Posted on | August 31, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
Ted Kilgore is arguably one of the Midwest’s most influential mixologists. So, when the longtime bartender at Taste by Niche, in St. Louis, announced he was leaving to open a new bar, all eyes were on his replacement: Kyle Mathis, a finalist in the 2013 Beefeater 24 USBG National Cocktail Competition. Mathis has an enviable legacy to uphold, but with his experimental inclinations and devotion to classic cocktails, this Kilgore protégé is determined to help make St. Louis one of the region’s most vibrant drink destinations.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: You once worked in wine in California. What inspired you to segue into mixology?
KYLE MATHIS: I started out as a server, and then Ted Kilgore took me under his wing, where I was immersed in cocktails. I’m an intuitive and numbers-based person, so a cocktail’s precise measurements line up with my personality.
TBN: How is the St. Louis bar scene growing?
KM: We’ve got cocktail bars like Taste, Sanctuaria and Blood and Sand. Not only are we seeing more of those, but mainstay restaurants here are putting a focus on their drinks now, so you can seek out quality ones at dinner, too. St. Louis is pretty close behind Kansas City.
TBN: The cocktail program will obviously remain a Taste cornerstone, but what is your personal mission?
KM: We work on creating a classic cocktail education here. St. Louis is just coming onto the mixology scene, and people here are starting to embrace the standards. As a result, they are also getting more excited about our house originals.
TBN: How do you think Taste has been able to successfully introduce guests to tried and true drinks like the Mint Julep, Daiquiri and Sazerac?
KM: When we launched the classic menu, we also started a happy hour, a social hour from 5:00-7:00pm Tuesday through Friday, and all day Sunday and Monday, where all these drinks are just six dollars. When you can get a beer or a well-crafted cocktail for the same price, one is likely to choose the drink. When they do, they realize they like them. It’s about exposure.
TBN: And what do they seem to be enjoying in particular?
KM: They are latching on to bourbon; it’s number one. Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans are popular, but also bright gin cocktails like the Southside.
TBN: Beyond the classics, Taste offers more than 30 original creations—including some intriguing barrel-aged concoctions—featuring ingredients like Velvet Falernum, Creole bitters and orgeat. How do your guests make that leap?
KM: I veer from the classics by making variations with lesser-known spirits. Instead of just using whiskey as a base, for example, I’ll use whiskey and rum together to usher guests into a different realm. Now, so many whiskey drinkers are open and excited to drink dark, aged rums. People walk into Taste knowing they are going to drink—65% of our sales are in cocktails—so we don’t have a lot of skeptics. It is, however, fun to interact with guests, ask them their preferences and hook them up with the best fit.
TBN: What has been a hit?
KM: Our menu is broken into categories like tart, bright, citrus; tart, spiced, savory; and full, dark, robust, so it’s easy for the customer. One cocktail that’s especially popular is the Curious Flowers, with Hendrick’s Gin, hibiscus, cassis, lemon, Angostura bitters and a housemade orange marmalade topped with sparkling wine. I’m excited now for a barrel-aged bourbon milk punch. The cherry-toasted wood adds tannins and Amaretto-like flavors.
TBN: Is working in tandem with chef and owner Gerard Craft a priority?
KM: We’re very seasonal, so the chef is always changing dishes. The orange marmalade, for instance, happened because he brought in Seville oranges, thinking about them for a charcuterie board. Instead they wound up in a cocktail.