Andrew Ruth, the bar manager at Columbia's Barred Owl Butcher & Table, is a central-Missouri boy. Despite a few years living in Colorado and Illinois with his wife, he has spent most of it in mid-Missouri, much of it in Columbia.
For Ruth, bartending started as something to do when he got sick of serving tables. But it didn't take long for him to fall in love with the craft: not only did it give him his own domain behind the bar, but he found a place to use his creativity and to have a lot of fun.
Ruth has worked at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, Sycamore and a few other mid-Missouri staples, but for the past three years has headed up the bar program at Barred Owl. He's watched it grow, along with his staff, who he says are a big part of the reason he loves his job. He says watching the passion and enthusiasm of his team on a daily basis is what gives him his passion and enthusiasm.
We caught up with Ruth about why Benedictine is his favorite not-so-secret ingredient, the first cocktail he created and his plans to bartender forever.
What is your favorite ingredient to make cocktails with and why? The easy answer here is gin or whiskey. Making cocktails with either of those is a lot of fun and from hard shaken sours to stirred, boozy cocktails, the possibilities are endless. The real answer for me though is Benedictine. It is one of my all-time favorite ingredients and our bartenders refer to it as my bar ketchup because I use it so much for many different cocktails. It is a French herbal liqueur developed by monks using a proprietary blend of flowers, roots, herbs, berries, barks and spices. The result is a beautiful liqueur with incredible honey, warm spice, fruit and herbal notes that works well with virtually all barrel-aged spirits. Countless classic cocktails call for it and I love, love, love it.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? There is no real secret to what I do. Make good cocktails the right way with real ingredients and you pretty much have this bartending thing figured out. We fresh squeeze juice, shrub farmers market produce, make our own bitters, liqueurs and infusions and we utilize the best spirits we can find. The real secret is avoiding artificial flavors and sweeteners and low-quality distillates.
What's your perfect day of eating and drinking in Columbia? This is a tough one as there are so many great restaurants and watering holes in town. I would start with a brunch either at Meriwether Café out in Rocheport or at Cafe Berlin, though Broadway Diner always has the perfect fix for delicious diner food. Lunchtime is probably going to be Booches for a burger and a Stag, but Just Jeff’s has quickly become one of my favorite burgers too. I think Sycamore has one of the most underrated lunches in Columbia and paired with their great beer selection, it might be my favorite lunch spot. You’ll see me frequently at Taqueria el Patron, Pho Quan, 44 Canteen, Bamboo Terrace, Coffee Zone, Billiards, Uprise Bakery or Abigail’s in Rocheport, all of which have fantastic lunches. For dinner, I have to check out Flyover for drinks and shared plates. They have an incredible cocktail program and menu and both Dan, Adam and their crew do a fantastic job every single time I’m there. The wife and I love Cherry Street Cellar, Sycamore or Murry’s for date night, and you know we are almost always going to have our nightcap at Teller’s and possibly one too many beers at Klik’s. But the end-all for me is any event Peachtree Catering puts on. Ben and Amanda crush it and if you are lucky enough to get a seat at one of their Sunday Suppers, you will thank me later for putting you onto it. Absolutely incredible and some of the best dining experiences I have ever had.
How has the local drink scene evolved over the past year? Every year it gets better and better. So many bartenders are finding the passion, putting in the work, reading cocktail books, making stuff from scratch and really pushing the scene forward. I am proud to be a part of it and even more proud to watch the scene grow and the creative artistry unfold in front of us.
Who are some Columbia bartenders, brewers or distillers you admire at the moment? Gotta shout out Dan Dethrow and his entire bartending team at Flyover. Their cocktail game is on point and we love to send people each other’s way for great drinks made the right way. There are so many great bartenders, but to just name a few that I look up to: Aaron Brown at 44 Canteen, Michael De Leon at Boss Taco, Sean Curd and Mike Loesch at Top Ten Wines, Deb Rust at Teller’s, Kelsey Parker at Pressed, Rich Trippler at Addison’s and I’m sure I am missing some too.
Gary Paxton, head distiller at Rocheport Distilling, is a dear friend of mine and he has made some exciting grape brandies and some aged rum I think are truly excellent. Josh [Rein] and MJ [Ivancic] at Logboat make incredible beer, as does Shawn [Oberle] over at Broadway Brewery. Van [Haxwby] at DogMaster [Distillery] makes a truly excellent gin that I love to mix cocktails with.
What do you like to drink at home or on your day off? Beer, whiskey and wine. Lots of it.
What’s your favorite comfort food or drink? I cook up some Wagyu steaks from our butcher shop at least a couple times a month with some potatoes, vegetables and salad from the farmers' market with a nice bottle of red wine. With the kids and my wife at the dinner table, it is truly my happy place and one of my favorite places to be. I also make an Anthony Bourdain recipe for mushroom soup that I absolutely love anytime of the year, and also is phenomenal with those steaks.
If you could tell home bartenders one thing, what would it be? Do whatever you want. Experiment and do crazy stuff or just pour whiskey in a glass. It doesn’t matter. Drink what you like and don’t let other people tell you differently. If you want to make an authentic Old Fashioned, do it. If you want to mix a bunch of juices with rum, do it. If you really care and want to entertain guests, read some cocktail books, practice your shake and your stir, and learn the basics. If you want to step it up, stock the basics like good triple sec, bitters, sugar and fresh lemons and limes.
What is your first cocktail memory? My first cocktail on a menu as a young bartender was pretty silly. It was at Les Bourgeois Bistro on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and it was called the MO River Sunset. It was a cloyingly sweet amalgamation of rums, liqueurs and juice with a sunset effect: essentially, I poured grenadine down the side of the glass and floated blue curacao on top of the otherwise golden drink. It was pretty to look at and a bit of a rookie cocktail in retrospect, but what I loved about it is that once you stirred it all together, it just turned this hideous brown color, to match that mighty Big Muddy River. It was a silly drink that somehow worked because of the location, and I will always remember it fondly.
What’s the most intriguing drink you’ve made recently, and why? I have a fall cocktail on the menu right now I am very excited about called “Does a Pear $#!+ in the Woods”. I wanted to highlight pears and apples and enhance it with a hint of bitterness, fall spice and funk. It gets Toutain Calvados (French apple brandy), Clear Creak Pear-in-the-Bottle Pear Brandy, Big O Ginger Liqueur, Benedictine (of course), Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters and Domaine Sicera “Odette” Poire de Normandie (hard funky cider). Stir everything except the cider, strain, serve up and top with the cider. Garnish by torching the end of a cinnamon stick and drop it in the glass. It is strong, bitter, sweet, kind of funky, slightly effervescent and just a really interesting fall cocktail with a great name.
What inspires your cocktail-making? How do you approach R&D at your bar, and what inspires that process? This is a loaded question and obviously I can just talk and talk and talk, so I will keep this short. I am inspired by bountiful Missouri produce and the changing seasons. Each of our Winged (fully trained) bartenders is encouraged to make any cocktail from anything they are inspired by at any time. I trust them, and that is how our creative process begins. We constantly taste and evaluate cocktails in addition to spirits, beers and wines.
What are your future plans? I plan on bartending forever. Or at least until a Long Island or a vodka water finally pushes me over the edge and I am locked away for the good of the people.
Barred Owl Butcher & Table, 47 E. Broadway, Columbia, Missouri, 573.442.9323, barredowlbutcher.com