Earlier this summer, the temperature topped 80 degrees inside the East Bottoms warehouse that’s now home to J. Rieger & Co., Kansas City’s newest distillery.
Freight trains rumbled nearby, sending faint vibrations through the concrete floor. Construction workers demolished defunct paneling, while shrink-wrapped pallets of bottles sat in the corner.
The marquee equipment — a boiler, stills, fermenters and the like — was noticeably absent. But the unfinished feel didn’t faze collaborators Ryan Maybee, co-owner of Manifesto and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, and Andy Rieger, whose forebears founded the original J. Rieger & Co. in 1887.
They are united in their ambition to resurrect a piece of Kansas City’s past by making the best whiskey they can.
“This brand deserves to be brought back,” Maybee says. “It’s part of Kansas City’s history and, hopefully, Kansas City’s future.”
There’s every chance it will be. Consumer enthusiasm for all things local remains at a fever pitch, as does demand for American whiskey. As for the company itself, Rieger’s involvement provides narrative heft, while Maybee’s carries creative creditability.
“You have to have a certain amount of steel in your backbone to open a distillery,” says cocktail and spirits authority David Wondrich, who will soon release a revised version of his book “Imbibe!” Maybee has “earned a lot of trust the hard way. If he puts his name on it, it’s going to be good.”
Maybee began earning that trust in 1999, when the Parkville native began bartending at Pierpont’s in Union Station. He went on to work in fine wine sales, help open the now-defunct JP Wine Bar & Coffee House and co-founded the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival.
In 2009, Maybee started Manifesto, a subterranean speakeasy-like bar at 20th and Main streets that fueled the city’s cocktail renaissance. Two things then quickly happened: Manifesto won Nightclub & Bar Magazine’s Small Wonder Bar of the Year award, and Manifesto was forced to close after the restaurant upstairs went out of business.
Rather than move elsewhere, Maybee partnered with chef Howard Hanna to return a restaurant to the building’s main level and Manifesto to the basement. Both establishments quickly earned accolades, as did Maybee.
He was an international finalist in Angostura’s 2012 Global Cocktail Challenge, helped launch the Kill Devil Club in KC and Louisville, Ky., and in 2013 was named Imbibe Magazine’s Bartender of the Year.
Throughout it all, he remained fascinated by Rieger lore. Maybee knew that Alexander Rieger built the hotel in 1915 and that Rieger’s father, Jacob, ran a whiskey company in the West Bottoms.
One day, as Maybee passed through the parking lot, he realized the ghost of a mural on the building’s south face was actually an advertisement for Rieger’s Monogram whiskey. He had the mural restored and at about the same time connected with Paul Gronquist, a pre-Prohibition bottle collector from Alma, Kan.
Gronquist gave Maybee a Monogram shot glass, bottle and other memorabilia while visiting the Rieger. More importantly, he shared that J. Rieger had claimed to be the largest mail-order liquor business in the U.S. and that it quite likely distilled spirits as well.
“I knew at that moment that I had to bring back the whiskey,” Maybee says. “There was no question.”
Doing that, however, proved harder than he imagined.
Maybee developed a business plan while working toward his masters certification from Beverage Alcohol Resource, an industry education group whose designations are akin to those awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers (he received his BAR masters in 2012). Maybee’s idea was to make smoked bourbon, a nod to the success of his Smokin’ Choke, which uses smoke-infused bourbon and remains Manifesto’s best-selling cocktail.
To start, he would purchase aged bourbon from established distillers. It seemed a reasonable option, given that barrels were selling for about $450 each at the time. Then the bourbon boom hit. Prices spiked, reaching several thousand dollars per barrel, assuming they could even be found.
“In my whole almost 30-year career in the whiskey business, I have never seen bourbon and rye be this tight in supply,” says Dave Pickerell, former master distiller for Maker’s Mark Bourbon who is now managing member and senior consultant for Oak View Spirits in Mount Washington, Ky. He is also a consultant for J. Rieger.
Maybee also discovered he couldn’t use the Monogram name because Jim Beam had already trademarked it. So he acquired the J. Rieger trademark, which had lapsed in 1922, and continued completing his business plan.
Meanwhile, Rieger, who grew up in Fairway, was pursuing a different career. After earning degrees in finance and math from Southern Methodist University, he stayed in Dallas to work first in commercial banking and then for an investment bank.
Then, in 2010, Rieger’s father was diagnosed with cancer. During his illness, the senior Rieger shared much of the family’s history with his son and seemed excited that someone was putting a restaurant in the old hotel.
