At Union Station’s The Train Shed, Cocktails Go Way Back
Your new favorite spot to get a cocktail in St. Louis? It’s been there since 1894.
In its new iteration as a brightly lit playground anchored by the St. Louis Aquarium and an indoor ropes course, the updated southern end of Union Station might not be the first place you’d think of stopping in for an “adult beverage.” But if you could ask the ghosts of the some 100,000 daily passengers who traversed its Grand Hall in the heyday of train travel, they’d say it’s perfectly intuitive that The Train Shed—the cocktail bar and restaurant that opened in November 2019—is an ideal place to have a drink on a stopover to somewhere else.
Today’s tipplers are infinitely more likely to be en route to a Blues game or a romantic St. Louis Wheel ride than an overnighter to San Francisco when they sidle up to the Train Shed’s bar. But reminders of the historic site’s former life as a bustling travel hub are everywhere you look—most especially, the menu.
“The Train Shed has its roots in that 1904 World’s Fair-type feel,” says Kyle Mathis, who oversees the beverage program. “And classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails are definitely the best way to capture that period of time.”
Mathis has managed multiple beverage programs, most recently opening Westport Social and helping create the adult side of the St. Louis Soda Fountain. He is intimately familiar with what’s required to do justice to this genre. “It’s my favorite category of cocktails,” he explains. “I think they’re really well tested, vetted, tried-and-true drinks—and when you can prove to someone that you can execute a classic cocktail really, really well, it just kind of sets a baseline of confidence with [the customer].”
This confidence is earned again and again over the course of the cocktail menu. Go-to favorites like an Old Fashioned—which Mathis refers to as “a litmus test” for any bar or restaurant—are executed perfectly and delivered in substantial, faceted tumblers befitting the environs. “I’m very proud of the Old Fashioned that The Train Shed puts out,” he says. “It’s really true to form, with lots of fresh citrus oils, and the proper amount of sugar.” That last detail is something that’s a bit of a sticking point for Mathis. “That’s one of the first things I train bartenders on. The margin of error for drinks like an Old Fashioned or most classic cocktails is very fine. It goes from a perfectly balanced cocktail to one that’s cloyingly sweet so quickly.”
To his credit, nothing on the menu skews overly sweet—less-often ordered throwbacks like Aviations and Brown Derbys are balanced and pitch-perfect, mingling effortlessly with what may very well be the best Sazerac in St. Louis.
Dependability—with cocktails, as with train travel—is key. But so is direction. Not content to re-tread the usual routes, The Train Shed’s menu also boasts a section of “reserve” cocktails for—shall we say—more experienced travelers. These riffs on classic recipes are upgraded with lesser-known or hard-to-find liquors (and are priced to match, like the $21.99 Monk’s Treat Last Word with Haymen’s Navy Strength Gin and V.E.P. Green Chartreuse).
“We have the opportunity to get our hands on a lot of really fun spirits,” Mathis says. “But oftentimes, many of them just kind of sit on a shelf, and they’re only consumed by someone who already knows a lot about them. You don’t necessarily get to see them in the form that they’re meant to be consumed—which is cocktails.” This, too, is a nod to the era in which Union Station was born. “A lot of spirits weren’t really being consumed by themselves back in the day. Cocktails were a way to lighten the intensity of those spirits and make them more palatable. I think it’s just our way to get some of these really cool bespoke spirits into their original and proper drinking vehicle.”
Designed for visitors who are seeking something memorable, whether it’s their first visit to St. Louis or they’re a lifelong denizen, these reserve cocktails deliver an experience that’s nothing short of first class.
This element, too, is something that was on Mathis’ mind when creating the beverage program. While Union Station represents a time when St. Louis was the nexus of American train travel, The Train Shed explicitly plays to locals as much as out-of-towners. For the tourist set, Mathis recognizes that The Train Shed represents a chance to highlight the city as a whole. “It gives us the opportunity to showcase St. Louis on a broader scale, since we do have so many out-of-town guests—even people who are from outside St. Louis but are still from the Midwest, from Missouri or Illinois.”
And while it’s true that many patrons will likely shape their perception of Downtown from a day at the Aquarium or a visit to a Cardinals game, The Train Shed has a lot to offer locals as well. The historic surrounds are replete with all the bells and whistles contemporary clientele would demand—screens showing Blues hockey games, panoramic views of the fire and light show at the nearby lake—but also something more ephemeral and difficult to quantify: a connection to this city’s past.
The setting provides a reflection of St. Louis in its most opulent of glory days, fresh off the excitement of the World’s Fair, when it was not only a destination in its own right, but a literal gateway to the splendors of the western half of this country. Sipping an Old Fashioned in The Train Shed’s dimmed lights, you can almost glimpse it out of the corner of your eye—if you squint, just a little, you can see what those 100,000 passengers must’ve seen as they hurried to catch their trains.
Images courtesy of Aida Hasanovic.
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