Perched on a corner of the prime thoroughfare of Broadway Market in East London, Kansas Smitty’s is a small and unassuming jazz and blues bar, tucked neatly downstairs within the ever-popular ‘Off Broadway Bar’ (a bar modelled on NYC’s East Village, with Mexican street food menu, American beers and cocktails). Snake your way down the back of Off Broadway through the crowd, and head downstairs through the eclectic retro décor. Good move, team! You’ve found Kansas Smitty’s: a covert, moody haven of all-round good vibes.
We were invited to get a taster of Kansas Smitty’s new weekly night on Thursdays, The Shed. A fun and forward-thinking event that challenges and delights listeners with an ever-changing list of performers curated to entertain, enlighten, and take you out of your musical comfort zone. Alas, due to overflowing diaries we sadly missed out on The Shed that week; so we indulged in a Saturday session. The place was relatively empty upon our 7:00pm arrival. I wondered if we were in for a relaxing night with a blues-guitarist playing solely to us… a private show for the Sharkers? I was wrong – Kansas Smitty’s quickly packed out, and it was sublime.
A small, bright & funky bar area greets you upon entrance (as do the considerably cool & clued-up bar staff). Lined with shelves of jazz and blues vinyl’s, alluring liquor and branded tins (I shall elaborate on those in a moment), you’re all set to dive right into the new cocktail menu. Dim lighting is offset on either side of the space and cosy bench seating lines the walls. At the far end, a small stage area crammed with instruments (complete with house piano, naturally) sets the tone for the night.
This is because Smitty’s has two major selling points – jazz and juleps. The former obviously isn’t to some people’s taste. And the same might be said for the julep too – if those people actually know what one is…. My sipping companion and I weren’t entirely sure either, despite both thinking we’d had them in the past. But the best we could come up with was that it was a bit like a mojito – lots of ice and mint, and then what? Bourbon? Scotch? Gin?
Well, it turns out, anything you like – this is cocktail-making at its most inclusive.
Smitty’s has taken this Southern US staple and run with it – there’s four different twists and they are ever rotating. They all cost a cool £8 and are served in the ‘traditional’ tin can. As the friendly bar staff explained, this is apparently how Confederate soldiers in the southern US would drink their juleps. I liked the idea – it seems likely that soldiers would have lots of tins lying around, so why not mix up a cocktail in one? That probably makes less sense when you start to think about where they might have got all the ice or mint… But hey, there does seem to be a tradition of having juleps in pewter or silver cups, so why not have this as a cheap alternative? It beats drinking out of a jam jar for a change. Just don’t think about where all the tins come from when the house cat comes round to play.
There’s a real range of juleps on offer here. And all of them sound enticing enough that you want to try to the entire list – which you probably should do, given the difference the choice of liquor can make to the overall experience. There’s probably something for everyone.
The Allotment, a gin-based julep, has a lot of garden-based ingredients, particularly apple and elderflower which are lovely and subtle when they come through, although they are often overwhelmed by a lot of carrot.
The Jesuits bark, which is apparently named after a malarial cure, is the rum-based option, and has lots of citrusy lime and grapefruit juice flavourings. The addition of cloves gives it a wintery, Christmas feels, but the sharpness of the fruits stops this being cloying.
Sleepy-time is a bit of a misnomer for something as sweet as the scotch-based option. This is far more likely to give you the energy to try the rest of the list, rather than slope off to bed. The hints of camomile are lost, but actually the scotch and mint was a bit of an eye-opener. Perhaps the name is meant to suggest that a snifter after you’ve brushed your teeth actually isn’t such a bad idea. Although obviously only in the evening – that morning one should wait.
The Smitty’s julep is probably the nearest to a classic recipe. There’s a mellow cassia bark undertone to the whole thing, but really this is about the mint. Sprigs of which also form a canopy over the tin. You’ll feel like a jungle explorer trying to get through to the drink, but hey, why not get a sense of achievement from your drink? And I bet Bear Gryll’s drinks out of a tin sometimes. Although I’d probably prefer to have what’s in this one than his foraged infusion.
Smitty’s has also started branching out into a wider cocktail list, which they’ve just launched late-March.
The most notable of these was the Hard Times – yet another twist on an old fashioned. Normally being of the mind-set that messing with the classic is more likely to get you into trouble than result in success, it’s very nice to say that this is a bit of a winner. The difference this time is the hint of Nocello (a spirit combining walnuts & hazelnuts) and the bitterness of Bold spirit; one worries that this could turn the mixture into an overly Christmassy mess, but it evidently gives even more warmth to the smoky quality of the Wild Turkey. It’s a beautiful concoction.
The fragrant & orgeat-infused First Dance also features, if a julep isn’t to your taste. It’s probably the most decadent cocktail on offer consisting of Courvoisier VSOP infused with raspberry, peach, tonka bean, orgeat and topped with prosecco. Invigorating, sweet and stimulating. This went down a treat, so I had another.
But actually the success of these drinks is only half the story. Heading to Smitty’s on a Saturday is as much about the entertainment as the cocktails. We know jazz isn’t for everyone, but the band that night put on a great show, varying the sound almost as much as the ingredients to the juleps. It was a cosy experience – you should expect to share a table if you’re in a small group – but it was a friendly affair, with nobody shutting you down for having a bit of a chat, or getting too involved with the drum solo. As a wise man once said, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life” and if that’s not what you’re after on a Saturday night in London then I don’t wanna know ya. Sorry, that was harsh. But true.
So, if we had to sum up the experience overall?
CONTACT: Kansas Smitty’s – 63-65 Broadway Market, London E8 4PH. Website.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 6pm–12am
Lucy grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, moved to Melbourne in 2010, and moved to London in 2015. When she’s not busy travelling, she indulges in her other favourite pastime: exploring this amazing city, one restaurant or bar at a time. Always keen to hunt out delicious cuisine at a good price, unique hidden gems and of course, a touch of decadence for those days when you just gotta treat yo’self. Weaknesses include, but are not limited to: Pinot Noir, dark chocolate, IPA & blue cheese.