After spending two years in wine production at California wineries like Francis Ford Coppola and Flowers, Kyle Mathis returned to his hometown of St. Louis. He took a job as a server at the mixology-focused bar Taste by Niche, one of four venues from James Beard award-nominated chef Gerard Craft, and soon discovered a love of cocktails. Under the tutelage of renowned mixologist Ted Kilgore, Mathis gained the skills needed to take over Taste’s cocktail program when Kilgore left to launch Planter’s House in 2013. “I love beverage across the board, but at Taste, I got to delve into the cocktail side of things,” Mathis says.
A roster of 29 classic cocktails ($8)—listed in chronological order by date of creation—forms the foundation of Taste’s drinks menu, and prices are lowered to $6 during happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and all day on Sunday and Monday. “The goal was to make classic cocktails really accessible and give customers the ability to educate themselves,” Mathis explains.
For Taste’s 15 house originals ($10 to $14), Mathis takes inspiration from both classic concoctions and fresh flavors. The drinks are organized in such categories as “tart. bright. citrus.” and “crisp. light. aromatic.,” which Mathis believes steer his guests in the right direction. “They seem to be a really great tool for helping consumers navigate the menu,” he says. Popular cocktails include approachable offerings like the Surfboard Fizz, made with London vodka or Broker’s gin, watermelon, orgeat, honey, lemon juice, basil and soda. Mathis observes that the number of customers who order gin versus vodka in that drink is fairly evenly split. “Three years ago, it would have been 95-percent vodka to 5-percent gin,” he says. “But you always have customers who like Manhattans and darker cocktails. We have a pretty decent spread across the board of people who are willing to drink just about anything we make.”
One of Mathis’ more complex creations is the Scorched Earth, which mixes Pierde Almas La Puritita Verdá mezcal, Uma cachaça, house-made celery-fennel syrup, lime and grapefruit juices, and The Bitter Truth Creole bitters. “The cachaça has a really green vegetal character to it, the mezcal is a little bit more smoky and the creole bitters play along with the fennel,” he notes. Featured in the “full. dark. robust.” section, the Gardenhead blends St. George Botanivore gin, St. George Raspberry brandy, Fernet Branca amaro and Punt e Mes vermouth. “You have a lot of dark flavors in there with a really aromatic, light gin to balance it out,” Mathis says.
The head mixologist credits Kilgore with starting the craft cocktail movement in St. Louis. “Ever since Ted came to the city six or seven years ago, the consumer base has become way more knowledgeable, and it’s shown at Taste,” Mathis says. “It seems like we get busier every year.”