The People Are Thirsty!
Tom’s Town evokes the Pendergast era with the first legal craft distillery to open in downtown KC since the Prohibition era.
Kansas City roared in the 1920s and 1930s, and in this crown town, Tom Pendergast was king. Ruling the city streets with brutal political power as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, Pendergast had a hand in electing government officials and, perhaps most famously, kept Prohibition at bay in Kansas City. In short, Kansas City was Tom’s Town, and if you paid, you played. Thanks to Pendergast’s refusal to enforce Prohibition under his tenure, Kansas City’s bar culture flourished. Downtown speakeasies numbered in the hundreds, the Gatsby-era of glamour was in full swing, and the golden era of jazz took root, making the city famous and earning it the moniker “Paris of the Plains.”
Today, Steve Revare and David Epstein have recreated the opulence of Pendergast’s anti-Prohibition age in their one-of-a-kind downtown distillery/speakeasy/events space, aptly named Tom’s Town, which is slated to open mid-December. Giving a nod to the by-gone era, Tom’s Town is a modern take on the speakeasies of yesteryear, paying homage to Kansas City’s storied past and Pendergast’s social contributions to the fabric of modern-day Kansas City.
Tom’s Town Distilling Company, located in a historic brick building at 1701 Main St. in the heart of Kansas City’s Crossroads District, is the first legal distillery in downtown Kansas City since Prohibition days.
“Back when Tom Pendergast ran Kansas City, this town was on fire, much like it is today,” says Epstein. “And from an entertainment standpoint, I’m not sure it could be beat. It’s that glamour, excitement and creativity that we re-create at Tom’s Town. We want our visitors to feel like they are walking into a scene from The Great Gatsby.”
For the Kansas City-raised Revare and Epstein, who have been friends since elementary school, Tom’s Town is the perfect culmination of their respective careers in marketing and their passion for fine spirits. “We are drinkers,” says Revare with a laugh. “Most of our experience comes from the other side of the bar.”
After working in the technology and marketing realm for decades (Epstein in New York; Revare in Kansas City), the duo was ready for a change of pace and began to dream of breaking into the liquor business. “We had the idea of opening a craft distillery a few years ago, so we began to do our research,” says Revare.
The business partners became fascinated by Tom Pendergast and the atmosphere he provided in Kansas City during the Prohibition, so they decided to pay homage to him and capitalize on his historical relevance to this city. As fate would have it, their research would uncover some very interesting and relevant connections. It turned out that both Epstein and Revare have personal ties to the Pendergast history of Kansas City.
David Epstein and Steve Revare of Tom's Town
“It felt like serendipity,” says Revare. “It was a great confirmation that we were on the right track.”
After his arrest for tax evasion, Boss Tom was asked by a reporter why he ignored Prohibition in KC and he allegedly quipped, “The people are thirsty.” Adopting this famous Pendergast catchphrase as their slogan, Revare and Epstein are striving to remedy that conundrum once again, by forming Tom’s Town.
After attending Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky — a top distilling school in the nation offering certification — Revare and Epstein hit the ground running, hiring Head Distiller Robert Vossmeyer. The credentialed Vossmeyer holds a certificate in distilling from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in the UK, a certificate in distillery operations from Kothe (a company that makes professional distilling equipment), and a Certified Specialist of Spirits certification from the Society of Wine Educators. He has also distilled rum and produced several liquors with GrandTen Distilling in Boston, as well as studied gin distillation with Clay Smith of Corsair Distillery. With Vossmeyer’s help, Revare and Epstein set their sights on producing three small-batch products: a craft vodka, gin and bourbon, curated by Revare and Epstein themselves.
Each of Tom’s Town’s spirits is named after some of the most colorful characters of Prohibition-era Kansas City. For instance, McElroy’s Corruption Gin is a new Western-style gin that is highly botanical in taste and named after Pendergast’s corrupt city manager, Henry McElroy. Eli’s Strong Arm Vodka is unflavored, with a hint of rye, and named after Pendergast’s infamous bodyguard and gatekeeper, Elijah Matheus. Both spirits are distilled and bottled at Tom’s Town.
New distilleries often use vodka as a headliner because it doesn’t require aging, allowing it to be sold immediately upon distilling. Revare and Epstein, however, understood the historical significance that whiskey played during the Pendergast reign, so bourbon is a main attraction at Tom’s Town despite the spirit’s need for aging. As a solution, the duo selected and purchased from a broker a series of aged Tennessee bourbon that they bottled and labeled for sale at Tom’s Town. The inaugural batch is 10-year-old bourbon selected by Vossmeyer that is “rich and smooth with a long finish.” The partners say they will finish some of these bourbons in special casks and others will be served as single-barrel releases.
It’s simply what Pendergast himself did,” says Epstein. “He would go buy bourbon to sell, put his Royal Gold label on it and brand it. We’re doing the same thing.”
By acquiring the copyright to Pendergast’s brand, Revare and Epstein have revived Pendergast Royal Gold as a series of small-batch, curated whiskeys, which Tom’s Town will release one at a time every six months. In the meantime, Tom’s Town’s bourbons are housed in whiskey barrels deep in the belly of the distillery’s three-story, 17,000-square-foot brick-front building. Tom’s Town is home to a basement barrel room, a first-floor speakeasy/public bar called “the vault,” and a second-floor event space with views of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which houses the venue’s vodka column and holds 250 people.
Tom’s Town offers daily tours to visitors wishing to take in the full distillery experience as well as a tasting room, which features small plates masterminded and crafted by chef Tim Tuohy and places a modern spin on Prohibition-era fare.
But Tom’s Town is not satisfied with being just another hip, downtown bar.
“We are only interested in being world-class and award-winning,” says Revare.
To that end, there is a level of exclusivity to Tom’s Town’s products. The packaged bottles of the house-distilled spirits are only available at the distillery’s location for the time being. And the labels themselves bring a certain level of distinctiveness to the bran. Revare and Epstein have married a modern, art deco feel with historical Kansas City images in each product’s label, beautifully highlighting their collaborative backgrounds in marketing and design.
“The Tom Pendergast story was one that we felt was about to get lost in our modern age,” says Epstein. “We wanted to pay respect to this portion of Kansas City’s history and re-create that glamour, excitement and creativity at Tom’s Town.”
Tom’s Town is located at 1701 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., and is slated to open mid-December with their craft bourbon, gin and vodka released at the same time. For more information and to set up tours visit toms-town.com or call (816) 541-2400.
The Hanky Panky
This classic cocktail, made with McElroy's Corruption Gin, was originally credited to Ada Coleman, head bartender at the American Bar in The Savoy in London in 1925.
1 1/2 ounces McElroy's Corruption Gin
1 1/2 ounces Dolin Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca
Combine in a mixing glass over ice and stir. Strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with an orange twist.