At Journeyman Café, Andy Niemeyer’s drinks cater to the regulars

The drink list at Journeyman Café isn’t meant to impress with fantastical ingredients or complicated recipes. The goal, bar manager Andy Niemeyer insists, is to lend an air of familiarity and ease. These are not cocktails, he tells me, that should need much explaining.

Yet, I require detailed explanations. The drink menu is separated between various highball options — three each of mules, simple preps (a spirit plus tonic or syrup) and specialty preps — and five specialty cocktails. There’s also a single rotating bottled-cocktail offering.

“It was really important that this list be accessible, no matter what you’re in the mood for,” Niemeyer says. “The wine list is pretty straightforward. When it came to beer, we went for good, local and regional examples of styles. What we essentially did with the beer was draw a line from Kansas City to St. Louis and have that be our radius, and get everything — as much as we could — from within that radius. With the cocktails, it’s just ensuring that there’s something that’s going to make everybody feel comfortable. And at the end of the day, if all you want’s an Old Fashioned, I want people to be able to come in and say, ‘Oh, man, they make a really great Old Fashioned.’”

Indeed, whiskey has a strong presence on Niemeyer’s menu, but as I survey his back bar, I find that his selection isn’t particularly deep — not in whiskey or in any one spirit specifically. That’s not to say the product is lacking: Niemeyer has good taste, and anyone wandering into this neighborhood joint would have no problem selecting an old (or new) favorite from the well-selected spread.

Journeyman relies on its neighbors wandering in. Located on the fringes of the West Plaza, this coffee shop-restaurant combination can be a destination — but more often, it’s a stop on the way to or from work. Father-son partners George and Kit Boje — along with help from the rest of the Boje family — opened Journeyman in early May with the hope that it would become a neighborhood institution, and the eatery’s versatility speaks to that aspiration.

The café side — boasting Messenger coffee, Alchemy cold brew and a rotating selection of local pastries — is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. most days, with the restaurant side running a modest lunch program. The dining room and 10-seat bar are in full swing by the time the restaurant opens back up for happy hour at 4 p.m.

The restaurant is in hues of brown: tan walls, with dark chairs and an eye-catching copper-plated wall that wraps around the hallway leading into the kitchen. Décor is simple — a large canvas featuring a black-and-white depiction of an American flag hangs on one wall — and the bar dominates the room.

It’s the perfect stage for Niemeyer to show off his skills. We start with a highball — these, Niemeyer says, are lower in alcohol content and meant to be hot-weather drinks. We would call them patio pounders, he jokes, if Journeyman had a patio. The Specialty #2 is a riff on Niemeyer’s beloved Old Fashioned, boasting J. Rieger & Co. whiskey and Amontillado sherry, but the star of this cocktail turns out to be the house-made coffee cordial.

“Since we’re attached to the café, we like to make use of that product as much as we can,” Niemeyer says. “We’ll take the leftover drip coffee and cook that down with granulated sugar, cinnamon and clove.”

I’ll give Niemeyer points for marrying the Rieger whiskey, which is already made with a loving spoonful of Oloroso sherry, with Amontillado. The second is a drier, more acidic sherry, and the two play well together. But I’m more than a little impressed with this coffee cordial: It’s an entire spice rack in a glass, and it sings with every sip.

For our second cocktail, Niemeyer suggests the Kimono Ribbons. I’m a sucker for stories, and this drink has a good one.

“That’s the first cocktail that made it on this list,” Niemeyer says. “It brings the narrative of this place together in a way. This place used to be a yarn shop and knitting studio, and down in our liquor storage was where they kept the yarn. One day, we were down there and I noticed this box of yarn marked ‘kimono ribbons.’ The phrase really stuck with me, and I started thinking about Japanese whiskey, and how that could work in a drink, and how we could sort of tell the story of this restaurant through that cocktail.”

For his Kimono Ribbons, Niemeyer stirs together Iwai Japanese Whisky, curaçao (a citrus liqueur), Genepy des Alpes (a herbal French liqueur) and Luxardo maraschino liqueur. This he presents in a rocks glass, over a large ice cube. There is a rather creative garnish to this cocktail: a sprig of rosemary tucked into a ribbon of yarn, tied in a childlike bow around the glass. Is this the eponymous “kimono ribbons” yarn Niemeyer discovered in storage?

“Maybe,” he tells me, smiling lightly. He’s a bit more forthcoming when I ask him for some background on the Iwai.

“Iwai is from the Mars Shinshu distillery,” Niemeyer says. “It’s the highest-altitude distillery in Japan, up in the Japanese Alps. Iwai makes a couple different expressions of their whisky, and this one trends toward a drier, peatier profile — almost like a Scotch versus the sweeter profile that an American bourbon would have.”

Unlike the Rieger whiskey, which is a blend of corn, malt and rye (plus that touch of sherry), Iwai is all malted barley. There’s a dry heat and a scratchiness to it that I tend to avoid when I seek out dark spirits, but it is rendered beautifully in Niemeyer’s Kimono Ribbons. Thanks to Niemeyer’s light hand, this cocktail avoids a complicated palate (which I had feared, given the ingredients) in favor of a sophisticated, slightly sweet profile, with hints of pine. If I were a person who went on fall hikes, this is the drink I would want to fortify my excursion.

For our final cocktail, I ask Niemeyer to take a detour off the menu. There’s a bottle of Bärenjäger — German honey liqueur — on the shelf behind him — an ingredient I’ve noticed trending lately in drink recipes, one that Niemeyer says is easily worked into whiskey or vodka-based cocktails. But my role switches now to devil’s advocate — or perhaps just finicky guest — and I request a cocktail that pairs Bärenjäger with a spirit from the agave family.

Niemeyer takes to the challenge with glee, and I watch as he quickly assembles a lineup of bottles, then narrows his options. There’s a bit of bartender show-and-tell with some neighboring bar guests as Niemeyer rinses a rocks glass in Bärenjäger and holds it over a small heap of toasted coriander. In the end, Niemeyer’s Nuevo Miel — “new honey” — combines Bärenjäger, Nuestra Soledad Mezcal, a house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, and angostura bitters for a shaken cocktail, strained over ice into that rocks glass and topped with sparkling wine.

The peach-colored liquid is flirty, but Niemeyer surprises me: The coriander gives the drink a palpable char — it hits my nostrils before I even taken a sip — and the flavors carry more bite and acidity than sugar. For all of the aggressive ingredients, the Nuevo Miel turns out to be perfectly well-mannered.

As Niemeyer and I talk, Journeyman’s bar has filled up. Niemeyer seems to know everyone who sits down.

“Neighbors,” he says with a sweep of the hand at his patrons. How nice it must be, I think, to be a neighbor here.


Journeyman Café
1121 West 47th Street
Open Tuesday through Saturday, with happy hour starting at 4 p.m. daily.
For hours, see journeymankc.com.

Categories: Food & Drink