Food & Drink

Camping Out

From The Majestic’s private Pendergast Club room to the dimly lit subterranean speakeasy Manifesto, Kansas City has plenty of secluded gathering spots that hearken back to the days of prohibition. But one of the most exclusive cocktail bars in town isn’t found in any guidebook.

 Story by Lara Hale  |  Photos by Zach Bauman

There isn’t even a small sign outside to discreetly hint at its existence, let alone announce opening hours. In fact, the only way you’ll even discover the address of The Campground is by receiving an invitation to one of its hush-hush events.

It isn’t snobbery or a hipper-than-thou attitude that keeps The Campground on the Q.T. though—its congenial founders clearly enjoy the opportunity to share their cozy space and handcrafted cocktails with new acquaintances—it’s just that, well, The Campground is located in their own backyard.

When Cristin Llewellyn and Christopher Ciesiel bought their home in midtown KC about four years ago, they decided right away that the large shed in the backyard had to be used for something cooler than lawnmower and tool storage. “We knew it was destined for something great,” Ciesiel says.

Not long after moving in, the pair set about transforming the shed’s interior to create a place for hanging out together and with friends. As a Kansas City Art Institute grad and co-founder of local textile studio Owl + Mouse, Llewellyn took the lead on the design, which she says is continuously changing as the couple is always discovering something to add to the mix. The weathered wood wall paneling that defines the shed’s interior style was created with planks salvaged from dumpsters near Llewellyn’s West Bottoms workspace, and the couple also repurposed an old door from their house to make tables for the shed. Vintage barware and décor and Owl + Mouse textiles round off The Campground’s old-school lodge look.

Meanwhile, the built-in bar inside the couple’s 1920s bungalow spurred Ciesiel, whose previous passion was home-brewing beer, to raise his cocktail game. He started by learning to mix the perfect Aviation—a classic Prohibition-era cocktail composed of gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice. “My old roommate used to make them, and it blew my mind that anything could taste that good,” he says.

From there, he expanded his repertoire, teaching himself the craft of mixing drinks with the help of cocktail books and YouTube videos. Getting to know some of Kansas City’s best bartenders also inspired him: he credits Justus Drugstore’s Arturo Vera-Felicie, Julep’s Beau Williams and The Majestic’s Shawn Moriarty (who previously worked at the now-defunct R Bar, where Ciesiel and Llewellyn met) as some of his tutors.

As the shed’s makeover and Ciesel’s cocktail skills took shape, they naturally came together and The Campground was born. Friends came over for drinks, and they documented the good times on Instagram, where the secret cocktail cabin quickly caught attention from friends of friends—and beyond.

“We started to get messages from total strangers who’d seen the photos asking ‘Where is this place? How do we get there?’” Llewellyn says.

Eventually, the couple began responding to such inquiries with invitations to join them for events Ciesiel describes as “glorified keggers”— Llewellyn designs and prints a menu to announce Ciesiel’s concoctions for the evening, the carefully vetted guest list receives directions to The Campground shortly before the event time and chips in a suggested donation for the evening. For Ciesiel, the socializing is as much a part of The Campground as the cocktails. “I really like the ‘drinking and gathering’ aspect,” he says, co-opting the tagline of the Sportsman’s Club, one of his favorite cocktail bars in his native Chicago.

The sporadic events have been wildly successful. Thanks to The Campground, the couple has met scores of new people—not just from around Kansas City, but from all over the country. At recent events, they’ve entertained guests from New York and California and have had as many as 14-16 people huddle together over cocktails in the shed. And the buzz around the guerilla cocktail bar has also led to a burgeoning beverage catering service. Ciesiel has shaken and stirred at dozens of events around Kansas City, including weddings, fashion shows, parties for local businesses such as Asiatica and Hammerpress, not to mention the grand opening of the West Elm store at Country Club Plaza.

The couple eventually hopes to be able to serve Campground cocktails to even more guests. “The ultimate goal is our own brick-and-mortar place,” Ciesiel says.

Until then, you can visit thecampgroundkc.com to request an invitation or have a look at three of Ciesiel’s recipes to shake up your cocktail hour at home.

Manhattan Manhattan
2 oz. Rittenhouse 100
.25 oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
1 oz. Bonal
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Campground bitters
Garnish: spiced cherry aged in Wood + Salt Manhattan Wood blend

Aster Family Flip
1.5 oz. Cynar
.75 oz. orgeat
1 oz. lemon juice
1 whole egg
Garnish: charred forest bitters (Angostura plus a barrel-aged black currant/sage tincture)

No News Is Good News
1.5 oz. Campground Malort
.75 oz. Genepy des Alpes
.5 oz. thyme syrup
.5 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. Mexican Sprite
Garnish: fresh thyme sprigs