Although I’ve lived in Kansas City for nearly 18 years, I don’t know that much about its history. While Kansas has always had stricter liquor laws than Missouri, I didn’t know what it was like during prohibition. Kansas enacted prohibition voluntarily in 1881, nearly forty years before the Federal government passed the Volstead Act. However, Kansas City continued operating its speakeasies without a single arrest. Jazz music flourished as bars and clubs were open around the clock. Kansans from across the state continued coming across the Missouri border for alcohol. In recent years, some entrepreneurs have been bringing back distilling and have been winning awards for their spirits. (Tom Pendergast would be proud.) If you’re interested in learning more about KC’s history through its distilleries, here’s a tour of Kansas City’s distilleries.
Distills: Midwestern Dry Gin, Kansas City Whiskey, Premium Wheat Vodka, Caffè Amaro
Separate Bar: The Monogram Lounge and The Hey! Hey! Club (Wed-Sat: 5pm-midnight, reservations encouraged)
Food: Yes, small plates
Tours: 7 days a week, $15+tax/person (21+), $5+tax/child between 11-20 years old, kids 10 years and younger are free
Perhaps the most interesting thing about J. Rieger & Co. is the fact that it was founded in 1887, operated until 1919, and was brought back to life in 2012. During its initial phase, it served a quarter million customers through its 100-item mail-order catalogue. Throughout the lobby, there’s a full history of the distillery past and present. Between the welcome video and the museum, there’s a lot to learn and appreciate about this brand.
A couple of spiral staircases flank the distilling room to give the distillers a better view into the mash tubs. Once you’ve completed the tour, the slide (on the right) is a fun way to get from the Monogram Lounge back down to the first floor. We saw guests of all ages having fun on it.
We had a tasting of J. Rieger’s four spirits and then had a cocktail to complete the tour. They had four pre-made cocktails on tap to choose from. I had the seasonal gin and tonic with homemade elderflower and rosé strawberry tonic. We relaxed upstairs in the lounge with a cheeseboard and some table shuffleboard.
Distills: Gold and Silver American Agave Spirits
Separate Bar: Yes, the tasting room (which opened in June 2019) offers cocktails
Food: No (although there is a vending machine with some snacks)
A newer kid on the block, Mean Mule has the distinction for being the only American Agave Spirit distiller in the Midwest. Steeped in family tradition of distilling, this distillery is a welcome addition to Kansas City. It’s a great place to unwind, and you can grab food a couple doors down at The Parlor.
For a rather limited bar, the cocktails are quite impressive. Definitely worth adding to your list. We enjoyed two of their new cocktail menu items. Brian had the drink on the left, the ‘Tis the Season, made with agave spirit, sweet potato, lemon, aquafaba, and bitters. I enjoyed The Mean Mule which is made with agave spirit, jalapenõ syrup, lime, ginger beer, and mezcal. It was spicy and satisfying.
Finding a sunny spot for a cocktail can be hard but Mean Mule has you bathed in light.
Distills: Gin (Botanical and Barreled), Bourbon (Gold and Double Oaked), Double Grain Vodka
Separate Bar: Yes
Food: Yes, small plates
Tours: Yes, daily tours are given for $10/person at 4:30pm and 6:30pm, additional tours on weekends at 2:30pm and 8:30pm
Named after Tom Pendergast, Tom’s Town holds extra meaning for me as it’s built in the first building I worked in when I moved to Kansas City. It’s fun to walk through the space, which originally was an auto carriage factory before The Pitch bought it. I also love the art deco style of the building and the brand. Look at how beautiful the bar/lounge area is (above)! Watching the distillers work as you sip a cocktail is also a treat.
I wore a sweatshirt from a rival distillery to the tour and gin class we took, but lucky for me, they had a gift shop. They sell a three-pack of their three main spirits which are perfect for everyone on your holiday gift list.
After learning about their gin botanicals and creating a version of our own, we had a cocktail and a bite to eat. I had the Corpse Reviver #2 made with the barreled gin, Mathilde Orange liqueur, Cocchi Americano, lemon juice, and an absinthe rinse. It was about as perfect as this picture.
Distills: Gin (Bright and Bold), Whiskey, Vodka, Absinthe
Separate Bar: Yes
Tours: Yes, free, Thursday-Sunday at 5pm, no reservation needed
Lifted Spirits makes their spirits from soft red wheat from a single farm in Wellsville, KS. The owner taught himself how to distill using French distilling manuals he found at the library. For the past three years, they’ve been celebrating the community and ethos of Kansas City through the name of the company. Upstairs from the bar is a good sized community and event space, in case you are looking for a cool spot in the Crossroads.
