The pre-Prohibition-era, local whiskey Rieger makes a new splash on the KC cocktail scene.
The original J. Rieger & Co.
Prohibition fundamentally changed Kansas City. When Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919, it made, among other things, the brewing and distilling of alcoholic beverages illegal – “No person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” As a result of this act, many legal businesses were forced to shutter, replaced by an underground network of organized crime and a proliferation of speakeasies.
One of the local businesses that closed its doors during Prohibition’s span from 1920 to 1933 was J. Rieger & Co., a small company with a large client list that purchased alcoholic products via mail order. The distillery, founded by Jacob Rieger, was located in the West Bottoms, across from the Livestock Exchange. With the drying up of the distillery, Rieger’s son Alexander turned to hospitality instead, opening the Rieger Hotel in 1915, in close proximity to the bustling Union Station.
Cut to 2009 when another whiskey afficionado, Ryan Maybee, opened his modern speakeasy, Manifesto, in the basement of the now historic Rieger Hotel. Manifesto survived the unfortunate closing of the restaurant upstairs by orchestrating traveling cocktail guest spots about town, and eventually reopened as the immensely successful The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in 2010 when Maybee partnered with chef Howard Hanna.
The old brand continued to intrigue Maybee and as Manifesto took off, he began investigating the historic distillery and contemplating a re-launch of the brand. Andy Rieger, a descendant of Jacob and Alexander, joined Maybee in the project after the two met at The Rieger and bonded over the family’s history. Rieger decided to move back from Dallas and throw himself into the distillery as well. The duo recently opened the new J. Rieger distillery in the East Bottoms. Their first release, Kansas City Whiskey, was introduced in fall 2014 and has quickly taken the city’s cocktail scene by storm.
kansas city whiskey (above), ryan maybee and andy rieger
The stills at the distillery are hard at work, but good whiskey requires age, and so the new Kansas City Whiskey is a blend of corn, malt and rye whiskeys, with a little secret weapon added that makes it distinctive --a dash of 15-year-old oloroso sherry from Bodegas Williams & Humbert. It seems counterintuitive, but there is a long tradition of adding sherry to whiskey for the purpose of coloration.
Today, sherry wine has become fashionable again, both in cocktails and as a stand-alone wine. One of the best cocktails I have ever had was a sherry cobbler that Maybee, who has always been a sherry fan, dropped on me one afternoon at The Rieger.
I saw Maybee recently at a tasting at Gomer’s Midtown. I asked him if he was happy with the reception of J. Rieger Whiskey.
“I had high hopes,” he replied. “But this is so far above what I was expecting.”
According to Maybee, there are more than sufficient stocks to meet the strong demand for this heritage brand. “There’s at least a three-year supply,” he says. “There should be a smooth transition from what we’ve blended to what we distill ourselves.”
Currently, there are two stills working hard in the East Bottoms. One is a whiskey still that will produce straight bourbon and straight rye that will be released after they have been aged in barrel for several years. The second still will be producing gin and absinthe, which will be released in 2015. Maybee says he plans to sell Rieger branded smoked bitters in late spring or early summer.
When I asked him if he had a favorite moment from the journey so far, he thought for a moment and said, “It just makes me so happy to see Rieger on a shelf or a back bar again, and to see people enjoying it. It’s humbling.”
mural (left) on the side of the rieger hotel grill & exchange (right)
the rieger hotel in the early 1920s.
Taste Test: Rieger Kansas City Whiskey
So how does Kansas City Whiskey taste? Before you get there, take a moment to inhale the aromas. Don’t swirl the glass the way you do with wine – I find that releases more alcohol than any aromatic components. The J. Rieger Whiskey has a beautiful nose. The addition of the sherry shines through, adding a nutty aromatic complexity to sweet honey, marmalade, vanilla, orange and apricot notes.
For a 92-proof whiskey, it’s very graceful. There’s a mild burn on the back end if consumed straight, but the flavors are sweet and bright. Add a few drops of water to cut the burn and add richness.
Maybee’s signature cocktail for Rieger Kansas City Whiskey
1.5 ounces Rieger Kansas City Whiskey
4 ounces ginger beer (Maybee recommends Cock & Bull)
Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the whiskey and ginger beer, then add five dashes of bitters. Squeeze and drop the lemon wedge into the drink and serve.