Steve Strong spends much of his time 65 feet below ground surrounded by liquor: vodka, gin, straight rye whiskey and, soon, straight bourbon. Above him, wintry winds blow and students at Park University bundle up against the cold, but Strong is blissfully tucked away in the labyrinth of caves below, working on a passion that started out with a little moonshine.
Strong, 47, first became interested in distilling after he discovered a friend was (illegally) making his own alcohol. At first, Strong was incredulous — the guy did still have all of his teeth, after all. The idea of making one’s own spirits seemed like something that wouldn’t take place in modern-day Kansas City, but Strong’s stance quickly changed. He may or may not have dabbled in this practice himself, playing with recipes and finding a knack for it before deciding to open up S.D. Strong Distilling.
“Finally, I was like, ‘I have to do it. I can’t not think about it for the rest of my life,’ ” Strong says. His wife, Lisa, agreed. They built the distillery in 2012 and in March 2013 sold the first bottle of vodka, which was the first recipe Strong perfected.
“I distill it to be as clean as I can possibly get it,” he says. “I figure if it’s great on its own and a lot of people mix stuff, I figure it’ll be great as a mixer.”
Instead of the burning sensation you get when knocking back most brands of vodka, Strong’s should give more of a warming sensation.
“You shouldn’t get any of that dry mouth feel,” he says. “You should get more of almost a round mouth feel.”
Ten months after S.D. Strong Vodka was released came Pillar 136 Gin. If Strong’s goal with the vodka was to keep it clean and simple, his strategy with gin was more an explosion of citrus.
Most people, Strong says, think of the London dry style if they put much thought into gin. He doesn’t love the amount of juniper that goes into that style, and so he spent nine months developing something off the beaten path.
Why did it take so long?
“I literally hand-zest all the lemons, all the limes, all the orange peel. I use fresh ginger in there.” Also added are bits of orris root, coriander, angelica root, licorice root, ginger and cinnamon.
“What I call it is a citrus-forward style of gin,” Strong says. “I made it to my taste is really what I did. I figured if I’m going to have to drink it for a long time, I better like it.”
Luckily, other people like it as well. Strong entered Pillar 136 in the Washington Cup Invitational, a competition for American-made spirits, for the first time in 2015, and it was among the six best spirits to win the whole thing. It again earned a Washington Cup in 2016, as well as a bronze medal in the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
More recently, Strong has added straight rye whiskey to the menu. Each barrel takes about 24 months to be ready, and his second was finished just a few weeks ago. Next on the list is straight bourbon.
S.D. Strong Distilling liquors can be found on shelves in five states: Missouri, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Illinois. If you’re more interested in touring the cave and learning a little about (the legal side of) modern day moonshine, the distillery offers tours to the public on the second Saturday of each month. For more information, find them online at sdstrongdistilling.com.