Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

J. Rieger and Co., the anchor of the East Bottoms in the historic Heim Brewery building, is expanding in a big way. On August 16, the distillery debuted its Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey, the first whiskey distilled in Kansas City since Prohibition.

Jacob Rieger founded J. Rieger & Co. in 1887 at 1529 Genesee Street in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood. In 1919, with the passing of the 18th Amendment, J. Rieger & Co. was forced to shut down. For 95 years, J. Rieger & Co. sat dormant, a casualty of Prohibition.

In 2014, under the guidance of industry legend Dave Pickerell, Ryan Maybee and Andy Rieger relaunched J. Rieger & Co. with a sourced and blended Kansas City Whiskey.

“From the onset we began building an actual functioning distillery where we could make our own bourbon, our own rye, whatever we wanted to make,” Maybee said. “But in making those products, you know you’ve got to wait at least a minimum of four years before you could even consider putting them in a bottle.”

The whiskey, barreled in the fall of 2015, is in the first barrels laid down at the J. Rieger & Co. distillery in nearly a century. A huge commitment of finances, labor and patience – without being able to get any feedback from customers – they knew that the first whiskey distilled by J. Rieger in Co. in 95 years could not be rushed.

A “bottled-in-bond” whiskey is no easy task. Going into effect in 1897, the Bottled in Bond Act was the first consumer quality act in the U.S. In order to be classified, it has to be completely unadulterated – a straight whiskey, bourbon or rye – distilled all in one season, done in the same distillery by the same distiller, bottled in the same season it was distilled – at 100 proof – and aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of four years.

“I think it’s part of the tradition, honestly, it’s something that has been done for a long time,” Head Distiller Nathan Perry said. “It’s this very specific set of rules that if you want to do it, everyone has to do it exactly the same. If you’re a huge distiller or if you’re somebody more our size, you have to go through the exact same process. It’s a cool way to kind of jump into this tradition of distilling in America.”

There aren’t many bottled-in-bond whiskeys out there, especially with rye. They’re already getting calls from around the country asking how they can get it, Maybee said, proud to be making a name for Kansas City in the world of whiskey. J. Rieger & Co. products are already distributed to 25 states.
“It’s even more special, it’s a much more specific designation and type of whiskey that really represents a specific time and place,” Maybee said. “What’s in this bottle was distilled in this building in the fall of 2015 and I think that’s just a really cool thing and something we should be really proud of.”

J. Rieger’s Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey is a pot distilled rye that consists of 96% rye and 4% malted barley. The team wanted the rye at the forefront, which is why they chose to make it a very dominant rye grain bill.
“We distilled this rye paying very close attention to the spice that we all know and love from rye whiskeys and made sure that the new make we put in the barrel had the aggressive spice we had hoped for,” according to its description.

After sampling barrels from the fall distilling season of 2015, the team was able to pick a selection that it felt would make for the best tasting whiskey that J. Rieger could put forward as its first release. The team felt it was able to showcase all of the aspects of rye whiskey and the unique distilling process in these barrels. They left behind a few barrels that will be able to be utilized in future releases of older age statement whiskeys.

The rye whiskey was properly aged for six years, respecting the time-honored tradition of aging whiskey in 53-gallon charred White American Oak barrels from Independent Stave in Lebanon, Mo.

“It’s a little surreal,” said Perry, a resident of Northeast. “We’re just now finally getting a chance to show people what we’ve been doing this whole time. It’s pretty exciting – it’s kind of ridiculously exciting.”

Aromas of caramelized orange and fresh baked bread, flowery notes of orange blossom and cut grass, flavors of toasted cedar, five spice, salty sunflower seeds and cinnamon combine to create Kansas City’s first whiskey in nearly a century. Mid-palate is rich with chocolate-covered cherries, buttered popcorn, and a lingering spicy fruit-jam character, giving a cherry-cola like quality. A long finish with drier notes of sage, mint, and a little toasted coconut is extremely balanced and pleasant to revisit with each sip.

“I don’t know if I fully realize it,” Perry said of being part of the first whiskey distilled in Kansas City in 90 plus years. “Right now it still feels like it’s kind of our thing, we haven’t had the chance to actually get it out there and get people talking about it. It doesn’t feel exactly real yet.”

