J. Rieger & Co.
Destination Distillery in Kansas City, Missouri.
Story by Lisa Waterman Gray
When was the last time you rocketed down a 40-foot indoor slide? Or enjoyed brunch in the heart of a massive new distillery and historic local building? How about checking out a personalized whiskey bottling station or sipping premium, house-distilled spirits inside one of several full-service cocktail bars and lounge spaces—all under one roof?
These are several reasons why J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City, Missouri, was recently named by USA Today, as one of the nation’s top 10 new attractions—the only distillery to make the list. Since opening to the public, in 2019, it’s quickly become a singular destination: An estimated 80,000 guests visited during the company’s first six months, with more than 3,000 tickets sold for distillery tours.
J. Rieger & Co. is the vision of founding partners Andy Rieger and Ryan Maybee. Once home to pre-Prohibition Heim Brewery bottling operations, this 60,000-square-foot building offers terrific views of current production facilities, where food and beverages are served amid sleek, modern surroundings with a Kansas City feel.
In 1887, Rieger’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob, founded Jacob Rieger & Company, in the West Bottoms Livestock Exchange district. With Alexander Rieger as brand ‘marketer,’ this company became the nation’s largest mail-order whiskey house.
Its newspaper ads offered spirits packages and bulk discounts, with multiple whiskeys, brandies, and liqueurs available. Holiday ads even touted a cocktail book full of recipes and special offers. By the early 1900s the company shipped more than 100 products, nationwide, with more than 165,000 customers by 1911, and 250,000 by 1914.
“The name [of this company] was a brand that was all about Kansas City before Prohibition,” says Andy Rieger. “Now, we want to build a brand that people can fall in love with. We’re in a neighborhood that people don’t naturally go to, so we had to figure out what our ‘carrots’ were and create a first impression that is special right off the bat.”
Rieger and Maybee acquired the building in the historic Electric Park neighborhood, only four years after they resurrected the brand and found their young business bursting at the seams. When Heim Brewery occupied this space, the neighborhood name honored one of the nation’s earliest fully illuminated amusement parks.
Today, J. Rieger & Co.’s passionate purveyors contribute extensive hospitality and spirits experience to their business. Rieger and Maybee also collaborate with top spirits industry experts, as they work to restore the iconic brand. In addition, they have reclaimed the original company’s 1887 slogan, “O! so good!”
Manufacturing occupies 15,000 square feet of the building and J. Rieger & Co. now distributes to more than 20 states. Products include Midwestern Dry Gin, Premium Wheat Vodka, Holiday Label KC Whiskey, Left for Dead (distilled from one or more local Boulevard Beer brews), Caffè Amaro (a coffee liqueur collaboration with Kansas City-based coffee roasters, Thou Mayest), and offerings of single, private barrel selections.
The unique Kansas City Whiskey combines straight bourbon whiskey, light corn whiskey, and straight rye whiskey (each of which has been aged for at least four years) with some 15-year-old Oloroso Sherry. “It’s historical to have blending sherry wine, in whiskey,” says Rieger.
A recent gin took about eight months from start to ready-to-drink, and all of the bourbon and rye whiskies age for at least four years. “We’ve never wanted so many spirits that they will distract,” says Rieger. “We don’t want too many core products.” However, the company will add a new straight bourbon and a straight rye whiskey between 2021 and 2022.
Daily distillery tours start near an expansive gift shop. Prefer to learn without a guide? There’s also a fascinating 3,000-square-foot museum full of artifacts and print narrative regarding the distillery’s 130+-year legacy.
Upstairs, sunlight streams in on three sides of the Monogram Lounge. It’s home to a spacious social and game area with comfy seating and small tables—plus the entry point to that one-of-a-kind slide. A long, wood-faced bar seats at least a dozen customers. A private bar area and a gorgeous barrel room with massive table provide other great options for group gatherings, too.
With the recent addition of the “Hey! Hey! Club.,” Maybee and Rieger wanted to honor Kansas City’s legendary Hey Hay Club, a 1930s saloon owned by local entrepreneur Milton Morris. His club became widely recognized as the place to hear renowned jazz musicians, such as Count Basie, while customers sat on hay bales. Open Wednesday through Saturday nights, the Club offers a well-stocked bar plus spirited cocktails, and ‘bites’ such as a local cheese plate or herb-roasted beef filet.
“We’re toying with creating a patio bar—our third and final onsite [entertainment] concept,” says Rieger. “There’s a classic feel to each area. We’re generating our own ‘district,’ like the Crossroads (a popular arts district), and we want to start to help our neighborhood build out.”
Along with many other distilleries nationwide, during the Covid-19 outbreak J. Rieger & Co. began producing hand sanitizer. It repurposed its overproof gin (70% ABV) to create the alcohol-based hand sanitizer “Rieger’s Remedy.” In addition to helping supply hand sanitizer to medical professionals, first responders and critical infrastructure businesses, some of the production is available for public purchase. Public pick-up is available at Blade & Timber Axe Throwing locations in the greater Kansas City area, including at Town Center Plaza. Order online here.
Plan A Trip
J. Rieger & Co.
Kansas City, MO 64120
It’s easy to find homegrown spots to imbibe in Kansas City, Missouri. Additional distilleries include the new West Bottoms Whiskey Co., Mean Mule Distilling Co., and Tom’s Town Distilling Co. (the city’s first legal downtown distillery since Prohibition). For wine head to Amigoni Urban Winery, and KC Wineworks. For beer try Casual Animal Brewing Company, Stockyards Brewing Co., Double Shift Brewing Company, Strange Days Brewing Co., Brewery Emperial, and Border Brewing Company. Kansas City’s oldest, Boulevard Brewing Company is well-known for its terrific public tours, too.
Need a couple days to visit all these wine and spirits outposts? Nearby stay options include Holiday Inn Aladdin, Ambassador Kansas City, Hilton President Downtown Kansas City Hotel, Hotel Phillips Kansas City, 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City, Crowne Plaza Hotel Kansas City Downtown, and Loews Kansas City Hotel (originally scheduled to open April 2020).
Previously a restaurant cook and a professional baker, as well as a catering and a cooking school assistant, Lisa Waterman Gray has written food-focused stories for dozens of publications for local, national, and international audiences. Based on the Kansas side of the Kansas City area, she loves getting a ‘taste’ of every destination and telling the stories behind those flavors. Learn more at www.lisawatermangray.com.