Swordfish Tom’s owner Jill Cockson built out much of the speakeasy herself with the help of her fiancé, Jake Balcom. Roy Inman Special to The Star
Swordfish Tom’s owner Jill Cockson built out much of the speakeasy herself with the help of her fiancé, Jake Balcom. Roy Inman Special to The Star

Chow Town

The daily dish on Kansas City's food and drink scene

Chow Town

These KC bartenders are striking out on their own with speakeasys, bar products

By ANNE BROCKHOFF

Special to The Star

July 18, 2017 07:00 AM

UPDATED July 18, 2017 07:00 AM

Swordfish Tom’s is a quiet spot, down an alley off West 19th Terrace in the Crossroads Arts District, in what was once the building’s basement boiler room. Once you find it, you knock and wait for the concierge to answer the door. When she does, you’re welcomed into a surprisingly homey space, one more suited to conversation over pre-Prohibition-style cocktails than partying.

Vintage chairs are easily rearranged, Nick Cave plays on the turntable and a biography of Tom Waits, for whom the bar is named, sits on an end table.

Owner Jill Cockson’s great-aunt Meg in her World War II nurse’s uniform is among the black-and-white photos on one wall. A signed Woodford Reserve bourbon barrelhead leans against another, and a trophy from the Diageo/U.S. Bartenders’ Guild Midwest Regional Competition (Cockson was a finalist in 2015 and 2016) sits on the back bar.

“This is like your living room, filled with 30 of your closest friends, and you’re having the most amazing house party,” says Cockson, who built out much of the bar herself with the help of her fiancé, Jake Balcom. Balcom also crafted the bar’s sculptural metal lighting fixtures.

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Her vision for the intimate space is about more than aesthetics. Like other Kansas City bartenders-turned-entrepreneurs — some opening bars, others launching distilleries or bar tool companies — Cockson is bent on building a sustainable business. It simply makes sense for bartenders to create their own opportunities, she says.

“As people get older, they start to think about life, about having a house, about paying for kids’ college, about financial security,” she says. “The only way to have job security is to be independently contractible or to own your own business.”

Cockson drew on two decades of bartending experience when designing Swordfish Tom’s, including her years overseeing The Other Room in Lincoln, Neb., which was a James Beard award semifinalist in 2015. Those who’ve visited that bar will recognize the entrance light (green means seats are available, red means you’ll have to wait), first-come, first-served approach and other elements.

The bar doesn’t serve beer, wine or food, instead focusing on cocktails made with premium spirits and liqueurs and fresh, house-made ingredients.

“We are a distinctly value-added atmosphere,” Cockson says. “People come for what’s here, not for what isn’t.”

Her menu includes drinks such as the Main Street Exorcism I sipped during the bar’s soft opening in June. Made with Tom’s Town Distilling Co.’s McElroy’s Corruption Gin, hibiscus and cubeb pepper syrup, crème de violet and fresh lemon juice, it was shaken and strained into a Green Chartreuse-rinsed and flamed coupe glass and garnished with a candied hibiscus blossom.

Every detail of her business plan is as carefully considered as that drink. Prices (they range from $9 to $16 for a Manhattan made with 10-year-old WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey), seating capacity (30), no wait staff (you order at the bar), operating hours (five nights a week), and a cash-only policy (there’s an ATM on-site) are all calculated to maximize both the guest experience and revenue while minimizing expense.

Even the ice matters. Cockson wanted crystal clear, dense ice in her drinks, and the best way to get that is to make it in one of Clinebell Equipment Co.’s machines. So Cockson bought two.

Each can produce two 300-pound blocks of ice; Cockson needs a hoist to lift them onto a cutting table. She chainsaws the blocks into manageable chunks, then uses a band saw to trim them to serving size before stowing the cubes in her walk-in freezer.

Once Cockson determines the best freezing and cutting techniques, she’ll sell specialty ice to other bars and restaurants. Besides generating additional income, the ice program gives employees the chance to work more hours.

“One of the equations I use, and I put it front and center, is the ability of my staff to make money,” says Cockson, who pays $10 an hour and offers health insurance and profit-sharing. “If I had 60 employees I couldn’t afford that, but I have four.”

Cockson also remains a partner in Rabbit and Turtle Beverage Corp., maker of Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic syrups. She and Balcom also own Bootleg Tools, which will sell handmade bar tools for home and commercial bars, and possibly chefs. And Balcom plans to expand production of custom stainless steel brands fabricated on a 3-D printer that, when heated, can imprint logos or messages on everything from garnishes to coasters.

