Jazz-age Kansas City had it all — music, gambling and around-the-clock entertainment. There was plenty of booze, too, even during Prohibition, largely thanks to political boss Tom Pendergast.
Boss Tom made the city swing, as a University of Missouri-Kansas City Web exhibit about him put it, and the romance of it all lives on at Tom’s Town Distilling Co., which opens Wednesday.
“It’s an era, it’s a spirit, it’s an entire vibe,” said David Epstein, who founded Tom’s Town with business partner Steve Revare. “You’ll walk away feeling you’ve been into a different time.”
Tom’s Town adds to the area’s burgeoning distilling scene, joining Union Horse Distilling Co., J. Rieger & Co., S.D. Strong Distillery and others. Although some might worry about crowding in the marketplace, Revare says it’s all good for the city.
“Kansas City definitely is a tourism destination, and the more products made here the better,” he said. “It’s a rising tide.”
Epstein and Revare are counting on both locals and out-of-towners to visit the distillery at 17th and Main streets, since that’s the only place they’ll be able to buy Tom’s Town spirits. (The distillery plans to seek retail distribution in about a year.)
Tom’s Town makes vodka and gin, and will also sell what it calls a curated line of whiskeys sourced elsewhere. Guests can sample them in an art deco-inspired tasting room, complete with an original pressed tin ceiling, sculptural lights and 10-foot potted palms.
The long walnut bar serves straight spirits and cocktails, plus small plates. Don’t want to hang out at the bar? Settle onto one of the plush green banquettes with peacock motif pillows, or at a nearby marble-topped table. West-side windows look onto Main Street.
The opposite viewing window reveals a gleaming 660-gallon still from Artisan Still Design (a hybrid capable of making both white and brown spirits), and beyond that the mash tun, fermenters and other attendant equipment.
“It is in the truest sense a tasting room,” Epstein said. “The point is for people to try our stuff and become evangelists and believers in our brand.”
Much of that brand’s magic lies in its history. Epstein’s grandfather, Herman Epstein, was a bootlegger aligned with the Rabbits, a political faction controlled by Joseph Shannon. When Pendergast’s Democrats, called Goats, overran Shannon’s organization in the 1930s, they put rivals like Epstein out of business.
On Revare’s side, his great-great uncle, Maurice Milligan, was the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Pendergast for tax evasion in 1939.
“That was when the dance ended,” Epstein said.
Not that Epstein and Revare knew that while growing up. They met in kindergarten and remained friends through college. Later they built and then sold BlairLake New Media and collaborated on Amp’d, an app that connects bands with fans during live music performances. It was only when their attention turned to spirits that relatives revealed family connections to Pendergast.
After doing some research, they knew they had a brand they could market. And they knew they could run the business. What didn’t they know? How to operate a still. For that they hired Rob Vossmeyer.
Distilling piqued Vossmeyer’s interest about four years ago, and a workshop at Koval Distillery in Chicago hooked him. He took courses from the American Distilling Institute and earned certificates from the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in Britain, Kothe Distilling Technologies and the Society of Wine Educators. He was briefly involved with a micro-distillery in St. Louis, worked with GrandTen Distilling in Boston and studied gin at Corsair Distillery in Tennessee.
Given the growth in craft distilling and resulting shortage of distillers, he had plenty of job possibilities, but Tom’s Town proved the perfect fit.
“I was sold after the first phone call with David,” Vossmeyer said.
Epstein and Revare wanted a gin, so Vossmeyer began experimenting with a small laboratory still on the century-old building’s third floor. He distilled some 70 herbs, fruits, spices and other potential gin flavorings individually, building what he calls a botanical library to better understand the characteristics of each.
He then put Epstein, Revare and Kirsten McGannon, the distillery’s marketing director, through a series of blind tastings to determine what type of gin they preferred. Finally, he created McElroy’s Corruption Gin.
It’s a full-flavored New Western-style gin, Vossmeyer says, made with 13 botanicals: juniper, coriander, lemongrass, long pepper, grapefruit zest, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper, star anise, kaffir lime leaf, allspice, cloves and two other undisclosed ingredients.
Even with all that, it’s no botanical bomb, he says.
