Every time David Manica arrived in a new city on a work trip, it seemed there was a particular cocktail bar—glamorous, intimate, and showcasing a menu of clever drinks—that impressed him. As the president of Manica Architecture in Kansas City, Kansas, which has outposts in London and Shanghai, Manica has a knack for designing large public assembly buildings, like the Las Vegas NFL Stadium and the San Diego Stadium + Convention Center, in locales from the U.S. to Albania and Malaysia. After numerous visits to design-forward bars across the globe, Manica says he was driven to create one himself in Kansas City.
A lucky haircut appointment led Manica’s barber to introduce him to Brock Schulte, a well-regarded local bartender who was also interested in starting a sophisticated cocktail bar in the area. Schulte, who was head bartender at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange—and had worked at the Drum Room and M&S Grill before that—proved to be the ideal bar manager and partner to help Manica execute the plan.
Manica envisioned a cocktail bar that would illuminate the various migratory patterns undertaken by monarch butterflies across North America and sometimes Europe. The manifestation of this creative vision, The Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge, opened last August in the Country Club Plaza shopping district, near the luxe Fontaine Hotel, to much fanfare. These days The Monarch is regularly packed with both locals and tourists.
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“Even though Kansas City has a great food and drink culture,” says Manica, “there was an opportunity for something elevated, like a high-end bar [you’d find] in West London.” Using his architectural savvy, he translated this idea into an upscale design that accentuates the monarch theme through such highlights as a chandelier comprising 1,000 sculpted, acrylic butterflies, made in collaboration with the Kansas City Art Institute and a hand-painted triptych of a monarch evocative of the Baroque style.
Manica wanted The Monarch to “have a social atmosphere” and to feel like a living room. To help create this effect, he designed the bar area with open sight lines—and without a backbar to distract patrons with a wall of liquor bottles. There’s a large white wraparound marble bar in the middle of the room where guests face each other and bartenders take center stage. “From a cocktail perspective,” Schulte explains, “the biggest challenge was not having a backbar with a 50-drink menu. We have a couple of syrups, bitters, and tinctures on the bar rail, but we had to get creative with our presentation. Everything is batched and stored underneath the bar.”
Beyond this core space, with its velvet banquettes, fireplace flanked by bookshelves, and herringbone-patterned wood floor, there is a glass-covered terrace and the swanky Parlour—a candlelit, invitation-only lair outfitted with rare spirits, member lockers, and its own list of cocktails that honor the works of literary greats. The Parlour’s current menu, for instance, pays homage to Edgar Allan Poe with drinks like the Pit and the Pendulum (Germain-Robin Heirloom Apple Brandy, Laird’s Straight Applejack Brandy, cherry-apple cider grenadine, roasted apple-infused verjus, and malic acid). Just over $2 million was spent on the final build-out of the Monarch. Its opulent design, however, would be futile if the approach to the drinks wasn’t equally bold and well-conceived.
Schulte embraced—and helped develop—the concept of a cocktail program based on the monarch butterfly’s migratory patterns. Drinks evoke distinct flight paths, with ingredients from the flyover regions frequently playing starring roles. For example, the Silver Dollars & Half-Light Skies (applewood-smoked J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey, Yunnan black tea–infused Tabacal Rancio, barrel-aged cream soda reduction, and No. 22 Boondock Bitters) is a nod to the Middle America route, and the Monarch Planter’s Punch (Foursquare 2004 Single Blended Rum, J.M Gold Rhum, J. Wray Silver Rum, banana-mango chile de arbol, tepache, and Crane Brewing Seasonal Gose) conjures the Atlantic Coast. Additionally, Monarch’s cocktails are complemented by rich details, from the artfully illustrated menu conceived by local designer Charlie Burt—which draws attention to glassware specs and latitude and longitude coordinates for the particular locations on the migratory paths that spawned each drink—to the butterfly-stamped ice.
Burt, a friend of Schulte’s, does a lot of design work for restaurants and liquor labels. For the immersive Monarch project, which Burt says was influenced in part by the character of Indiana Jones, he sifted through numerous references with the intention of bringing a journalistic perspective to the menu, treating it “almost like a travel guide or [the diary of] an anthropological journey.” A full book was important to the partners, he says, adding that it’s another enticement that immediately “wraps people up in the bar.”
Classic cocktails, as well as half a dozen versions of the Negroni featuring ingredients like patchouli- and oakmoss-infused Aperol or bitter lemon soda, round out the selections. This month, the spring menu, which continues to celebrate the monarch’s journey, features intriguing new additions, including the Waikiki Surf Club, whose Thai basil–infused Nikka Gin and pineapple-mango-bergamot cordial telegraph the tropics.
“It’s an ambitious cocktail menu,” says Manica. “It’s longer than most I find in other bars, but there’s a story and a little bit of art behind every drink. You won’t read it cover to cover the first time. It’s a story that you can come back to and learn more next time.”
The ultimate goal, says Schulte, is “to have a 20-second conversation with a guest and find a drink for them just by asking, ‘Where do you like to vacation? Which part of the world inspires you?’”
Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.