With the opening of four local craft distilleries, Kansas City seems to be embracing its Pendergast Era roots, securing its place as the “Paris of the Plains” and poising to once again be known as the wettest block in the world.
“If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City,” said Edward Morrow in the Omaha World Herald in 1938, creating the title.
Kansas City had established itself as a center of modern culture and gained a national reputation for its vibrant nightlife and jazz scene. With that reputation, the workings of the Pendergast Machine, and being known to have “the wettest block in the world” during Prohibition, its no surprise that the title stuck.
The recent opening of four local distilleries coincide with a symposium at the KC Public Library Plaza Branch, “Wide Open Town: Kansas City during the Pendergast Era.”
The first to open in November 2014, J. Rieger & Co. is actually a re-opening of a vintage brand. Originally opened in 1887 by Jacob Rieger, it became the largest mail-order whiskey company in the region. The distillery closed at the onset of Prohibition, but not before Jacob’s son, Alexander, opened The Rieger Hotel near Union Station in 1915. The “O! So Good” slogan and legacy live on through the great-great-great-grandson of Jacob Rieger. Andy Rieger co-owns J. Rieger & Co. with Ryan Maybee, who first though of the idea when opening his bar, Manifesto, in the basement of The Rieger Hotel.
“It was really the history of the brand that got me excited about it,” said Maybee. “The fact that it’s an historic KC company that died with Prohibition was too intriguing to not think about bringing it back.”
J. Rieger & Co. was the first craft distillery to open in Kansas City since Prohibition.
“It’s fun to take the pioneering aspect of being the “first”, said Maybee, “as this will pave the way for other distilleries to open up, encouraging competition, creating jobs, and making Kansas City a more exciting town than it already is.”
It did start a trend, providing the citizens of Kansas City a plethora of local spirits to choose from. In January of this year, Tom’s Town Distilling opened in The Crossroad’s Arts District.
“We want Kansas City to become known for what we were in the ‘20s and ‘30s…The Paris of the Plains,” said David Epstein, co-owner of Tom’s Town. “Our town’s renaissance was about a spirit of celebration, irreverence, and rebellion of the entire city.”
Currently selling Eli’s StrongArm Vodka and McElroy’s Corruption Gin, their whiskey debuts in April.
Just north of the river, Restless Spirits Distilling opened in February, offering Irish-inspired spirits, such as Duffy’s Run Vodka and Stone Breaker Whiskey. With an Irish heritage, the Shannon family has brought the isles to the plains.
Lifted Spirits Distilling will open this summer in The Crossroad’s District. Their focus is locally made and regionally acquired goods. Local grain is grinded, mashed, and distilled on site by the group. The sense of locality is a cornerstone in their work.
“We wanted to create a place where the community could share the passion of making great spirits, and to pull back the curtain and let people really get the full experience,” said Kyle Claypool, founder of Lifted Spirits.
Lifted Spirits Distilling plans on holding workshops and cooperating with other local distilleries to create tours and events, further adding to the growing market of craft distilleries in Kansas City.
“We’re firm believers that the more people are aware of and enjoy locally-made stuff, the better off all the distilleries will be,” Claypool said.
In the spirit of “spirits” and history, the KC Public Library is hosting it’s second series in an effort to create a digital encyclopedia of Kansas City history. The “Wide Open Town” symposium will be held at the Plaza Branch April 1st and 2nd, featuring presentations from professional historians exploring the 1920s and ‘30s in KC history. A keynote address from David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus, at Stanford University, “The Great Depression: Causes, Impact, Consequences” takes place April 1 at 6:30pm. The entire event is free and open to the general public and tickets are available online.
Kansas City’s storied past provides its future with the opportunity to create something lasting. Local craft distilling, while missing for much of the 20th century, is back and using nostalgia and history to create an experience for its consumers, while at the same time providing quality spirits: a combination that is sure to be “O! So Good.”