SoT's Margot Thompson takes guests on a tour of the islands
It’s a notoriously long journey from Kansas City to an ocean shore, or so goes the opening of every joke about our beloved landlocked city. But rather than fake-laughing at a punchline about our beach-less view, the good folks at SoT are bringing a little tropical flavor to town.
The Crossroads Arts District’s newest craft cocktail bar opened in September, quickly making a name for itself for its inventive, molecular-gastronomic approach to drinks. Since January, though, the bartenders at SoT have been getting attention for something else. Every Monday night, the space is transformed into a tiki bar: Island decorations come out, the soundtrack turns Caribbean — and the drinks get Polynesian.
“Tiki drinks came into popularity in the post-World War II era,” explains SoT bartender Margot Thompson. “Folks were returning from war to an economy that was very different, and so tiki cocktails kind of offered a return to the islands or the places that they were stationed at.”
Tiki bars offered an escape from the tense political climate that permeated America in the 1940s and ’50s. These were the places with surf music and elaborate, over-the-top cocktails served in tiki mugs with colorful paper umbrellas. They were unpretentious, the epitome of kitsch — and surefire escapism.
“I think maybe the resurgence in tiki culture and cocktails now echoes the sort of scary, unfamiliar political atmosphere that we’re facing now,” Thompson says. “You want to be taken away, so we’re using exotic ingredients and tropical flavors. I think the tiki flavor profile is deeper and more nuanced than people want to give it credit for.”
We’ll give Thompson credit where credit is due: Her original tiki cocktail — the Ghostface Painkillah — reimagines a classic in a fun, delicious way.
“The original Painkiller is a trademark tiki drink, invented in the 1970s by a woman at a resort in the British Virgin Islands,” Thompson says. “It uses Pusser’s Rum, pineapple juice, orange juice and cream of coconut, and it’s really supposed to be just creamy, boozy and refreshing.”
Thompson has stayed true to the original ratios, but has swapped out a few ingredients. El Dorado spiced rum stands instead of the customary Pusser’s, and the pineapple and orange juices are freshly squeezed during prep before Monday’s service. Rather than cream of coconut, Thompson makes her own coquito.
“You’re using evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream of coconut, coconut milk, lots of rum, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s usually a holiday drink, and you serve it in small glasses because it’s chock-full of rum.”
Though coquito is Puerto Rican and not Polynesian, Thompson was inspired by a recent trip to the tiny island in the Caribbean. Her time in Puerto Rico introduced her to plenty of new experiences, she says, but none were more important to her than the restorative feelings that came with having an adventure and making new friends.
“That’s what I wanted to bring to this drink, especially with the coquito,” Thompson says. “Coquito is a thing that you make as a family and you share with others, and that sounds cheesy, but I wanted to do something personal and really share the experience with the guests that come into this bar.”
Thompson succeeds in sharing with her guests, but it’s unlikely that anyone who orders her Ghostface Painkillah will want to divvy up the booty. Thompson serves her drink in an elegant Pilsner glass and garnishes it with a long palm leaf. It’s not the kooky tiki presentation most are accustomed to, but it does make an impression. The liquid is pale, like a luminescent pearl, and it drinks like silk. There’s plenty of alcohol in this drink — I’ve watched Thompson pour more than two ounces of booze in — but the composition is so balanced and so refined that I barely notice.
There are few other things I stop noticing, too, like the cars zipping past outside on Grand Boulevard and the chatter of other bar guests. Thompson has delivered a vacation in a glass, and I imagine myself instead swinging in a hammock, toes trimming sand. This, I tell her, is a successful escape.
— “Classics are classics for a reason, and there are certain ratios you’re going to stick with,” Thompson says. For any Painkiller, that means two ounces of rum, four ounces of pineapple juice, one ounce orange juice, and one ounce of cream of coconut.
— The base spirit is key, and the classic Painkiller recipe calls for Pusser’s rum, originally a product of the Royal Navy. SoT stocks El Dorado spiced rum, but Thompson recommends any favorite, high-quality spiced rum for the at-home mixologist.
— Fresh juice makes a huge difference. SoT has a juicer behind the bar, and Thompson’s fresh-pressed pineapple juice and orange juice give her Ghostface Painkillah an extra boost.
— Thompson’s coquito recipe takes a little work. She starts by brewing a tea with crushed cinnamon sticks and orange zest, then slowly adds coconut milk, cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks in different steps. She finishes the recipe by grating in nutmeg and adding a pinch of salt, before finally topping off the brew with rum.
— All Thompson’s ingredients are combined in a cocktail shaker. She dry-shakes once to get a good blend, then shakes with ice, and strains over ice into her glass.
— Don’t forget the garnish: Every Painkiller needs freshly grated nutmeg on top. Thompson finishes her cocktail with a pretty palm leaf, but she says no one should be afraid to reach for their tackiest tiki mug.
SoT, 1521 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108. (816) 842-8482. www.sotkc.com