Bartender’s Notebook: At the W bar, Mike Strohm’s cocktails are the best kinds of show and tell

Mike Strohm raises the butcher’s knife over his head. When he brings it down in front of him, there’s a sickening crack. He raises his arm and slams the blade down again, then again, and again.

The ice block in front of him doesn’t stand a chance.

Finally, Strohm — having bashed an impressive cube from the block, then shaved it down to fit the Burgundy glass that he has selected — sets down his tool. His work as a gleeful executioner over for now, he returns to the project at hand: assembling one of his signature cocktails, called Giggle Water.

As Strohm builds the drink, I observe his work space. He and co-owner Merideth Veritasi opened the W bar six weeks ago, billing it as a speakeasy and making it appropriately less than obvious. It’s not hard to miss the door at 6-1/2 Southwest Third Street, in downtown Lee’s Summit. There’s an intercom, then a short walk up a dark, narrow stairway before the W’s handsome room reveals itself.

The W seats just 38 people, and not necessarily in maximum comfort. The stools and chairs are luxurious but mustered tightly together. Strohm says this hasn’t stopped the bar from filling up — and staying full — on the two nights a week it’s open for business: Friday and Saturday. (Thursdays are coming soon.)

I’ve come to visit Strohm on a Monday, and I see that the W, for him, is very much a full-time job. He’s here five days a week, making his cocktail menu’s syrups, bitters, vermouths and tonics — “basically everything except the alcohol,” he says. And when he’s not at the W, he’s tending his expansive home garden, which provides nearly all of his ingredients.

“Whatever I can grow, I grow,” Strohm says. “It’s kind of taken over my life. I grow the food that I eat, that my kids eat. Everything comes from my own garden. For me, using those in my drinks makes a difference, not just in the quality but also in my own happiness.”

And what he doesn’t raise himself is not without labor: “I get my honeycomb from a beekeeper in Independence, so I have to drive down and meet her every week and bring it up here, break the honey down. I’m not big enough where I can call in for my deliveries. I have to go pick it all up.”

In time, he adds, he’ll grow his own citrus trees. Right now, he’s planning a greenhouse, which he wants to construct. Next spring, he’s building beehives for the roof of the W’s building — a tricky plan, considering Strohm’s severe bee allergy.

His dedication and the bar’s homeyness are evident as he mixes my drink. In front of him are Mason jars and other receptacles filled with curious contents: honeycomb, whole ginger root, cocoa nibs.

“Prep here is more than just cutting lemons and limes,” he tells me as he puts the finishing touches on the Giggle Water.

What he hands me is a neon-orange liquid, garnished with a few delicate, minuscule flowers. It consists of Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, a house floral tonic, orange flower water, rose water and a splash of soda. It could pass for an Aperol Spritz, and there are a few flavor similarities: citrus, hints of bubblegum. But Strohm’s creation keeps giving with every sip, delivering gentle spices and subtle lemongrass.


He’s pleased to hear my report of these flavors. That house tonic water, he explains, is made with lemongrass, rose petals, orange flower petals, cardamom and coriander. He describes the process in scientific details. I continue drinking.

Next, Strohm makes me something that’s not on his menu; he wants to try out a favorite new product, Averell Damson Gin Liqueur, which is made with damson plums. It contains muddled honey and peach, and the liquid this time is a deeper color, pinkish-orange.

Here, the plum notes and peach juices wed lavishly. I feel like I have just taken a bite of the most perfectly ripe piece of fruit. I approve of Strohm’s name for the drink: James and the Giant Peach.

Nearly a year ago, when Strohm was still tending bar at ’37 Steak — the upscale restaurant at Harrah’s Casino — he developed a smoked-bourbon cocktail using a slab of apple wood. Today, he’s working up a spinoff of that drink, this time using mezcal and jalapeños.

Strohm muddles honey and sliced jalapeños, then adds Mezcal Vago, lime juice and dry curaçao. He shakes and strains all this into a rocks glass containing another custom-cut ice cube, then places the glass on the apple wood. He torches the wood and traps the rising smoke with a glass globe. This process he repeats several times over the next few minutes before deeming the cocktail — which he calls the Furies — complete.

At first, all I get is heat — a lot of heat. Then the smoke flavor, which, when it comes, is rich. The finish is a pleasantly sour pucker.

I tell Strohm that I find the drink a touch confounding, but I assure him that this is in no way a refusal to drink it. Strohm wonders aloud whether he should have added more peppers. He looks eager to tinker further.

“This gives me the chance to do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to dork out back here and experiment,” he tells me. “Basically, this is a blessing for me.”

1-3/4 ounces Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin
1-1/2 ounces house floral tonic
3 drops orange flower water
3 drops rose water

Strohm: Shake all ingredients, strain into glass. Fill with soda water, garnish with seasonal floral petals.

1-1/2 ounces house plum tonic
1 ounce Averell Damson Gin Liqueur
3/4 ounce Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
1/4 ounce honey
6 peach slices

Strohm: Muddle peach and honey, add other ingredients. Shake, strain, fill with soda water, garnish with peach. slices.

2 ounces Mezcal Vago
1-3/4 ounces lime juice
1/4 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
2 slices jalapeño
1/4 ounce honey

Strohm: Muddle jalapeño slices and honey, add other ingredients. Shake and double-strain over rocks. Smoke with apple wood. Garnish with jalapeño slices. 

See also: 
Bartender’s Notebook: At Rye, Julie Ohno masterminds more than just drinks 
Bartender’s Notebook: Peeking into the Bristol’s Porthole cocktails
Bartender’s Notebook: Julep’s Katy Wade finds a strong helper for whiskey
Bartender’s Notebook: At Cleaver & Cork, Andrew Olsen and Rachel Freeman are swimming in bourbon
Bartender’s Notebook: At the Farmhouse, Margot Thompson helps me forget construction headaches

Categories: Music