the thing about being successful in a business, you can't just do one thing great, you have to strive to put the whole package together, which is what we've tried to do here... You've got to make a living. That's one of the things that I think a lot of people forget. They're like, "I want to open this bar and it's going to be all about this: We have craft cocktails and that's all we'll do." That's not my intention at all. My intention is to create a great bar, we just happen to do cocktails a certain way. It's never going to change.
What's your must-have barkeeper tool?
I think first and foremost it goes back to what drives me personally. My wife has told me on numerous occasions that I care too much... I've got about 300+ spirits and I want more because there is always more. But each and every bottle I know personally. I know where it comes from, what kind of palate and the flavor profile [it] has, what it can offer in each cocktail. So really having that sense of drive and desire to learn and grow and take care of the guests with the very best ingredients, every time, is really the most important thing to me... I think people understand that I have passion. I don't really — it sounds contrite — but I think it's more than that, it's not just passion. It's what you are.
It's obsession, almost.
"This is not just what I do. It's become how I am."
Yeah... this is not just what I do. It's become how I am, you know? Some people dabble in it and they get out, but I'm more a steady guy. I want to, I haven't had a lot of jobs in this, so I have time to build something great and hopefully we'll be here for years to come and continue building. I take stuff from the past but I am always trying to create something new. I don't repeat cocktails on my menu. It's always something new and exciting and trying to keep it fresh and new.