Mover & Shaker: Ted Kilgore elevates cocktail culture

The fact that Ted Kilgore’s cocktails have recently collected national accolades makes it hard to believe that he very nearly became a truck driver.

In between jobs and marriages at age 30, Kilgore had arrived upon an ellipsis ... he didn’t know what came next. “I called this guy about truck driving school, and as I was sitting there listening to his spiel, it dawned on me, ‘I wonder if there are any bartending schools,’” said Kilgore, who was then living in Springfield, Mo. After a wonderfully inauspicious flip through the Yellow Pages, that was that; Kilgore chose a school and, four days later, he started learning how to muddle, shake and flame. New destiny found.

“Destiny” isn’t the overstatement it might seem. Beverage Media magazine named Kilgore, who’s been at the helm of Monarch Restaurant’s bodacious bar in Maplewood since 2006, as one of this year’s 10 trendsetting mixologists, and his original concoctions have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine Cocktails 2008 as well as the 2009 edition of Mr. Boston: Official Bartender’s Guide. Kilgore eagerly showed off his advance copy of the latter, explaining that the classic tutorial and compendium of recipes was back on track after a misguided detour into “college-scene” cocktails during the ’70s and ’80s. Kilgore and Mr. Boston, it turned out, go way back.

Years before Kilgore created his first recipe, Mr. Boston was a favorite read – though this is only revealing in retrospect. Kilgore was still a beer drinker who worked at a perfumery. While convenience, not inclination, prompted him to take his first job (his brother worked for the same company), Kilgore said he has been able to parlay his olfactory skills as a mixologist. “You’re just pouring different liquids,” he said. “If you’re blending gin and Bénédictine and sweet vermouth, you get different aromatics. I try to figure out what comes out. Juniper? Is it lavender from the gin? Is it the oregano from the sweet vermouth? Cocktail mixing is a balancing act.” An act, one can add, that takes time to perfect.

Kilgore described his early cocktails, created back in Springfield, as “nightclubby.” One example: Romeo y Julieta, a sweet-as-its-name combination of B&B, Chambord and Captain Morgan garnished with one lime wedge and one lemon wedge. Politely changing the subject, Kilgore said it wasn’t until he came to St. Louis that he could “geek out” – and by that he means resurrect a pre-Prohibition style of bartending that thinks a drink through down to the quality of the ice cubes and the length of the shake; insists on a balance both of flavors and aromas; favors fresh juice over flavored liquors; and explores the myriad combinations of each and every ardent spirit.

“Ted sets himself apart by using things that I think got dusty on a lot of our shelves – and he knows how to use them correctly. I saw people fumbling trying to make drinks all over town,” said sommelier Chris Hoel, formerly of Monarch and currently of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif. Two and a half years ago, Hoel lured Kilgore to St. Louis with carte blanche at Monarch. Hoel realized that Kilgore was no Jack ’n’ Coke-slinger; that when it came to mixing, Kilgore was both insatiable and exacting.

“A lot of people will sit around late at night, and if something tastes good when they’re drunk, it’ll make it onto the menu,” Hoel said. “Ted will mess with three or four drinks for three or four months, and he’ll perfect them.”

A good deal of R&D takes place in the butter-yellow basement of Kilgore’s South City home, where he lives with his wife Jamie and a feisty Boston terrier named Eyeball. (Kilgore recently stopped wearing his silver hoop earrings, an erstwhile fashion calling card, because Eyeball would often attack them.) The retro-funky Kilgores have a handsome vintage bar complemented by a collection of luxurious old glasses that show off Ted’s elegant creations.

“Why you always gotta make me this foofy stuff?” said friend Wes Johnson of The Shaved Duck, feigning outrage at a recent cocktail party hosted by the Kilgores. “Last time, he gave me something that was purple with a dry rose floating in it. I thought it was a proposal.” Though Kilgore got the joke, he smiled only briefly, eager as he was to identify the purple component as crème de violette. All told, his basement bar housed about 50 liquors including one infusion in a clear, unmarked bottle that Kilgore opened, sniffed and put back with a shrug. “I don’t know,” he said. As his friends tippled, talked and ate chocolate chip cookies, Kilgore steadfastly used a measuring cup to mix cocktails two at a time. Each round was a different concoction, and at one point, he darted upstairs to collect a recipe book. As Tom Waits rasped through the speakers, Kilgore said little other than, “Try this.” In a subsequent conversation, he linked his taciturn nature to his taste in music. “That’s probably why I’m so mellow all the time, because I’m really into music that’s heavy and dark.”

These days he doesn’t keep tabs on music much. Nor does he play basketball or read Louis L’Amour, two pastimes of his youth. For the last several years, he has been fully concentrated on spirits, garnishes and ice. The latter matters so much to him, in fact, that his first order of business at Monarch was to order a new ice machine. Once it arrived, Kilgore figured out how to trip the sensor so that the water tray fills all the way to the top. Now he has the advantage of larger, stackable squares that don’t melt as quickly.

Kilgore continually does little things to elevate his craft – in St. Louis, the Midwest and across the country. “I want to do my part to bring back the new golden age of cocktails. My ultimate goal is to have as many places as possible that are familiar with the methodology and the style of really good quality cocktails,” he said. Putting his money where his mouth is, Kilgore has spent his last several vacations traveling to trade conventions, attending national competitions and dropping in on his fellow gentleman bartenders in Chicago, New York and New Orleans. Last year, he also became the only Midwesterner to achieve the highest level of certification through Beverage Alcohol Resource, an independent examining body for mixology. Kilgore has made a point of putting his expertise in the history, production and taste of spirits to good use.

“Instead of bartenders being jealous of each other, I would like to see them actually sharing information,” he said. So far, Kilgore has mentored 10 bartenders, among them T.J. Vytlacil, with whom Kilgore hosts a series of cocktail nights called Blood & Sand at 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar in Lafayette Square. Vytlacil said their goal was to promote “an anti-ultralounge, speakeasy culture where you can talk to your friends – where you’re not watching the game and getting bumped into from behind.” Vytlacil and Kilgore are a team. You can tell by the way they talk (“Plymouth is our favorite gin,” Kilgore said); by the way they wear vests like their pre-Prohibition predecessors; and by how they shake or stir each cocktail until it’s properly mixed.

Kilgore was uncharacteristically piqued by the suggestion that he would leave St. Louis. “Down in Springfield, people would ask me, ‘What are you doing in Springfield?’ And then when I was at Monarch less than a year, people were going, ‘What are you doing in St. Louis?’ They’d ask me that all the time. I mix great cocktails. I don’t want to move.”