Five Kansas City distillers walked into a bar the day before Valentine’s, which sounds like the start of a joke.
Their laughter was friendly as Benay Shannon of Restless Spirits Distilling Co., Rob Vossmeyer of Tom’s Town Distilling Co., Steve Strong of S.D. Strong Distilling, Nathan Perry of J. Rieger & Co. and Michael Stuckey of Lifted Spirits gathered around the bar at Journeyman Café west of the Country Club Plaza.
The group talked, joked and compared the bottles of gin they’d brought while waiting for this article’s photo shoot to begin. When I commented on their collegiality, they collectively shrugged.
“If you get into a fairly specific job like distilling, you don’t get to talk shop with a lot of people,” Perry said.
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“We like to chat, share cocktails, tell stories, whatever,” agreed Shannon, who owns Restless Spirits with her husband, Mike Shannon. Some of the group has visited her distillery, others have answered her questions about working with rye. Vossmeyer seems to have befriended everybody, and Stuckey has been known to drive his forklift the six blocks between their distilleries to help unload supplies.
All of them, including Patrick Garcia of Union Horse Distilling Co. (who doesn’t have a gin but shares a passion for locally crafted spirits), enjoy their informal, occasional get-togethers.
Sales of super-premium gins, or those priced over $30 a bottle, jumped 61 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Area bartenders are clear about why: Today’s consumers crave flavor.
“People are opening their minds a little more and are willing to experiment and try new things,” says Mike Strohm, a bartender and general manager of the W bar in Lee’s Summit, who loves gin so much his arm sports a juniper tattoo.
The W carries 20 gins, and Strohm says gin features in at least half the drinks he’s developing for his spring menu. Each offers something different, from a London Dry’s traditional profile to all manner of spices, herbs, flowers and flavors.
Among KC’s gin makers, Lifted Spirits is the newest. Stuckey and fellow owners Kyle Claypool and Darren Unruh opened the distillery in December and sell their Bright Gin and vodka there. Kansas and Missouri distribution should begin this spring, and a “martini gin,” white whiskey, absinthe and bourbon are also in the works.
Lifted Spirits’ tasting room is a bar, too, and the menu embraces Crossroads neighbors Torn Label Brewing Co. and KC Wineworks. The distillery also produces Wicket & Peg, a bourbon launched last year by entrepreneur Ethan Whitehill. There’s event space upstairs, in what was the one-time stable’s hayloft, as well as tours and tastings. It all figures into Lifted Spirits’ mission, Claypool says.
“I want people to come through the door and see, taste, touch and smell and actually build something that has community,” he said.
Stuckey’s gin begins with soft red winter wheat grown by a family friend in Wellsville, Kan., and combines with alkalized Kansas City municipal water to form a soupy mash. After fermentation, it all goes into his 1,000-liter, 20-plate bypassable fractionating still. In layman’s terms, that means he can engage whichever section he needs for whatever spirit he’s making.
The exterior is stainless steel, but the internal components are copper, all the better for pulling off unappealing sulfur compounds and producing a neutral grain spirit. When bottled as vodka, it’s round, with an intriguingly grainy sweetness. To turn it into gin, Stuckey loads his gin basket with botanicals and runs the spirit through a second time, allowing it to absorb flavor via vapor distillation.
His use of coriander seed, green cardamom pods, hibiscus, orange peel, chamomile and elderberries doesn’t obscure the required juniper, but rather complements it with floral, citrusy character, rich mouthfeel and a masculine, almost sexy aroma.
At Tom’s Town, Vossmeyer incorporates even more botanicals in his McElroy’s Corruption Gin, including juniper, coriander, angelica, orris root, clove, allspice, star anise, grapefruit zest, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper, long pepper and bay leaf. The result is a flavorful, spicy and botanical gin, with an herbal hint that you can learn more about on a tour of the distillery (founded by Steve Revare and David Epstein in late 2015) or in its art deco-style tasting room.
“Gin has the most room for creativity, which makes it exciting,” said Vossmeyer, who’s also developing what he calls an antique gin. He’s not the only one experimenting with aging, though.
Steve Strong recently released S.D. Strong Distilling’s Barrel Rested Pillar 136 Gin, a version of his original formula rested in a used rye whiskey barrel.
“I was curious more than anything else,” said Strong, who opened his distillery in 2012 in a Parkville commercial cave complex that’s 65 feet underground. “I thought, ‘Why not see what a citrus-forward style of gin would taste like if it had a little oak on it?’ ”
It tastes delicious, at once spicier and smoother, with a pale gold tint. That compares to Pillar 136, whose juniper bite is tempered by fresh orange, lemon, lime and ginger and dried orris root, licorice root, coriander, angelica root, rose hips and cassia bark.
Strong sells vodka and straight rye whiskey as well, and a straight bourbon will probably be available in March. People seem keen on the cave experience, too, and S.D. Strong’s occasional living room-style concerts and other events in its recently expanded space frequently sell out.