This product is a tribute to Dave Pickerell, the legendary master distiller who mentored Perry and shared his knowledge and passion for creating the finest whiskeys in America, who died in 2018.

“We brought him on early as a partner and consultant to show us all the things we didn’t know – there was no one better to help us design and build a distillery and teach us how to make whiskey,” Maybee said.

Looking to the future and honoring the past, Perry said he’d like to continue expanding their products to include more botanical spirits. Perry has two assistant distillers and a handful of other employees on the production floor, and the team continues to grow in every area.

When considering expanding their products, Maybee said they’re always trying to be creative while serving a purpose, without diluting their identity. He’s excited to educate the country on what Kansas City whiskey is, and getting their gin out there in a bigger way.

“It’s tough because I think there’s going to be ideas we’re going to come up with in the next two years that’ll make that whiskey in 10 years, that product in 10 years, into something that’s so different,” Perry said.
Following the addition of a new product, a physical expansion is in the works at the distillery. Honoring the once-great Heim Electric Park, an amusement park in the neighborhood from 1899 to 1906, J. Rieger is crafting the Electric Park Garden Bar, a one-of-a-kind outdoor bar and restaurant on its campus.

Soon to be complete with fire pits, a swing set table, and lounge seating, this park-like space will offer an unique outdoor patio bar experience. J. Rieger’s in-house chefs are creating playful menus inspired by nostalgic theme parks and soda parlors.

The original Electric Park was owned and operated by the Heim brothers, who owned the Heim Brewery in the neighborhood and bottled their beer in what is today J. Rieger’s distillery building.

“Electric Park has such a cool story and really cool history in Kansas City, we wanted to breathe new life into that and tell that story and make that a part of our identity,” Maybee said. “There’s not another distillery like this outside of Kentucky. You’ve got to travel quite a long way to get this type of distillery experience, from the tours to the on-site bars. It’s a really dynamic and very cool experience that’s not only for Kansas City but serves as a regional tourist attraction.”

Keeping the history of Kansas City intertwined with J. Rieger & Co. alive is vital, Maybee said.

“We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t tell that story the correct way,” Maybee said. “That’s why we’ve dedicated 4,000 square feet to building a museum because the J. Rieger & Co. story in Kansas City warrants that on its own, but then when you connect the dots with the Heim family and this building and what it did, and then Electric Park, tying it back to prohibition in Kansas City putting all of us out of business.”

Kansas City contractor JE Dunn and architects from GastingerWalker& began physical work this past spring, with a projected opening date in the last week of September.

To create an indoor-outdoor atrium, they extended a covered platform off the east side of the distillery’s lobby.

“There were some original pavers out there, like over 100 years old, some of them were missing or broken, but we’re repurposing them and incorporating them back into the space,” Maybee said.

Although the design has evolved over the years, creating an outdoor space has always been the owners’ intention. When they opened in 2019, they decided that for ease of opening and because of financial constraints, they would postpone it – and COVID-19 pushed it back even further.

Maybee said they’re in the process of acquiring another warehouse for barrel storage, but have no plans to expand in terms of another venue. They can already host upwards of 1,200 people, and hosting events is a huge part of their business.

“That’s why the past 18 months have been so challenging, because having large groups has been, at times, impossible,” Maybee said, adding that they’re trying to get back to a new normal. “Our business is increasing, we’re open five days a week – probably going to expand our hours to a full seven days a week – so we’re headed in the right direction.”

They’re looking to hire “Electric Park Rangers” to staff the new venue, including bartenders, servers, food runners, support/barbacks, hosts, line cooks and dishwashers.

“Weekends tend to be booked out – at least for tours and The Hey! Hey! Club, we have a lot more space upstairs [in The Monogram Lounge] – but we’re starting to see business come back strong,” Maybee said.

Maybee, a resident of Independence Plaza, said he sees a lot of familiar faces from the Northeast neighborhoods visiting J. Rieger.

“A big objective of ours is to be an anchor for the neighborhood, for the area, so we want to make sure we’re focusing on this immediate area, as well,” Maybee said.

J. Rieger’s venues, The Monogram Lounge and The Hey! Hey! Club, are open for reservations and walk-ins, and tours and tastings available Wednesday through Sunday.