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Mixologist John Kinder

mk | Chicago


John Kinder has a degree in public relations and an MBA, and he’s focusing his creativity, industry savvy and culinary talent on the bar at Chicago’s mk. Kinder infuses his spirits using sous vide, finishes his drinks with aromatic tinctures, and embraces ingredients – like oysters, sweet potatoes, and pecans – that rarely make the jump from the savory kitchen to the bar.

Kinder quit his day job to bartend professionally in 2005. He began by building a bar program at Moxie in Wrigleyville in Chicago, and then headed to The Pump Room, a Chicago institution in the Ambassador Hotel. We first met him there, as he was replacing Apple Pucker Appletinis with fresh apple juice martinis spiked with clove and nutmeg tinctures. Needless to say, we were impressed. The crowd at The Pump Room loved their Apple Pucker a little more than they should, but at mk he’s found a team, and a clientele, that are ready for his hyper-creative approach to beverages.

Kinder and Erick Simmons, mk’s executive chef, are throwing weekly “Spirited Dinners” – multi-course affairs revolving around cocktail and food pairings. And Kinder is borrowing the kitchen’s equipment – the vacuum sealer and immersion circulator, most often – to rapidly infuse the neutral grain spirits he uses as the base of many of his seasonal drinks. And true to his PR background, he sends out a monthly newsletter about what’s shaking behind his bar.  


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Heather Sperling: What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology?
John Kinder: When I was in the public relations industry, I read Dale DeGroff and Gary Regan’s books and I thought: “that’s it.” I want to take care of people and create and do service. I’m proud to say that I bartend professionally. That’s how it was before prohibition. And it’s really coming back.

HS: What style of mixology do you practice? Do you use any specific or unusual techniques?
JK: At MK we like using classic and contemporary tasting techniques together, in savory, pastry, and at the bar. We have sous vide apparatus right next to a hardwood grill, and we have fun with that combination.

HS: Where would you most like to go for culinary travel?
JK: I’d go to France by way of London. They’re doing a lot of cool stuff from what I’ve seen with a very thoughtful approach to food and drink. When prohibition hit, all the top bartenders went to London.

HS: Do you have any thoughts on the pairing of cocktails with food?
JK: What I like about cocktails with food is that you can tweak a little bit here and there, whether it’s body, acid or sweetness. It’s very malleable.

HS: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JK: Rosewater, vanilla, and lavender. During winter I did a clove grapefruit sour. I’m also currently smoking blood oranges – we’re smoking a lot of things in house.

HS: What is your favorite drink to make?
JK: I like making these Pear Fumes. I like the tincture thing at the end that a lot of people aren’t used to. I like when people give me questionable looks when I’m making a drink.

HS: What is your favorite drink to drink?
JK: I like a dry Manhattan with orange bitters, but I mostly drink French farmhouse ale when I go out.

HS: What is your philosophy on mixology?
JK: I take recent and classic drinks and update them with fresh and seasonal components. I also use savory tools in the bar setting.

HS: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
JK: I see a lot of molecular mixology going on. I’ve been working with agar-agar to make chestnut syrup with dark rum in the shape of a sphere. I use rooibos red tea with cinnamon and cloves to make hot toddies. The tea liquefies the chestnut-rum sphere and it becomes very thick and warming. I see a lot of watermelon, mint, and passion fruit. Mojitos are dying down, and I see a lot more champagne stuff. I’m using wine in a cocktail on my current list.

HS: What goes into creating a new cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
JK: I have most of my basic recipes down, and I adjust them as I see fit. The menu changes on a weekly basis, or every few weeks.

HS: What inspires you when creating a new drink?
JK: Usually inspirations come in the form of the farmers’ market in summer, cocktail books, and recipes that guests send me. One customer sent me pictures of a drink from China to make on his return.

HS: What organizations do you belong to?
JK: I’m historian for the Illinois chapter of the US Bartenders Guild.

\HS: What languages do you speak?
JK: A little Italian and a bit of Thai.

HS: What would you be doing if you weren’t a mixologist?
JK: I’d be a cheese maker in France. I do have a cheese drink in mind – I want to pickle French hazelnuts and use the pickling juice in a cocktail to pair with cheese.

HS: Which person in history would you most like to go for drinks with?
JK: I’d go with Thomas Jefferson. He was a Renaissance man of the time, and a totally fascinating person.

HS: What is your long term goal?
JK: To own my own place that serves bar and food while spending enough time with family and friends. I want to live and work overseas. I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves with mixology because there are hundreds of classic cocktails that we’re ignoring. I want to work overseas and learn the classics. I think there’s more out there to learn before I make my statement.

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   Published: April 2008