Like a lot of ambitious bartenders, Jay Sanders had long kept a list of potential names in his head for the cocktail joint he aspired to eventually open. Drastic Measures was one of many. But once he found the space for his bar — in a small, old building in the small, old suburb of downtown Shawnee — Sanders knew that had to be the name.
“For what we’re doing here, it just really resonated,” Sanders said during a recent happy hour. “We wanted to do cool, progressive drinks — things nobody else was doing in this area. But I didn’t want it to be so fancy that we weren’t still a neighborhood cocktail bar. So: drastic things, but in a measured way. Also, it’s a good pun on stirring drinks.
“It wasn’t until later,” Sanders added, “that I learned ‘Drastic Measures’ is also the name of an album by the band Kansas.”
Along with three other partners — Derick and Shelley Shackelford (who own the building) and Jill Cockson (who owns several bars, including Swordfish Tom’s, in the Crossroads) — Sanders opened Drastic Measures in the summer of 2020, an inopportune time for an intimate bar. But its reputation for excellent drinks spread quickly to locals in its Johnson County suburb, to cocktail geeks, and eventually to the James Beard Foundation, which earlier this spring declared Drastic Measures a finalist for Outstanding Bar.
In other words, a little bar in Shawnee is up for the equivalent of an Academy Award for the best bar in America.
“We’ve never even won a local award for best bar,” Sanders said, “so it sort of feels like we’re running before walking.”
It’s one of two Kansas City-area establishments that are finalists for the James Beard Awards, to be announced June 5.
Sanders’ path in the service industry has taken him from an Outback Steakhouse on nearby Johnson Drive to Room 39 in midtown, to a Florida cocktail bar, to Crossroads cocktail bars SoT and Manifesto, where he served as general manager before leaving to open Drastic Measures. “I just never found another job that gave me as much joy as running a bar,” he said.
There are quirks to the place that may feel foreign to first-timers. Though Drastic Measures is not a speakeasy, it carries certain echoes of Manifesto, the now-closed basement bar that started the Kansas City cocktail boom more than a decade ago.
Its outdoor sign is subtle. Inside, the bar’s a tad dark, though you can easily see across the 45-seat room. And between the street door and the door that leads into the bar is a small lobby outfitted with two lights, one red and one green. Red means they’re at capacity; come back later. Green means you may rap on the door knocker, at which point a staff member will greet you and lead you to your seats.
It is also a spirits-only joint; no food, wine or beer. Nor will you spot behind the slim, six-seat bar the familiar brands of liquor that line most bar shelves in America. Instead, there are dozens and dozens of identical dark bottles with white labels. They contain gins and mezcals, rums and herbal liqueurs — some of which are household names. But customers can’t scan over the bartender’s shoulder for their favorite whiskey. That’s the point.
“I was inspired by a bar in London that I saw doing this,” Sanders said. “I like how clean it looks, and also I was tired of doing free advertising for billion-dollar companies. But it also changes the dynamic of the conversation between bartender and customer. It’s a way to help us curate your experience a little more. We’re a little like librarians in that way. You can use us as a resource because we know what we’re talking about.”
The cocktail menu, which is ever-changing, has 14 drinks, all priced at $13. Among the more popular is the Kill Bill, a tequila concoction made with ginger, pineapple, thai chile and salt. “That is the only one that’s very secure in its place on our menu, forever,” Sanders said.
His current favorite is the Pony Boy, which contains blueberry infused Suze, white rum, falernum, soursop and lime. “Suze is this super bitter aromatic liqueur that takes over drinks,” Sanders said, “so it’s fun and challenging to figure out ways to make it more approachable. And this one really works.”
Though Drastic Measures is a lean operation, with just five employees, you’re less likely to see Sanders behind the bar lately than Justin Burnell, an employee who recently became an equity partner in the bar. Sanders has been working for the past year to open Wild Child, the sister bar next door that will serve food, beer and wine, in addition to cocktails. It will also specialize in low- and no-alcohol drinks.
“I’m hesitant to put a date on it,” Sanders said of Wild Child’s opening, “but it will be sometime this summer.”
One date Sanders is firm on: Monday, June 5, the day the Beard Foundation announces the winners in Chicago. Don’t bother stopping by Drastic Measures on Saturday; the staff will be in the Windy City by then.
“We’re gonna close down and party in Chicago for the weekend,” Sanders said. “We have no illusions that we’re going to win, but we’re very honored to be there.”