They called it the Paris of the Plains. In the 1920s, Kansas City flouted prohibition laws and became the Midwest’s hotspot for booze and jazz. A century later, new Kansas City distilleries have revived that jazz-age spirit, mixing fascinating backstories with award-winning spirits.
Kansas City distilleries call it a spirits revival
Just like everywhere else, COVID is putting a damper on the party this summer. But a savvy new generation of craft distillers with an eye toward history are working hard to preserve the city’s legacy as a nightlife mecca.
“We had to do this. It was almost like a calling from the 1920s, 1930s of bringing back what was this unbelievable history for Kansas City,” said David Epstein, a fifth-generation Kansas Citian and co-founder of Tom’s Town Distilling Co.
As Americans note the centennial anniversary of the 18th Amendment sweeping in prohibition nationwide, we’re also coasting on a nearly 20-year-old craft cocktail boom. The cocktail craze, and some innovative Kansas Citians have meant a rebirth for Kansas City distilleries. Along with the creation of Tom’s Town, the last decade has seen the revival of the historic J. Rieger Co. distillery across town and several other craft spirits operations.
A speakeasy paradise
Tom’s Town is named for the notorious Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, who started out as a saloon keeper and liquor distributor and was running the town by the early 1920s. Under Pendergast, Kansas City essentially ignored prohibition and became a speakeasy paradise and one of the cradles of jazz.
“All of the [jazz] greats would come here and play here because there were no laws to stop them,” Epstein said. “As we always say about Tom Pendergast, he really didn’t care about black or white: he cared about green. And because of that, jazz exploded here.”
Family ties and a jazz-age vibe
Epstein and his business partner Steve Revare have been friends since second grade, and both have fascinating family histories tied to prohibition era Kansas City. Epstein spent two decades working in media in New York but was looking for a change and found Kansas City calling his name.
He and Revare launched Tom’s Town in 2015, just blocks from Pendergast’s political headquarters. The partners were inspired in part by their own deep roots in the city. Epstein’s grandfather Herman Epstein was a rival bootlegger — one of many who were put out of business by Pendergast. Revare’s great uncle Maurice Milligan was the district attorney brought in by Franklin Roosevelt to put Pendergast behind bars.
“We had this crazy relationship with prohibition-era Kansas City and also a love of spirits. We always say we’re not distillers, we’re not mixologists, we’re drinkers,” Epstein said.
The partners hired a top-notch distilling team and started producing bourbon, gin, and vodka. In 2017, USA Today called Tom’s Town’s Double Grain Vodka (made with wheat and Missouri rye grown just 30 miles away from the distillery) the best craft vodka in the U.S. Epstein has a passion for research and a literary bent and has worked to create a distinctive jazz age vibe in the distillery.
“We’ve tried to emphasize and bring back that whole prohibition feel that was the hallmark of Kansas City in that day,” he said.
Epstein notes that the legendary writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas at the end of World War I. He says his research suggests that Pendergast may have been an inspiration for Jay Gatsby, the iconic bootlegger in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby.”
Historians also credit Pendergast with launching the political career of Missouri native Harry S. Truman, sponsoring his first campaign for a local administrative court. Truman became president after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. This year, Tom’s Town unveiled a special edition bourbon in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the beginning of Truman’s presidency.
A “second city” renaissance
Pre-COVID, Tom’s Town’s restaurant and tasting room were jumping, and the co-founders were gradually ramping up distribution (their products are now available in eight states.) For Epstein, leaving New York to come home and make craft spirits was a winning decision, and he’s a firm believer in the potential of smaller cities and the room they afford to tackle big projects.
“I’m fascinated by second cities or even third cities. … In New York, you live in this Manhattan or Brooklyn bubble. And the minute you leave, you think, ‘There are some stars out there.’ It felt like Kansas City was this diamond in the rough. Now it’s just blooming like the Denvers and Nashvilles and Austins in the 90s.”
“The need to bring it back”
Despite the free flow of booze at hundreds of Kansas City speakeasies during the ’20s and ’30s, prohibition shut down the city’s distilleries. One of the last to close its doors was J. Rieger & Co., at one point the nation’s largest mail-order whiskey house.
“I immediately felt the need to bring it back,” Maybee said. “Kansas City has a really unique place in history when it comes to prohibition…Over the last 10 years there’s been a huge resurgence in large part due to the cocktail renaissance.”
Maybee relaunched J. Rieger & Co. in 2014, 94 years after prohibition shut it down, the first in a new wave of Kansas City distilleries.
Austrian immigrant Jacob Rieger launched the original distillery in 1887. But it was shut down at the end of 1919, before Prohibition kicked in in January of 1920. The Rieger family also built the Rieger Hotel on Kansas City’s Main Street in 1914. In 2010, Maybee launched his bar Manifesto in the basement of that former hotel and became fascinated with the family’s history.
When Maybee expanded to the first floor of the building later that year, he named his new restaurant The Rieger. That caught the attention of one of the last Rieger descendants, Andy Rieger, who was working in finance in Dallas. Rieger came to the restaurant opening, met Maybee, and the two worked out a plan to bring back the distillery.
“A lost art”
Maybee’s initial focus was on making a great whiskey in honor of the Rieger legacy. Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey remains the company’s flagship, a contemporary brand inspired by the design and ingredients of the past. Maybee and his distilling team revived the 19th century practice of adding sherry as a blending agent, giving the contemporary whiskey a distinctive flavor and a hint of sweetness.
“It’s kind of a lost art,” Maybee said. “In discovering that, it was just another piece of the puzzle where we could not only resurrect this brand but also resurrect a style of whiskey that was long lost.”
The company has since added gin, vodka and amaro to its product list and has focused intently on distribution. For its first five years, J. Rieger operated exclusively as a warehouse distillery with no on-premise presence. The owners focused on building the brand with a strong retail presence in Missouri and Kansas while moving into bars and restaurants in 21 other states.
“We want to eventually be global,” Maybee said.
“Bullish on the future”
Last year, Maybee took the huge step of opening an impressive on-premise operation featuring multiple bars, event spaces, two kitchens and a museum. He hired 60 new employees to staff the new storefront. Then COVID hit.
“We went from having no retail to having a very large and comprehensive experience,” Maybee said.“When COVID hit, that went to zero overnight…It was truly devastating.”
With a strong local presence on retail shelves and production of Rieger’s Remedy, an FDA approved hand sanitizer, the company is managing to hang in.
Times are undeniably tough for the food and beverage sector nationwide. But Epstein, with Tom’s Town, sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and his optimism is rooted in a look back at history. Recently, historians have underscored the role of the 1918 swine flu (on top of the end of World War I) as a big contributing factor to the roaring 20s. Epstein thinks there may be a similar revival post-COVID, and Kansas City distilleries are ready.
“I’m pretty bullish on the future for culinary. It’s going to be brutal: the next six months—it’s a nightmare. But I’m very bullish about the future because I’m looking in the rearview mirror,” Epstein said. “We will get through this and I think a whole generation, the whole country, the whole world is going to say, ‘I want to experience the joy of life. I want to embrace that.’ I think the culinary world has to reimagine itself as everybody needs to take a break from life, and it will be a special time. I have no doubt.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.