This was my favorite cocktail on the tour of Kansas City’s distilleries. The Suzy in the Sky is a blend of bold gin, gentian root liqueur, spicy honey syrup, coconut, and lime. I will definitely be recreating this one at home. The barrels on the left are where the spirits are aged and stored. Their barrels are smaller than traditional barrels, due to space constraints, and are made in Kentucky.
Distills: Whiskey (White, Four Grain, Bourbon, Rye), Vodka
Separate Bar: Yes, open once a month for Distillery Socials with a food truck (next one is November 21) but going to be open in December (and hopefully continuing)
Tours: Yes, $17/person, scheduled monthly – check here for upcoming dates
Owned and operated by four siblings, Union Horse was the first distillery to open in the Kansas City metro area in 2010. The lone distillery on the Kansas side, this operation is worth the trip across the state line. Not only did they pave the way for distilling in the metro area, they also helped change some laws in the state of Kansas (happy hour, tastings at stores/distilleries). The siblings, three brothers and a sister, first considered a brewery, but lucky for all of us, they settled on distilling whiskey.
The current line up of products (above) are available in ten states and in Union Horse’s 25,000 square foot facility. They have three special event rooms big enough for weddings or whatever you might need a unique spot for. They are getting ready to open a lounge. The bar behind the bottles above are surrounded with comfy spots to sit and chat with friends.
I learned a lot from my awesome tour with Damian, including how to read a barrel. In case you didn’t know either, you read the date the barrel was sealed (the ‘lot’) as the Year (2014), Month (months are assigned letters, starting with January = A, so April), and Day (30th). Also, I got a sneak peek at the cocktail menu, which I hope to try in person soon. I think you’ll find a drink or two to check out as well.
Distills: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey, Vodka, Gin
Separate Bar: Drinks available during tours and special events
Tours: Yes, $15/person, tours are at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm on the second Saturday of every month
The world’s only legal distillery located in a cave, S.D. Strong, is just north of downtown Kansas City. After pulling onto Park University’s campus, you’ll see a sign for the caves, look for 136A. At 65 feet below the ground, this distillery is a great addition to a riverbank town. Their event space hosts everything from themed movie nights to live music, and there’s no way they’re disturbing the neighbors. I only wish they were open more often.
Distills: Botanical Gin, Whiskey (three kinds: KC’s first single malt, an Irish+American blend, and an imported Irish whiskey), Vodka, Poition (Irish moonshine)
Separate Bar: Yes
Tours: Yes, $12/person, tours are available Monday-Thursday by appointment, or on the hour on Fridays and Saturdays
Following a tour and tasting at Restless Spirits, I had a hard time deciding which aspect of the distillery was my favorite. I love that their master distiller is one of six females in the country. Their whiskey adheres to the standards for Irish whiskey — distilled twice in a copper still, barrel aged in a used barrel for at least three years and a day, and five percent malted barley.
The couple that started Restless Spirits came to their venture with a solid set of skills. Benay was a chemistry teacher and Mike was in marketing and sales. Between the two of them, their spirits bring together traditions of distilling with their family history in a celebration of stories and art. As you taste their spirits, including a special edition Cinnamon Whiskey (with nothing fake or sweet added), you learn about their family through the labels on the bottles, all the way back to Mike’s grandfather emigrating from Ireland in 1853.
I enjoyed a Whiskey & Pickle on our tour (for reference, Chicken & Pickle is right next door), which is made with the Stone Breaker Whiskey and bread and butter pickles. It was a pleasant way start to a Saturday afternoon.
A couple other things
We toured Restless Spirits last, but they were the only ones that mentioned the Missouri Spirits Expedition. If you get all 33 stamps, you get a bottle of bourbon that all of the distillers contributed to. Pretty fun game if you ask me!
Finally, all you whiskey lovers will definitely want to check out West Bottoms Whiskey, opening around New Year’s. In addition to the distillery, they will have a cocktail parlor and a tasting room. And that wraps up a tour of Kansas City’s distilleries. Now that I’ve toured my own city, it makes me think back to a trip we took to Tennessee. I need to get to the rest of the Bourbon Trail. Have you been?