Chow Town

Kansas City distillery J. Rieger & Co. launches Midwestern Dry Gin

J. Rieger head distiller Nathan Perry (left) and Steve Olson worked with Tom Nichol (right), retired master distiller for Tanqueray, who took in the aroma of a glass of gin recently while the pair were preparing a batch at the J. Rieger distillery in the East Bottoms.
J. Rieger head distiller Nathan Perry (left) and Steve Olson worked with Tom Nichol (right), retired master distiller for Tanqueray, who took in the aroma of a glass of gin recently while the pair were preparing a batch at the J. Rieger distillery in the East Bottoms. tljungblad@kcstar.com

What do truck drivers, Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7 beer and goats have to do with gin? They all combined to make Tom Nichol’s experience crafting J. Rieger & Co.’s Midwestern Dry Gin, which launches Wednesday, unique.

Nichol is no stranger to how distilleries operate, given that he was until recently master distiller of Tanqueray gin. But partnering with the Kansas City distilling company based in the up-and-coming East Bottoms was different from overseeing a global brand for Diageo, the world’s biggest spirits maker.

“Tanqueray is a really big company, and they have to be very, very strict,” Nichol says. “This is like being in a holiday camp, but you still end up with the quality you want.”

When the jet-lagged Nichol needed a nap, he took one on a couch positioned under barrel racks. He helped feed botanicals left over from gin-making to goats in a nearby pen, fired up the grill at lunchtime and relaxed over bottles of Tank 7 at the end of the day. Even the neighbors made an impression.

“I was outside, sitting in the sunshine, and the lorry (truck) drivers would go past and give you a wave,” the affable Scot recalls. “What is it with people in Kansas City? They’re just so nice!”

Nice goes a long way with Nichol. He chose to work with J. Rieger’s founders, Andy Rieger and Ryan Maybee, and its head distiller, Nathan Perry, because he liked them and because they knew what they were doing, Nichol told me in July when The Star broke the news of his involvement.

The feeling is clearly mutual. “We were really excited to work with someone like Tom, because he’s brilliant and brings so much knowledge and experience,” Maybee says. “He has a surprising level of humility, and it meant so much to him to make a gin we could be happy with.”

The gin caps a busy year for J. Rieger. It has installed two stills, plus all the equipment that goes with them, and a bottling line. It has hired an assistant distiller, Tommy Rappold. And it has released a trio of spirits: Kansas City Whiskey, Midwestern Premium Vodka and now Midwestern Dry Gin.

They’re all sold in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. While more states will surely follow, Rieger says building its brand is now the priority.

“We’re trying to set ourselves up for the next 20 to 30 years,” says Rieger, whose family founded the original J. Rieger & Co. in 1887, only to see it go out of business during Prohibition. “You only get one shot at a first impression.”

That mindset led to the creation of Kansas City Whiskey, with the help of Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark and current managing member and senior consultant for Oak View Spirits. Rieger and Maybee wanted whiskey as their first product but knew the rye and bourbon they intended to make would require years of aging before it would be ready to bottle. They also knew they’d need a revenue source to keep the business running while they waited.

So they bought corn, malt and aged straight rye whiskeys, blended them together and added a dose of 15-year-old Oloroso sherry. Sales exceeded their expectations, and the whiskey garnered national attention, including a nomination for Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient at the 2015 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.

J. Rieger followed with Midwestern Premium Vodka. Like almost all vodka-makers, they purchased the base, in this case three neutral grain spirits made from potatoes, corn and wheat. They blended them and then distilled the combination in their copper pot still before filtering and bottling.

“It comes down to a textural thing. There’s something about the way the copper reacts with the spirit that makes a big difference in the final product,” Maybee says. “There’s an art form, a level of craftsmanship, to doing it that way.”

Certainly the judges at the 2015 Washington Cup Competition, which is open only to American-made spirits and liqueurs, agreed and presented J. Rieger’s vodka with a gold medal. “Being awarded a gold medal from that group means a lot,” says Maybee, who is also co-owner of Manifesto and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange.

Production of J. Rieger’s own rye whiskey and bourbon is underway, too, and barrels of it line the distillery’s south wall. Other products are in the works, but Midwestern Dry Gin is the focus at the moment.

Nichol’s combination of juniper, coriander seed, dried angelica root, dried orange peel and powdered licorice root is fairly conventional. What sets it apart isn’t an outrageous or secret ingredient, but quality.

“I said, ‘If you want me to make a gin for you, you need to get me the best botanicals,’ ” Nichol recalls. “And they did that. It made me really, really happy.”

