Maker City KC

Whiskey business: Catching up with Nathan Perry, head distiller at J. Rieger & Co.

J. Rieger & Co. head distiller Nathan Perry (left) collaborates with Tom Nichol, the former master distiller at Tanqueray, on the Kansas City distillery’s gin recipe.
J. Rieger & Co. head distiller Nathan Perry (left) collaborates with Tom Nichol, the former master distiller at Tanqueray, on the Kansas City distillery’s gin recipe.

Last week, J. Rieger & Co. debuted its newly expanded distillery in Kansas City’s historic Electric Park neighborhood.

The 60,000 square foot distillery and hospitality center at 2700 Guinotte Ave. is like a playground for whiskey lovers with two full-size cocktail bars, a 3,500-square-foot historical exhibit, a whiskey bottling station, a huge barrel storage facility and a 40-foot slide from the tony Monogram Lounge upstairs to the main floor.

It was named to Thrillist’s 2019 list of America’s best new attractions before it even opened to the public.

At the heart of the space is the distillery — the machine-like maze of shiny tanks and tubes where head distiller Nathan Perry makes whiskey, gin, vodka and Caffe Amaro, a liqueur that incorporates Thou Mayest single origin coffee.

Last week, before the distillery opened to the public, we caught up with Perry, a self-described “science nerd” who previously worked as a high school teacher and a microbiologist at Boulevard Brewing Co.

What’s it like working in the new distillery?

Weird, in a good way. We’re doing our first run on the new bottling line today.

Aesthetically, it looks way cooler. We changed our whiskey production. We were doing 750-gallon batches and going into a pot distiller. Now we separate our whiskey distillation into two stills. That allows us to do a stripping run to strip the alcohol from the grain and then re-distill it in the pot still. We went from 750 gallon batches to 2,500 gallon batches.

How has your gin distillation process changed?

We kept our old gin still but that’s going to transition to a test still. That’ll allow us to do a full 500-bottle test. There’s a little more flexibility there.

My new gin still is one Tom (Nichol, former master distiller at Tanqueray) and I drew up on a piece of paper. I was rummaging through some of my notebooks and I found it folded up. It was the original sketch of what became the custom gin still that came out of Kentucky. Our gin capacity has increased from a 120-gallon still to a 500-gallon still.

The distillery is encased in glass. What’s it going to be like working in front of visitors all day?

The public side is all windows looking into the production space. You can have a cocktail and look down and see what we’re distilling that day. That will feel a little weird, like we’re in a terrarium. We’re going to have to get used to it, because we’ve already built it, and we won’t have a choice now!

Starting in August, we’ll have tours going every day. But even if you don’t go on a tour, you’ll be able to see a lot of things about the history of the brand and the history of the neighborhood. We’re excited to tell visitors the story of Heim Brewery and Electric Park.

What’s your favorite spirit to work on: Whiskey, gin or vodka?

Honestly, the gin is probably my favorite now, just because with the whiskey, you do the best you can on the distilling side, but then you set it away in a barrel for years. There are different schools of thought about what comes from the distillation and what comes from the barrel. Barrel-aging is a little bit of a wild card.

Tom is coming back in town in August to distill on our new gin still. We’re going to tweak the recipe a little bit. Once we have that runoff off the still, it’s gin — it’s ready to go.

How do you use your senses to distill spirits?

We function a lot on taste. We use acetaldehyde as the marker on distillation. It has a fresh-cut grass smell. Toward the end of the distillation, the heavier compounds — the tails of whiskey distillation — they don’t taste good. You want to see where they’re coming in. Before we put anything in a bottle, we take a very small sample and do a quick taste just to make sure nothing weird happened at any point. That’s our final check.

I’m lucky because some of the compounds that are important for me to taste, I’m sensitive to them.

How did working as a microbiologist for a brewery prepare you for a career in distilling?

One of the things was having to take sterile samples of products in the pipelines to make sure there was no bacterial contamination. To do that effectively, you have to understand the process and flow in a way that could help me be valuable. With brewing, you could write (the process) on a postcard and it looks simple. But when you really get down to it, it’s a really complicated machine. That’s something I was able to do at Boulevard: Problem solving in a big machine.

What was it like learning about whiskey from Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller for Maker’s Mark?

Dave could be seen as the father of craft distilling in America. He did so much to help that grow. We had him become a partner in our business. Dave and I, two summers ago during PopFest (the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival in Kansas City) we sat down every day and designed and did all the engineering and drawings for the distillery.

The very unfortunate thing is that he passed away last fall. There have been times through this process, I would’ve normally been able to text him or call him. So we have a lot more legwork on our end.

When we’re firing up all this equipment, to not have him around, I’m feeling it... I want to have him around because he was fun to be around. But also, he is one of the most knowledgeable men I’ve ever met.

Are apprenticeships the best way to learn distilling?

In the brewing world, you can get degrees from several universities, but there’s really not that (for distilling) right now. You learn so much more on the job doing hands-on things.

A good undergraduate degree we recommend for people around here is chemical engineering. But I wouldn’t say you have to have that. I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent you from getting a job at a distillery with no degree. Mechanical aptitude is really important — if you’re going to work in a distillery, you’re going to be more valuable if you know how to fix something. Running a still is easy when everything’s working right.

It wouldn’t hurt to work in a brewery, but there are some pretty big differences (between brewing and distilling). If you’re passionate about distillation, you’re going to have to throw out your resume, express your interest and try to get your foot in the door at a distillery.

How do you like to enjoy J. Rieger & Co. spirits?

I’ve been looking forward to being able to walk upstairs and say, ‘I’ll take a gin and tonic.’ Yesterday I had gin with a squeeze of lime juice when I got in. I like a neat pour of any one of our products.

Have you been using the 40-foot slide from the Monogram Lounge to the main floor of the distillery?

As soon as we opened that up I joked that I was never going to walk the stairs. Since that happened I have only walked down the stairs once, and that’s because I was carrying something. It’s a blast.

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