Story by Dave Eckert
It’s a renaissance that’s nearly 100 years in the making: Kansas City’s spirits scene is positively booming. From a single distillery when I first moved to KC in 1989, we are rapidly approaching double digits. Producing everything from vodka and gin to whiskey and bourbon, the metro’s distilleries are cranking out high quality spirits and unique experiences at an amazing pace. Heck, the city’s spirits scene hasn’t been this much fun since political boss Tom Pendergast controlled the city’s underground spirits during prohibition. Back then, Kansas City earned the moniker “Paris of the Plains!” These days, the city of fountains has much more than water flowing, and it’s a whole lot of fun.
I visited three of our local distilleries, starting with one named after the man himself, Tom’s Town. “I remember opening night when we had a friends and family thing. We didn’t have our liquor license yet and people were arriving in two hours. Meantime, there was a guy hammering pins into a pillar to make sure the second floor didn’t collapse. And, I remember thinking to myself ‘Why am I doing this?’ co-founder Steve Revare shared with me. That was 3 ½ years ago. My, how things have changed! Today’s Tom’s Town is one of the city’s leading distilleries, producing a host of top-notch artisanal spirits while offering guests a speakeasy environment in which to sample those spirits in a wide range of specially curated cocktails. “To create something that didn’t exist before is wonderful. And it’s a happy business, for the most part,” Revare said. “It’s nice to see smiles on peoples’ faces. That’s my favorite part of the business.”
Revare just didn’t have an interest in KC’s spirited past. His family has a connection to Pendergast. In doing research for the project, Revare discovered that his great uncle was the district attorney appointed by President Roosevelt to “clean up” the illegal activity in Kansas City, which included Pendergast’s production and sale of bootleg liquor. Interesting that Revere is now making a living off the name and game of the man his relative tried to put out of business.
As for their products, Tom’s Town produces five spirits in its core portfolio: a Double Grain Vodka, a Barreled and a Botanical Gin, and a Double Oaked and a Royal Gold Bourbon. Then there are the specialty spirits distilled under “The Pendergast Machine” label. These are small-batch, limited offerings that range from a Gingersnap Whiskey to a White Port Bourbon to a Navy Strength Gin. Available exclusively at Tom’s Town, The Pendergast Machine offerings, currently standing at six, are unique expressions of the distillers’ passions and curiosities, giving drinkers a unique expression! To me, Tom’s Town offers the best of all worlds-a glimpse into the city’s boozy past and a delicious pathway to its spirited future.
From a speakeasy to a cave. That’s the experience you get at S.D. Strong Distilling, located in the caves beneath Park University in Parkville. Local musician and high-end acoustic guitar salesman Steve Strong is the man behind the label. Strong told me he got the artisanal spirits bug after learning one of his bandmates was making moonshine. “He was actually making the moonshine with his cousin in his cousin’s garage. I was curious, so I started looking into it. I messed around with mash recipes in my garage, and the next thing you know, I was doing distilling,” Strong told me. When it came time to actually open a distillery, Strong said he knew he wanted to keep it in Parkville, and when it came to looking at properties, the only one he could find with enough space and the required sprinkler system (alcohol is a big fire hazard) was in the caves.
S.D. Strong Distilling is one of the older distilleries in the metro. It was built in 2012 and sold its first bottle of spirits in 2013. Strong offers five spirits: Big Boom Bourbon, S.D. Strong Vodka, Pillar 136 Gin, Barrel Aged Pillar 136 Gin, and Straight Rye Whiskey. And, like Tom’s Town, S.D. Strong offers drinkers something they will get nowhere else, spirits that are made and sold in a cave. Check out the distillery’s “Cave Concerts” series. It’s a hoot, and the booze is pretty darned tasty too.
Speaking of a hoot, you simply must head down to the new J. Rieger Distillery in the East Bottoms. Part distillery, part museum, part bar, and part carnival, Rieger offers visitors a total sensory emersion! The 60,000-foot distillery in the former Heim Brewery building in the heart of the Electric Park neighborhood features a new production space and a world-class hospitality center. Amazingly, the experience feels both out of place in Kansas City and totally at home at the same time. If that seems contradictory, well, just check it out for yourself!
Andy Rieger is the reluctant “face” of the distillery, a man who warmed to the idea of getting involved in his family’s former business slowly. There can be no doubt that Reiger and his wife, Lucy, who handles the marketing side of things, are now “all in” on both the business and the new spirits experience. “So, we started next door in a 15,000-foot space in 2016. It was functional, but we quickly realized we needed a bigger space,” Reiger shared. The landlord was Boulevard Brewery founder John McDonald who owned the original building, the Heim Brewery building, and another acre of adjacent land. J. Rieger ended up buying all three properties, and work began on what would be not just a new distillery, but a showcase for the brand and the city. “It’s so unique relative to anything else out there. We don’t have to try to explain it. People can come and experience it,” Rieger said.
Rieger produces four core products: Kansas City Whiskey, Midwestern Dry Gin, Caffe Amaro, and Premium Wheat Vodka. The distillery also offers three specialty releases: Holiday Label KC Whiskey, Private Stock, and Left for Dead. All of the spirits are solid, delicious offerings, but honestly, if you really want a J. Rieger experience, head down to the distillery. I’ll see you in the Monogram Lounge! Cheers!
- 2 oz Tom’s Town Vodka
- ¾ oz lemon juice
- ¾ oz simple syrup
- 4 slices of strawberries
- 6 mint leaves
Build ingredients in canister, shake and strain in glass over ice. Top with soda, garnish with a mint sprig.
- 1.5 oz KC Whiskey
- ¾ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçau
- ¾ oz lemon juice
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 3 dashes orange bitters
Shake and serve over ice. Bomb Pop garnish required
- 2 oz. Tom’s Town Botanical Gin
- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
- 1/2 oz. St. Germain
- Lime wheel garnish
Combine all ingredients in canister, shake, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.