Gin Bars Issue 18 Virginia Miller

Gin bars: Cocktail science at Planter’s House, St. Louis

Planter's House, St. Louis, Missouri. Credit Giulina Sertl

Ted Kilgore has dedicated his Missouri cocktail bar, Planter’s House, to the practice of molecular mixology

By Virginia Miller

There was a time when molecular cocktails were widely en vogue. I remember over a decade ago, Tony Conigliaro’s now-closed Drink Factory lab filled with machines from rotovap to sous vide. Though he was famed for molecular plays like a slurpable Prairie Oyster, a sort of egg-shaped Bloody Mary in an oyster shell, the drink I remember with mouthwatering clarity is a rhubarb martini. The purity of the rhubarb was the star, thanks to sous vide cooking – simple, with gin, lime and bitters. It lingers like a rhubarb dream in my taste memory. 

Moments like these confirm the “why” of the molecular approach. Over the years, visiting thousands of bars globally, I’d taste centrifuge twists on a Ramos Gin Fizz at Quinary, or a beet cocktail in a blood bag on a liver dish at The Envoy in Hong Kong. I appreciated initial days at Chicago’s The Aviary, sampling smoking drinks in plastic bags or in Aviary’s custom-created porthole. I’d relish 2014 visits to Tokyo’s Bar Benfiddich, where Hiroyasu Kayama steeped his own elixirs, herbaceous absinthe and root beers at the bar with lab equipment. 

Inside Planter's House, St. Louis
Inside Planter’s House, St. Louis. Credit Giulina Sertl

But even over a decade ago, there was already a backlash – often from within the industry itself – to the fussiness and elitism of molecular. This was, in part, a reaction to the two decade-long trend of speakeasies: hidden password-requiring sort of bars, many of which employed molecular equipment, hand-cut ice, flaming cocktails and all the other bells and whistles. 

This led to an approachable molecular age: more casual, even obscured. Bartenders would make complex drinks, often labs behind the scenes, serving layered drinks in relaxed form. You could ask about the process if you wanted to know, or just drink your drink if you didn’t. Midnight Rambler in Dallas and Danny Louie in San Francisco at past bars such as Mister Jiu’s – where Louie’s local Dungeness crab martini was silky with crab oil made from roasting crab shells cooked sous vide with lemon peel, rice bran oil and salt – were prime examples of this progression in molecular-style bars. 

While pioneering New York and San Francisco had thriving cocktail scenes by the early aughts, Ted Kilgore was ushering in the cocktail renaissance in St. Louis, Missouri, in the centre of the US. After pushing things forward at Monarch and Taste by Niche, he and his wife Jamie, with business partner Ted Charak, opened Planter’s House in 2013, a bar and restaurant in a historic St. Louis building. The space is relaxed and comfy, yet exudes an old-world elegance thanks to lofty ceilings, rich wood and brick, red booths, and vintage chandeliers. 

Ted Kilgore. Credit Giulina Sertl
Ted Kilgore. Credit Giulina Sertl

Through a greenery-lined doorway is Bullock Room, a more intimate space graced with red and cream velvet brocade wallpaper and a U-shaped bar. It’s named after pre-Prohibition-era bartender Tom Bullock, who bartended in both his native Louisville and St. Louis and was the first African-American to write a bartending book (The Ideal Bartender, published in 1917). It’s an ideal perch from which to savour the ever-more molecular approach Kilgore has taken to Planter’s cocktails behind the scenes, using the likes of a vacuum sealer, a sous vide and a Spinzall centrifuge since 2017. 

As has been the trend of the past decade, Kilgore uses this equipment without pomp and circumstance, listing cocktails on the menu without mentioning process. If you ask, however, you’ll find thoughtfulness and honing behind each drink. 

What does “molecular” mean to Kilgore? “Molecular, to me, means being given the opportunity to go beyond expectations of normal flavours, textures, and aromas in cocktails,” he explains. “Inspiration comes with the idea that no flavours are really off the table. If you can apply certain techniques, you can have things like madras curry pineapple rum, roasted mushroom cachaça, or any other unique flavour you can dream up.”

Planter's House cocktail bar in St. Louis, Missouri. Credit Giulina Sertl
The Bullock Room at Planter’s House. Credit Giulina Sertl

Filling up on stir-fried cashew chicken or grilled celery root and Swiss chard in red curry, you can pair it with Kilgore’s classic In a Pickle (since 2010), a pickled delight of Hendrick’s Gin, Velvet Falernum, elderflower, lime, cucumber and dill, or a house martini with a harmonious blend of Citadelle, Ransom Old Tom and Nolet’s gins mixed with Dolin Dry Vermouth, Borgia Extra Dry Vermouth, olive bitters and lemon tincture, garnished with Castelvetrano olives.

