Stars of the home bar
Mark Church, a bartender in Kansas City, Mo., recently won the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition with a Refined Austrian Cocktail. With some tips and little knowhow, most cocktails can be made at home, too.

The past decade has been a wild cocktail ride.

We went from Carrie and the girls sipping cosmos to Mad Men downing old-fashioneds like they're going out of style. They aren't.

A dizzying array of new spirits, liqueurs, bitters and fresh-made ingredients has put vintage favorites back on the menu while allowing for countless variations.

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Bars now stock once-obscure spirits such as absinthe, rye whiskey, Brazilian cachaca, pisco from Chile and Old Tom gin, a slightly sweet style of gin popular in the 19th century.

"I'm so happy Old Tom is back on the market," says Jason Kimbrel, a bartender at J P Wine Bar & Coffee House in the Crossroads Arts District of Kansas City, Mo. "It's just so tasty."

Old Tom's arrival allows drinks such as the Martinez, a precursor to the modern martini made with sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters, to taste as they once did. Or try an Old Tom Collins, with lemon juice, simple syrup and club soda.

For a modern take, try an Extra Virgin, where it mixes with Pimm's, orange juice, orange bitters, rosemary syrup and ginger.

Spirits also are flowing from the country's more than 200 craft distillers, which make small batches of everything from vodka and gin to whiskey, absinthe and eau de vie. Some bars are sporting bottles from Ransom Spirits of Oregon, producer of Ransom Old Tom and Small's gins and WhipperSnapper whiskey.

Liqueurs are also big. Luxardo maraschino, St-Germain elderflower, Domaine de Canton ginger and Dumante Verdenoce pistachio all add flavorful complexity to cocktails, but none has made quite the splash as creme de violette.

Creme de violette is an essential ingredient in the aviation, described as "one of the last truly great cocktails to be invented before Prohibition" in David Wondrich's "Imbibe!" (Penguin, 2007). But the liqueur was unavailable for years, hence no aviations.

Now it's happily back, and so is the pale blue cocktail, nicely made with Plymouth gin, maraschino and lemon juice.

Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Mo., puts a seasonal twist on its aviation: Last winter's menu featured house-infused blueberry gin, Luxardo mara-schino, lime juice and house-made orange bitters.

"They're classics for a reason," Justus bartender Chris Conatser says. "They're reliable. Once you figure out what makes them tick, suddenly you've got the knowledge to throw caution to the wind and fiddle as you feel fit."

Re:Verse in Kansas City muddles orange, cherry and lemon in the style of an old-fashioned but then replaces bourbon and Angostura bitters with 360 Cola vodka and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur to make a new-fashioned.

Want a dirty martini? Try a Der Schmutzige, made with black peppercorn- and mustard seed-infused vodka, Frank's kraut juice, beet brine and dill pickle water.

The range of new bitters, too, is startling, especially since even the Peychaud's required for a New Orleans-style Sazerac weren't distributed in some areas until a couple of years ago. The list now includes everything from lemon, orange and grapefruit to celery, rhubarb and Xocolatl Mole Bitters, which delivers a hit of cacao, cinnamon and spice.

Bars don't stop at what they can buy, though. Grunauer garnishes drinks with cherries macerated in bourbon, Demerara sugar, pomegranate juice and Fee Brothers Old Fashion bitters. North, in Leawood, roasts fennel seeds with orange and lemon zest and then steeps the results in hot water to make fennel syrup for its Succo di Bacca, a long drink with rum, strawberries, lemon juice and Moscato d'Asti.

Bluestem bartender Van Zarr crafted a drink with peach-vanilla-infused whiskey, plum cherry lavender syrup, house-made grenadine and a syrup made with lemon verbena from his garden for a recent cocktail dinner.

But no one goes as far as the bartenders at Justus, who make sweet and dry vermouths, turn honeysuckle, elderflower and other blossoms into syrups and harvest heirloom Cherokee peach tree leaves for bitters.

Conatser, the bar's resident botanist, recently infused gin with Queen Anne's lace seeds (a wildflower he describes as a feral carrot).

How to make better drinks

Here are tips from some of Kansas City's best bartenders on how to make them better.

Sweet and sour: Use only fresh-squeezed lemon, lime and other juices and homemade simple syrup in cocktails. Here's how to make simple syrup: Combine equal parts of sugar and water in a saucepan, or go 2:1 if you prefer sweeter drinks. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, stirring until all the sugar dissolves. Cool before use. Leftovers can be refrigerated for several weeks.

Try something new: There's a world of new ingredients to experiment with, from absinthe and Old Tom gin to cachaca and white whiskey. Don't forget liqueurs such as Domaine de Canton ginger or St-Germain elderflower. Both can be sipped solo, added to fresh lemonade or a wine spritzer or used in more complex cocktails.

Measure: The best bartenders measure their ingredients, and you should, too. You can use a jigger, which looks something like a stainless steel hourglass, but the quarter-ounce marks on OXO's mini angled measuring cup offer better accuracy.

Muddle: The classic wooden muddler looks like a miniature baseball bat, but there are also silicone, plastic and stainless steel versions. Technique is more important than tool, though. Be gentle.

Read Gary Regan: When Gary Regan published "The Bartender's Bible" (Harper Collins; 1991), it quickly became required reading for would-be barkeeps.

Infuse something: Bartenders are also infusing gin, tequila, bourbon, vermouth and other spirits with everything from blueberries and pears to espresso beans, chilies, peppercorns, chamomile, lemongrass, sumac and ginger. Here's how: Select good-quality ingredients and wash, peel and pit as necessary. Place in a clean jar and cover with a premium brand of spirits. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark location for several days to a week. Taste regularly to determine readiness, and then strain into a clean container, discarding solids.

Pick a classic: For instance, for a Champagne cocktial, place 1 sugar cube on a saucer and splash it with a few dashes of bitters. Place the saturated sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute and top with Champagne or sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Batch it: If you're hosting, make a large batch of punch or pitchers of margaritas or sangria instead of mixing individual drinks.

Practice, practice, practice: Try different recipes and ingredients, measure everything, keep track of what you like and what doesn't work, and practice until the results are consistent. Oh, and be sure to call your friends when you do it.

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