Nichol distilled the gin traditionally by placing the botanicals directly into the chamber of J. Rieger’s 120-gallon still (what Nichol calls the “wee still”). He also insisted on making especially stringent cuts, or separations between the good spirit in the middle of a distillation run (the heart) and the unpleasant stuff that comes out of the still at the start and finish (foreshots, heads and tails).

The result is less, but better, gin, Nichol says.

“The way we’re doing it here is the most expensive way you could possibly think, but it gives you a good gin,” he says.

It took Nichol and the crew two days and three test runs to perfect the process. They also had input from Steve Olson, Maybee’s friend and mentor, a J. Rieger partner and an internationally recognized wine and spirits educator and consultant.

The result?

“I would call it a full-flavored, full-bodied, very richly textured gin that leans toward the citrus side,” Maybee says. “The juniper is there, but it’s not completely dominated by juniper. It’s bright and refreshing. I think it’s delicious.”

If Nichol seems opinionated about distilling, well, he should be. Nichol grew up half a mile from the Scottish distillery where his father worked. He left school at 15 and began working as a trainee warehouse manager in another distillery before switching over to his father’s.

“From then on, I’ve done almost everything in a distillery you can possibly think of,” says Nichol, who lives in Alloa, which is a bit north of and in between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Nichol moved quickly up the ranks, first making whiskey and later neutral grain spirit. When a gin job came open, he took it. Nichol continued his corporate rise and in 2006 was named Tanqueray’s master distiller. The job soon had him traveling the world even as he continued overseeing the flagship brand and resurrecting others, including Tanqueray Old Tom, Tanqueray Malacca and Tanqueray Bloomsbury.

It was a grueling schedule, and Nichol eventually tired of it. In July, he retired.

“Everybody keeps saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ I want to get my life back,” says Nichol, who looks forward to fly-fishing, hill climbing and riding his BMW motorcycle.

What he doesn’t intend to do is become a full-time consultant. Nichol collaborated on new gins with J. Rieger and the City of London Distillery, in London, but that’s it, he says.

“I’ve had loads of other offers, trust me, but I do want to retire,” Nichol says. “I would not change my life one bit. I’ve got two fantastic kids. I’ve got a lovely wife. I’ve had a great career. C’mon … I’m so fortunate.”

Nichol is back in Kansas City this week for Midwestern Dry Gin launch events here and in St. Louis, many of them for trade professionals. After taking in a Kansas City Chiefs game on Sunday, he’ll leave knowing the gin is in capable hands.

Only three people have the recipe: Nichol (because he formulated it), Rieger (so he can handle the business side) and Perry. Of them, Perry is the one who’ll be making it, and that’s fine with Nichol.

“(Perry) reminds me of me. It’s pretty special to work with someone like him,” Nichol says.

Now that the gin is formulated, Nichol is leaving it to J. Rieger’s partners to market it along with their whiskey and vodka. The company’s goal is to grow steadily and sustainably while remaining rooted in all the independent craft creativity that is Kansas City.

“We want to be a hometown distillery with this wonderful history, this wonderful story and long-term legacy,” Maybee says. “We want to be committed to making products people can be proud of.”

To reach spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to ninemilefarm@gmail.com.

Buyers guide

J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin (the list price at time of publication was expected to be less than $30 per 750 milliliter bottle, 46.1 percent alcohol by volume) is available at retailers on both sides of the state line beginning this week. Call ahead for availability. For more information about J. Rieger & Co. and its products, go to jriegerco.com.

Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate ($20, 44 percent ABV) is described by its maker as “sweet, sour, tart and creamy.” It’s available at Gomer’s Midtown (3838 Broadway) and Mike’s Wine and Spirits in Brookside (21 W. 63rd St.).

Farmhouse Fizz

This cocktail by J. Rieger & Co. co-founder Ryan Maybee is a nod to master gin distiller Tom Nichol’s penchant for Boulevard Brewing Co.’s Tank 7 beer.

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounce J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

3/4 ounce Vanilla Syrup (instructions below)

1 egg white

4 drops Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate (see Buyers Guide)

1 ounce Boulevard Tank 7 beer

Orange twist, for garnish

Combine all ingredients except the Tank 7 in a mixing glass and shake without ice. Add ice and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass (no ice), and top with beer. Garnish with orange twist.

Vanilla Syrup: Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and 1 vanilla bean (split in half) in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain into a clean container and store in the refrigerator.

Per drink: 170 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 58 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Negroni

Tom Nichol and J. Rieger’s partners celebrated the creation of its Midwestern Dry Gin with this classic. “The orange peel plays with the Campari really, really well, and the big full-bodied texture goes great with Carpano Antica vermouth,” Ryan Maybee says.

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

Orange twist, for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir. Strain over a large ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with orange.

Per drink: 183 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 9 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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