It’s certainly in line with his skill set. Balcom is both a veteran bartender who works at Rye and a metal sculptor with public installations in Gladstone, Blue Springs and near Swope Park Soccer Village.

“The tool company is something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Balcom says. “It’s a way to combine my two favorite things.”

Still, you can’t do everything at once. Cockson must first get Swordfish Tom’s running smoothly, and Balcom has sculpture commissions to finish before they can expand the ice, brand and tool ventures.

“I think the most difficult thing is trying to have the patience to wait,” Balcom says.

Mike Strohm, bartender, general manager and part-owner at The W Bar in downtown Lee’s Summit, knows that all too well.

The reservations-only bar opened in 2015 and was soon so busy that owner Merideth Veritasi decided to expand. She and Strohm will open Hand in Glove below The W sometime in the next few months, he says, and serve classic cocktails, beer, wine, coffee and small plates.

Classic cocktails at a Speakeasy style bar called The W in Lee's Summit

The W Bar in Lee’s Summit isn’t exclusive, but the door is unmarked and a seat at the bar requires a reservation. Bartender Mike Strohm serves updated classic cocktails, including many cocktails that are smoked on a patent-pending device which sits atop the bar, at this Speakeasy style bar called The W in Lee's Summit.

Tammy Ljungblad The Kansas City Star

Meanwhile, Shane Veritasi, Merideth’s husband, is moving ahead with a blending distillery across the street. Slated to open in 2018, it will produce small batch ingredients like bitters using neutral grain spirits purchased from another local distillery.

A collaborative test kitchen will allow area bartenders to experiment with a centrifuge, heated kettle system, The W’s patent-pending cocktail smoker and other equipment while developing their own products. Veritasi will eventually install his own still but won’t shift that focus.

“We’re not going to be doing anything any other local distilleries do,” he says.

Shane Veritasi and Strohm also own Made Right Tools, which makes jiggers in brass, copper, stainless steel and black finishes. A stirring spoon is in the works, too. Why take on the additional stress of starting something new?

“I’m able to express myself artistically, to take my ideas and take a chance on them,” Strohm says. “If it doesn’t work, I’ve learned from it.”

Working for yourself is about building a future, say Jonathon Bush and Ryan Magnuson. The longtime friends and business partners began their hospitality careers at corporate-owned restaurants, then in 2013 joined the small handful of Kansas City bartenders to earn the prestigious Bar Ready certification from Beverage Alcohol Resource in New York.

They became active in the city’s USBG chapter and then joined the staff at Manifesto, where Bush is now bar manager. It was there that they really learned to craft a cocktail menu, price drinks, train staff and efficiently set up and run a bar, Bush and Magnuson say. In 2015, they parlayed that knowledge into a consulting business called Barrel & Hatchet with the help of mentors, including Liquid Minded Concepts’ Brock Schulte.

Their first project was P.S., a 1930s-style speakeasy in Hotel Phillips, where they refined the bar’s design, developed cocktail menus and trained bartenders. They each work there two days a week overseeing operations, while still pulling full shifts at Manifesto and occasionally teaching cocktail classes or catering parties. The hours are long and physically demanding, Magnuson says, but worth it.

“We’ve already made it a career,” says Magnuson, who says he and Bush hope to one day open their own bar. “Now we want to make it a lifetime.”

To reach freelance spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to blithespiritskc@ kcstar.com.

Resource list

Swordfish Tom’s: 210 W. 19th Terrace; via Facebook, facebook.com/Swordfish-Toms

The W Bar: 6  1/2 W. Third St., Lee’s Summit. 816-287-0000; thew.bar; facebook.com/theprivatebar

Manifesto: 1924 Main St. manifestokc.com

P.S. speakeasy at Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St. hotelphillips.com/ps-speakeasy.html

Made Right Tools: contact via The W Bar; also available at Libations & Co. in Lee’s Summit, givedrink.com

Barrel & Hatchet: barrelandhatchet@gmail.com, facebook.com/barrelandhatchet

Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic: rntbevcorp.com

Jake Balcom Sculpture: jakebalcomsculpture.com

Brave New Bartending

This is the fifth in an ongoing series. Part 1 examines bartender creativity and how it shapes our drinking. Part 2 looks at the ways the hospitality industry tries to stay healthy. Part 3 profiles an artist-bartender whose canvases include items from the bar. Part 4 looks at industry workers’ ongoing efforts to educate themselves about products and trends.