So, what does molecular equipment do that a more traditional approach cannot? Kilgore clarifies, “Being able to infuse flavours that you would not normally be able to extract through traditional methods gives you the ability to add levels of subtlety and depth to familiar cocktails.” Bring It On Down to Veganville is a prime example of Kilgore’s molecular cocktails. Golden beets are vacuum sealed and cooked sous vide, resulting in a rich juice which is infused into North Shore #6 Gin, mixed with the bitterness of Suze and herbaceous thyme tincture, and balanced and brightened by agave nectar and lemon. 

Beyond house blends of gins and sloe gin, to get just the right palate nuance, Kilgore isn’t afraid to unexpectedly partner gin with sherry, rum and more. Of crafting a cocktail, he says, “Consistency in recipe templates…to achieve proper balance of the base, modifiers and enhancers is key. I utilise four formulas for most creations. While the ingredients may change, the experience for the imbiber is a familiar and comforting one.”

A colourful cocktail at Planter's House, St. Louis. Credit Virginia Miller
A colourful cocktail. Credit Virginia Miller

The excitement of adding further and deeper depths of flavour to a cocktail is not only what keeps a bar vet like Kilgore interested and challenged, but is a craft best advanced by an experienced hand: one deeply rooted in the classics and honed in palate and technique, and therefore able to push boundaries from the wisdom of experience.

“After 22 years of working in bars, I am delighted to be able to find new ways to explore new realms of cocktail creation,” Kilgore says. “Although we have now had our Spinzall and sous vide for a few years, we are still striving to dream up new ways to explore with them.” 

Bring It On Down to Veganville, a cocktail from Planter's House
Bring It On Down to Veganville. Credit Giulina Sertl

Bring It On Down to Veganville

  • 1.5oz (45ml) roasted beet-infused North Shore #6 Gin*
  • .5oz (15ml) Suze
  • .75oz (22ml) agave syrup 1:1
  • .75oz (22ml) lemon juice
  • 2 dashes thyme tincture**

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with thyme sprigs.

*Roasted golden beets, and beet-infused gin

  • 2-3 medium beets, peeled and cut into cubes
  • 1.75l gin

Toss the beet cubes with olive oil, then lightly dust in salt and pepper. Cook for
20 minutes at 450ºF (230ºC). Remove beets from the oven. Add 400g to a vacuum seal bag with the gin. Vacuum seal and sous vide for two hours at 125ºF (50ºC). Strain off the beet solids and cool. Rebottle with the gin.

**Thyme tincture

  • 3oz (90ml) EverClear/neutral grain spirit (190 proof/95% ABV)
  • 2 sprigs of thyme

Add thyme to EverClear and steep for 5-6 hours. Strain thyme from liquid. Bottle in a small spray bottle.

Lotta What-Have-Yous, a cocktail from Planter's House. Credit Giulina Sertl with Bols Genever
Lotta What-Have-Yous. Credit Giulina Sertl

Lotta What-Have-Yous 

  • 12oz (350ml) Bols Barrel Aged Genever
  • 6oz (180ml) St George Green Chile Vodka
  • 6oz (180ml) Banhez Mezcal
  • 2oz (60ml) Giffard Pineapple Liqueur
  • 2oz (60ml) John Taylor Velvet Falernum
  • 4oz (120ml) brewed Earl Grey tea
  • 200g white sugar
  • 17oz (500ml) water
  • 30g lime zest
  • 2g coriander
  • Cilantro tincture* 

Add all to a vacuum seal bag and vacuum seal. Sous vide for two hours at 125ºF (50ºC). Strain off. Pour into a large container. Add 5oz (150ml) lime juice, then slowly pour in two cups (475ml) whole milk. Let curdle for one hour. To milk wash, run through a Spinzall Culinary Centrifuge on continuous mode four times. Strain though cone filter and chill. To serve: pour 6oz (180ml) into a sour or delmonico glass. Garnish with dehydrated lime wheel and mist with cilantro tincture. 

*Cilantro tincture 

  • 4g cilantro, chopped
  • 3oz (90ml) EverClear/neutral grain spirit (190 proof/95% ABV)

Steep for 24 hours. Strain off. Add 3oz (90ml) water. Bottle in a small spray bottle.

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