Editor’s Note: This is story is part of “Kansas City: Like a Local,” a series where Kansas Citians recommend their favorite things to do in our region. It’s part of our Guide to the City of Fountains, get the guide delivered to your inbox by signing up here!
If you’re a fan of good spirits and a bit of American history, J. Rieger & Co. is the place where you can get a taste of both.
Named after its founder Jacob Rieger, J. Rieger & Co. has been associated with distilling in Kansas City since 1887. At the time, the state of Kansas had already banned alcohol, meaning people had to cross the border into Missouri if they wanted to have a drink. As a result, the business of booze was booming in Kansas City, Missouri, particularly in the West Bottoms neighborhood where bars, saloons, and liquor retailers flourished.
J. Rieger & Co. became one of the largest names in distilled spirits. They even shipped their product to customers around the country, becoming the largest mail-order whiskey house. At their height of success, J. Rieger & Co. boasted over 250,000 customers.
But that all changed in 1919 when the 18th Amendment was passed marking the beginning of Prohibition in America. Despite Prohibition ending in 1933, the company wouldn’t distill again until 2014 when Andy Rieger, a descendant of the founder Jacob Rieger, relaunched the brand with Kansas City bartender Ryan Maybee. Together, Rieger and Maybee revived this local distilling tradition and in doing so, they opened Kansas City’s first distillery since Prohibition.
The distillery is now located in East Bottoms in the restored and preserved Heim Bottling Plant. It’s a borderline whiskey-themed amusement park complete with a 40-foot slide in The Monogram Lounge, live music in the Hey Hey Lounge, and their outdoor garden bar named after the old Electric Park amusement park which drew crowds to the East Bottoms neighborhood from 1899-1906.
When you take the tour, you will not only learn the story of J. Rieger and the long lasting impact of Prohibition, but you’ll also take a guided journey through the precise science and art that goes into distilling.
“It’s wild that something as simple as fermented grain, something as ancient as our agricultural roots has developed into this precise science that uses simple chemistry and creating a whole gamut and range of product that people identify with and sparks people’s imaginations,” says Victor Quintero, a J. Rieger & Co. “Spirit Guide” as he calls himself.
J. Rieger offers a wide range of spirits that the distillery has spent time perfecting within the last decade. Their Premium Wheat Vodka is a crisp and smooth wheat-based vodka with a hint of sweetness. There’s also Rieger’s Absinthe, a tasting room exclusive which, on first sip, hits your tastebuds with an intense licorice and anise flavors that end on a herbaceous note. For gin lovers and perhaps for those who haven’t found their favorite gin yet, The Midwestern Dry Gin boasts rich flavors and aromatics derived from their blend of botanicals.
One of the most interesting stories you’ll find in J. Rieger’s collection of spirits is the Kansas City Whiskey, a pre-Prohibition whiskey recipe that calls for adding a little bit of Sherry to a blend of American whiskeys. Before 1897, whiskey producers were taxed when they distilled their spirits as opposed to being taxed when their distilled products were sold. To save time and money, distillers would sell their whiskeys before they were aged. Adding Sherry and other additives to whiskeys rectified or “fixed” them by masking the hash flavors of the under-aged spirit. Nowadays, the J. Rieger & Co. Kansas City Whiskey does age the blend of whiskeys they use for a minimum of 4 years.
For people who aren’t too keen on the strong flavors of brown liquor, Quintero says the Kansas City Whiskey is a good start.
“That Sherry addition really lends an approachability to it,” says Quintero. “Hopefully we’re doing something that opens up the brown liquor world to a lot of new people and getting them to think outside the box a little bit of what distilled fermented grain can become.”
Watch Kansas City Like a Local: J. Rieger & Co. to learn more about Kansas City’s Prohibition history and the people behind reviving this spirited tradition.