At first glance the KC Ice Water seems like a crude dorm room concoction born of boredom and desperation—and for all we know that may be true. Not much is known of the drink’s origin and, though it’s been around for at least a decade, it’s still a relatively obscure cocktail.
Attempting to track down where it came from leads to a number of theories originating in various cities across the U.S., from Philadelphia to Iowa City to somewhere in North Carolina—but oddly not to the Midwestern metropolis for which it’s named.
“If I had to guess at its backstory, I would imagine that it was just the simple combo of two very common drinks—possibly to tone down the stronger flavors of a Gin & Tonic for a college palate,” says Scott Beskow, head bartender at Grünauer in Kansas City, who first served the drink at a bar called The Vine in Iowa City back in 1994. “Possibly the patron who liked the drink or the bartender who made it had a connection to KC, and followed the template of Long Island Iced Tea and gave it the rather simple name. Obviously that is pure conjecture, but I bet it was something like that.” He also theorizes that the name could very well be a slight against locals. As he noted to The Pitch, the drink looks vaguely like “murky water.”
“The original that I had at The Vine was well vodka, well gin, soda and tonic off the gun, served in a plastic cup with a lime garnish,” says Beskow. More recently, he included it on the menu at the now-defunct M&S Grill in Kansas City. “I just upgraded to better spirits, bottled tonic, soda, and fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice with a wedge of each fruit as garnish in a pint glass—nothing really game changing.”
At this point, where the drink came from is just a side note. Kansas City bartenders have embraced it as an approachable remedy for the nightmarish summer weather and offer plenty of variations that don’t include even a hint of 7-Up or gun tonic.
The version that Cohrs and Schulte have on tap combines a traditional gin and vodka base with blanc vermouth, which has a touch of sweetness, and a few dashes of fino sherry. They adiculate the concoction with citric acid powder for a finishing twinge of citrus and serve it over crushed ice. “We wanted to find that acidity, add a little texture and balance and complexity,” says Schulte.
Cohrs adds, “Sure, it’s a Vodka-Soda-Gin-and-Tonic, but there are nuances that go into it.”
Andrew Olsen, bar manager at Rye KC, pushes the drink into an even softer, botanical flavor profile. “The KC Ice Water is one of the most popular drinks that we serve,” he says. “I elevated this drink a bit more than the original recipe and stayed O.G. with the vodka/gin combo, but also added another layer using Kabinett Riesling and chamomile lemonade with a little soda water.”
Olsen also says he uses crushed ice, a trick he picked up from the guys at The Monarch to make it “as cold as possible for optimal crushability.”
In a more subtly monikered approach, Rockhill Grill includes a Local Ice Water on its menu that ditches the vodka all together, using a mix of J. Rieger & Co., Restless Spirits and Tom’s Town gins, Earl Grey tea, lemon juice and elderflower tonic.
Even the Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee serves a KC Ice Water at its Market Grille Overland Park location. The recipe they use was developed for the chain by Ryan Maybee, proprietor of beloved Kansas City cocktail bars The Rieger and Manifesto and cofounder of J. Rieger & Co. distillery. It blends J. Rieger’s vodka and gin with fresh lime juice and Hy-Vee soda water, and then gets a simple garnish of lemon and lime wedges. It’s not too fussy and is plenty refreshing.
When it comes down to it, no matter where the Kansas City Ice Water came from or how it’s tweaked and improved upon, this highly approachable and ultra-potent cocktail is just the thing to make triple-digit weather a little less terrible.
“I think the drink is perfect,” says Olsen. “The KC Ice Water is a transcendent, regional classic.”