“Juniper doesn’t leave the stage. It just has lots of supporting players,” Vossmeyer said.
The gin’s named after Henry McElroy, Pendergast’s city manager. Likewise, Eli’s Strong Arm Vodka evokes his bodyguard and gatekeeper, Elijah Matheus.
To craft that one, Vossmeyer selected a mostly wheat-based neutral grain spirit and added a rye spirit distilled on-site, using grain grown on Revare’s mother-in-law’s farm in Lone Jack.
The grain will eventually also be used for Tom’s Town’s rye whiskey, but that product is a ways down the road. For now they’re satisfying whiskey demand with aged barrels purchased from other distilleries just as Pendergast did, Epstein says.
Pendergast “would buy bourbon to sell, put his label on it and brand it,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing.”
Tom’s Town is even using Boss Tom’s own brand — Pendergast’s Royal Gold — to showcase its ongoing series of small-batch whiskeys. The first iteration is a 10-year-old bourbon dubbed the Inaugural Batch that matched Vossmeyer’s description of caramel and marzipan, smooth but with a bit of rye spice, when I tasted it at a distillery event in November.
After that, Vossmeyer will delve into a 40-barrel lot of Tennessee bourbon that the distillery purchased last summer. He worked with distilling consultant Nancy Fraley of Nosing Services in Berkeley, Calif., to determine each barrel’s potential, and then earmarked them for continued aging, blending, single-barrel bottlings or special finishes.
The initial results of Vossmeyer’s barrel program — a 5-year-old bourbon finished in port barrels — will be released as soon as the Inaugural Batch runs out.
“That’s why I love it. I love the potential to do all kinds of stuff,” said Vossmeyer, who suggested a barrel-aged gin or rum might also be in the distillery’s future.
Regular tours will show how it’s all done, introduce Boss Tom’s legacy and end in the vault, a speakeasy-ish back room with rich red walls and a stuffed goat head above the fireplace mantle. Upstairs, 5,000 square feet of event space overlook the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Power and Light Building and the ever-changing landscape of the Crossroads Arts District.
Boss Tom might not recognize the view, but he’d surely appreciate how the distillery has embraced his answer to a long-ago reporter’s question about why he allowed liquor to flow so freely in Kansas City during Prohibition.
“ ‘The people are thirsty,’ ” Epstein echoes. “That’s our tag line.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist: ninmilefarm@gmail, @BlitheSpiritsKC
Tom’s Town Distilling Co.
1701 Main St., Kansas City
Tom’s Town’s products are for now available only at the distillery:
▪ McElroy’s Corruption Gin (90 proof, $31.99 per 750 milliliter bottle)
▪ Eli’s Strong Arm Vodka (80 proof, $24.99 per 750 milliliter bottle)
▪ Pendergast’s Royal Gold Bourbon (80 proof, available only at the bar)
Gift pack including one 200 milliliter bottle each of gin, vodka and bourbon ($59.99)
Tours are offered every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They last 30 minutes and cost $10 per person. Reserve online.
This cocktail showcases Tom’s Town’s McElroy’s Corruption Gin, a New Western-style gin made with 13 botanicals. To purchase Kansas City Canning Co.’s shrub or to find local retailers that carry it, go to kansascitycanningco.com.
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces McElroy’s Corruption Gin
1 1/2 ounces KC Canning Co.’s Smoked Spiced Pear Shrub
4 ounces club soda
2 dashes Regans’ Orange Bitters
Orange twist, for garnish (optional)
Combine gin, shrub, club soda and bitters in a mixing glass. Stir well. Pour into a highball glass over ice. Garnish with an orange twist, if desired.
Per drink: 161 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 13 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 26 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
The addition of Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur (made in Sicily) and Prosecco (an Italian sparkling wine) elevate Tom’s Town’s version of this usually straightforward mixed drink.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce Eli’s Strong Arm Vodka
3/4 ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
4 ounces fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
2 ounces Prosecco
Fill a shaker partway with ice and add vodka, Solerno and grapefruit juice. Shake well. Strain into a Collins glass over ice and top with Prosecco.
Per drink: 236 calories (1 percent from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.