In June of 2019, J. Rieger & Co. will open to the public in Kansas City, Missouri for the first time in almost a century. The new facility will feature two trendy bars, a custom whiskey bottling station, and a room dedicated to cutting 200 pounds of clear ice per day – but behind the swanky new digs for the distillery is an even more interesting story.
The distillery was first founded in 1887 by Austrian/Hungarian immigrant and grocer Jacob Rieger. It was a family business, subsequently managed by his son Alexander, who was a marketer every much as he was a businessman. In addition to whiskey, he sold accessories such as glassware and corkscrews emblazoned with proud slogans “Best on Earth” and “O! So Good!”
The distillery made its home in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, known as “The Wettest Block in the World” due to the high concentration of saloons, brothels, casinos, distilleries, and more. Business was booming – in the years leading up to 1920, J. Rieger & Co. was the country’s largest mail order spirits business. The family opened the Rieger Hotel, and commissioned a mural on the side of Rieger’s Monogram Whiskey.
In 1920, though, Prohibition hit, forcing distilleries around the country, including J. Rieger, to close their doors. The family sold the hotel, changed industries to banking, and moved on. The brand was all but lost until Ryan Maybee, a bartender and restaurateur in Kansas City, took an interest in the family name.
After opening his first bar, Manifesto, in the basement of the Rieger Hotel, he discovered whiskey history of the building. In 2010, he partnered with Chef Howard Hanna to open a new restaurant on the main floor of the hotel – and named it The Rieger. On opening night they were joined by Andy Rieger, Jacob’s great-great-great grandson. It was that night that Ryan turned to Andy and said, “we should bring back the old distillery.”
And that’s just what they set out to do. Under the guidance of the late whiskey legend Dave Pickerell, they began sourcing and blending Kansas City Whiskey, first released in 2014. By 2015, they’d installed a Vendome Copper still and added vodka and gin to their spirits line. Soon, we’ll see the first rye and bourbon whiskies distilled under the J. Rieger name in almost 100 years.
The current J. Rieger & Co. Distillery is being built out from the 118-year-old Heim Brewery Bottling building and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Bottling building didn’t just bottle beer – it also made the bottles for J. Rieger’s spirits. To honor this history, KC Bier Co. is developing “Heim Beer,” a traditional German lager brewed in the style of the original Heim Brewery, to be served exclusively at the distillery.
In addition to tours of the new facilities, guests can take classes, play around with filling their own bottles, shop at The Mercantile gift shop, or rent space for events or meetings. Want a drink? Visit The Monogram Lounge overlooking the production floor of the working distillery, or sneak down to the Hey! Hey! Club, a cozy jazz bar in the basement.
Don’t wait till happy hour to stop by, though. The distillery will be open in the morning serving local brew from Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters, and will offer free WiFi and space to work or study.
As a nod to the legacy behind both the brand and the building, the remodel will also feature a 3,000 square foot Kansas City history exhibit. The best part? Hold on to your whiskey, folks – there’s a 40-foot slide between stories. “Why? Because we thought it would be fun,” said the distillery in a press release.
“As we prepare to open our doors this summer, we are entering a new chapter of the J. Rieger & Co. legacy in Kansas City,” says Ryan Maybee, Co-Founder and VP of Sales & Hospitality. “When we first launched in 2014, our focus was on resurrecting the brand, which meant creating the highest quality whiskey, gin and other spirits inspired by our vibrant history. We are extraordinarily proud of the national growth and recognition that we have accomplished and will apply that same high standard to shaping the future of our new home here in Electric Park.”
If you, like us, can’t wait to visit, you’ll be pleased to know that J. Rieger & Co. is on schedule to open in June of this year. Click here to read more of their story.