After his father died, Andy Rieger made good on a promise to his father by visiting the Rieger the week it opened. He introduced himself to Maybee, and the two stayed in touch over the next year.
When Maybee was ready to launch his project, he contacted Rieger.
“I didn’t feel I could move forward without at least getting Andy’s blessing,” Maybee says. “The Rieger name — it’s his.”
Rieger gave more than his blessing. He threw himself into the distillery.
“I would never have done this if my dad had not died. It makes you look at life differently,” says Rieger, who earlier this year relocated to Kansas City to focus on J. Rieger full time. “This became what I wanted to do.”
J. Rieger raised capital; retained film production and photography company Liquid 9 to work on branding; researched still and bottle makers; and searched for a distillery site.
It wasn’t an easy hunt. Distilleries need things other businesses don’t, like 16-foot ceilings, extensive fire sprinkler systems and loading docks. There was also another stipulation: the building needed to match what Rieger calls the company’s historical integrity.
They found just that on North Montgall Avenue, near Knuckleheads Saloon and Local Pig: a 14,500-square-foot warehouse attached to what was once a bottling house for the Heim Brewing Co.
Before Prohibition, Heim was Kansas City’s largest brewery and home to the city’s first electric amusement park, according to the Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections website. A flood wiped out the park (it later reopened nearby), and the Volstead Act shuttered the brewery, but the red brick structure remains.
“The East Bottoms has a rich heritage that deserves some attention,” says Boulevard Brewing Co. founder John McDonald, who owns the building and readily admits he wants to someday make a Scotch-style whisky.
“I’m excited to get them in over there. I think they’ll be a good part of that neighborhood.”
J. Rieger is now wending its way through the regulatory process. It can take months to receive a distilling permit, formula approval and label approval from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and then there are still more permits and approvals to seek from the Missouri division of alcohol and tobacco control and various city offices.
The biggest curveball so far has been that Missouri regulations preclude overlap between the beverage alcohol industry’s three tiers: production, wholesale distribution and retail sale. That means Maybee, a bar owner, cannot have a financial stake in J. Rieger. He’s optimistic the rules soon will change and remains committed to the project.
“I’m still as involved in and dedicated and committed to (J. Rieger) as I’ve ever been,” Maybee says.
Once the paperwork is done and the two stills (a 750-gallon one for whiskey and a 120-gallon model for gin and absinthe) are installed, J. Rieger will start producing straight bourbon and straight rye whiskey.
To be “straight,” it must age in charred oak barrels for at least two years, but Maybee says they’ll give it five or six in 53-gallon barrels — or longer if necessary.
“Those are products you don’t want to rush,” Maybee says. “There’s no substitution for time or oxygen.”
So what will J. Rieger sell in the meantime? It will soon offer a blend of corn, malt and straight rye whiskys (all purchased from other distilleries) that has been dosed with a 15-year-old Oloroso sherry from Williams & Humbert, a sherry house near Jerez de la Frontera, in Spain. It’s a throwback style, one that didn’t even have a name until Maybee and Rieger gave it one.
“This is not bourbon. It’s not rye. It’s Kansas City Whiskey, a classic style dating back to Jacob Rieger’s time,” Maybee says.
Sherry, now one of the cocktail world’s trendiest ingredients, is key. It was widely used as a coloring agent in the 19th century but fell out of favor once the more neutral-tasting caramel coloring became available.
J. Rieger is taking advantage of TTB rules that still allow for the addition of up to 21/2 percent sherry, but Maybee is not after color. He wants character.
“I’ve loved sherry for years,” says Maybee, who was a national finalist in the 2007 Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition. “When you blend it into the whiskey, it gives it a little different flavor and comes out 100 percent unique.”
Certainly the small group of bartenders, chefs and friends who gathered last month at Maybee’s Crossroads apartment for an early taste thought so. They sipped it neat, then headed to the bar to experiment with cocktails.
The 90-proof whiskey — Pickerell calls it “awesome” — is as good neat as it is mixed into cocktails like the horsefeather.
It will be available at retail before the end of the year, likely for less than $40 a 750 milliliter bottle, as will the Kansas City Smoked Bitters that Maybee developed to complement his Smokin’ Choke. A London dry-style gin and absinthe are expected in 2015.
J. Rieger will initially distribute in Missouri and Kansas, gradually adding other markets as it can.
“We want to be a big brand, and we want to be a successful business,” Maybee says. “We plan on doing that by staying true to who we are and where we come from.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Star’s Food section and she writes a monthly cocktail and spirits column.