“It is a cool vibe,” Strong acknowledges with a grin.
Restless Spirits channels a different sort of vibe at its North Kansas City distillery, thanks to the Shannons’ deep roots in the local Irish community. Their 500-gallon copper pot still is patterned after the gooseneck style typical in Ireland, and their products include Stone Breaker (a blend of Irish whiskey and Shannon’s own), Sons of Erin (a 4-year-old Irish whiskey) and a seasonal poitín (pronounced pot-cheen, it’s akin to Irish moonshine). They also produce a vodka and will eventually release their own Irish-style whiskey.
And their Builders Botanical Gin? That one feels truly American. Shannon macerates the tougher botanicals like juniper berries and coriander seed directly in the still but then captures the delicate essence of rose petals and lavender through vapor distillation. Rosemary, meadowsweet and other ingredients balance the citrus and floral notes, she said.
Her gin has been on the market about a year and, “I’m still happy with it,” Shannon said. “It still surprises me how versatile it is.”
Many of Kansas City’s distillers are self-taught, but J. Rieger’s Nathan Perry learned gin-making from one of the best: Tom Nichol, former master distiller of Tanqueray. Rieger co-founders Ryan Maybee and Andy Rieger wanted a classic London Dry style, so Nichol (who is also a J. Rieger partner) devised a combination of juniper, coriander seed, dried angelica root, dried orange peel and powdered licorice root for their Midwestern Dry Gin.
“All of those play together so well,” said Perry, who oversees the gin as well as J. Rieger’s vodka, Kansas City Whiskey, Caffé Amaro and Left for Dead (a series of spirits distilled from Boulevard beers that didn’t meet quality standards). Maybee has described it as full-flavored, richly textured gin that leans toward the citrus side, and it remains Perry’s favorite spirit to work with.
It’s a sentiment shared among his fellow distillers.
“You could spend a lifetime working on gin and never be bored,” Vossmeyer said. “It’s never finished.”
To reach spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to email@example.com.
Thirsty for gin? Try one of the six made in Kansas City. Most cost between $30 and $45 per 750-milliliter bottle, although be sure to check with local retailers about availability and price. Some are also sold at the distillery.
Bright Gin (80 proof)
Juniper-forward, but with a sexy and floral aroma, balanced flavor and rich mouthfeel. Made with juniper berries, coriander seed, green cardamom pods, hibiscus, dried orange peel, chamomile and elderberries.
J. Rieger & Co.
Midwestern Dry Gin (92.2 proof)
A full-flavored London Dry-style gin with aromatic juniper, citrus freshness and rich texture.
Restless Spirits Distilling
Builders Botanical Gin (92 proof)
Nicely balanced citrus and floral notes thanks to 11 botanicals, including juniper, coriander seed, rosemary, lavender, rose petals and meadowsweet.
S.D. Strong Distilling
Pillar 136 Gin (90 proof)
Citrus-forward, the juniper is tempered by fresh orange, lemon, lime and ginger and dried orris root, licorice root, juniper, coriander, angelica root, rose hips and cassia bark.
S.D. Strong Distilling
Barrel Rested Pillar 136 Gin (90 proof) (375-milliliter only)
Aging S.D. Strong’s Pillar 136 base in rye whiskey barrels adds spice, a bit of sweetness and richness.
Tom’s Town Distilling Co.
McElroy’s Corruption Gin (90 proof)
Balanced, spicy and complex, thanks to the 14 botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, orris root, clove, allspice, star anise, grapefruit zest, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, grains of paradise, cubeb pepper, long pepper and bay leaf.
Anne Brockhoff, Special to The Star
It’s hard to go wrong with your favorite gin and tonic (try Fever-Tree’s Indian or Mediterranean versions), but replicating a single cocktail using different gins can be more illuminating.
Tim Whipple, bartender at Journeyman Café, recommends trying it with his version of a Tom Collins.
Makes 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce lime juice
Lemon slice, for garnish
Fill a shaker partway with ice, and then add gin, lemon and lime juices. Shake and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with a lemon slice.
Per serving: 123 calories (1 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Kansas City Sunset
London Dry gins are typically aromatic and structured, with juniper’s bite held in check by other botanicals, and they’re perfect for both classic cocktails and creative ones. Tim Whipple of Journeyman Café makes this one with J. Rieger & Co.’s Midwestern Dry Gin, but feel free to sub your favorite London Dry-style brand.
Makes 1 serving
3 nickel-sized coins of fresh ginger
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 1/2 ounce London Dry gin
Splash San Pellegrino Aranciata orange soda
Splash Spellbound Petite Sirah
Mint sprig, to garnish
Muddle the ginger, bitters and lime juice in a mixing glass. Add ice and gin; shake until chilled. Strain over an ice-filled Collins glass, top with orange soda, and then slowly pour the wine in. Do not stir again. Garnish with a mint sprig.
Per serving: 116 calories (3 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.