Lined with turn-of-the-century architecture and well-manicured foliage, downtown Lawrence, Kansas, presents itself as a straightforward place to grab a pitcher of beer and catch a KU game. But on an unassuming alley corner, down a set of 130-year-old stairs, an unused-looking service entrance leads to John Brown’s Underground, a bar offering inspired cocktails that defy expectations.
Operating partner Dante Colombo sees opportunity rather than limitation in this Midwestern college town, where even a cocktail ice program is a DIY endeavor. “Like a lot of people, we do this because the value of complete and total creative freedom is so important to us,” he says. “If we decide we want to do something, we basically have to figure it out ourselves.” This freedom has created a rum-focused cocktail program with playful drinks, set against the dim candlelight and low ceilings of a speakeasy-style space focused on “concentrating flavors and translating disparate pieces into a cohesive whole,” according to Colombo.
Each menu at John Brown’s Underground begins with a theme, from iconic chair design to weather phenomena. Bartender and art director Cammie Mitchener’s menu design comes next, and is used as inspiration for the cocktails that follow. “The design drives the content,” says Colombo. “The drink-making has to happen, if not after the artwork, at least in conjunction with it.” This method lends the staff a narrative starting point for creation. With Mitchener’s images spread in front of them, the bar team asks, What kind of person belongs in this scene? What would they drink?
But a few select drinks transcend their respective themes. The bar’s Let Me Be Clear has become a house staple through four menus, and exhibits the bar’s typical subversion of expectations. Inspired by the Jungle Bird, it appears not as a frothy red concoction, but as a twinkling yellow mixture poured over a crystal-clear ice cube. It reveals itself in keen citrus notes that melt into grassy molasses, and pops with a crisp, bitter finish. “This drink, more than any other, defines how we think about drinks,” says Colombo.
Let Me Be Clear, like many of the bar’s cocktails, points to his conflicted love of rum classics. “I’d long been a fan of Jungle Birds, but also felt like the original is a little inefficient,” he says. “It’s really cool, but is it best serving the Venn diagram of sweet, sour and bitter?”
To answer this question, Colombo began tinkering with the drink for the Revisionist Histories menu, a theme that sought to re-envision cocktail eras through the ages. He worried that the combined water content of the pineapple juice, lime juice and ice muted the subtler flavors of the ingredients. His solution came in the form of one particularly complex ingredient: clarified, acidified pineapple gomme syrup. “It’s a multiday, multifaceted process, but to remove all the extra water in the drink, I had to combine three elements of the classic into one,” he explains.
First, the pineapple juice is mixed with an agar-agar solution, which bonds with the particulate matter in the juice. After a night in the freezer, the resulting yellow ice block is thawed and strained, losing much of its color and pulp along the way. The remaining juice is blended with gum arabic for added texture, combined with sugar, then cooked sous vide at low heat to avoid caramelizing the juice. Finally, the addition of citric acid brings the pH to lime’s level. The process yields a silky syrup, the color of Suze, that supplies sweetness, acidity and body all in one—and provides the only hint of color in the finished drink.
The syrup is joined in the glass by a trio of rums, fittingly led by Tattersall clear blackstrap rum alongside Clairin Le Rocher, which Colombo describes as having “barbecue pineapple notes,” and Rum Fire, with its signature overripe banana flavor. Luxardo Bitter Bianco replaces the traditional Campari to add the expected bitterness without the expected color. “We wanted something that was rich without being sweet, that lets each rum become something more than the sum of its parts,” says Colombo, “and it’s formed the template for how we approach drinks.”
Now this piece of revisionist history sets the tone for the future of John Brown’s Underground. The drink serves as an artistic access point into a new theme for Mitchener with every new menu. “Once we nail down a concept,” she says, “the first place my mind goes is, What’s the Let Me Be Clear going to be?”