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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Kansas City's distillery scene is more diverse than ever. Here's a guide to locally-made spirits

Exterior view of the side of a building with the word "Distillery" painted in white letters on a black background up the side of the two story building and "Lifted Spirits" painted at the top, above the "Y".
Shannon Carpenter
KCUR 89.3
Local distilleries in Kansas City showcase a variety of options.

Kansas City's tradition of alcohol production stretches back to the 1800s and through the Pendergast days. These days, you can visit and sample modern distilleries around the metro, whether your taste is for whiskey, gin, vodka or even agave spirits.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

The state of Kansas outlawed liquor in 1881, well before the national Prohibition movement. That didn’t stop the people of eastern Kansas from enjoying their spirits, though: Everything moved just across State Line Road and into the West Bottoms near 9th Street.

At one point in the 1900s, 25 saloons were operating in the small block.

When Prohibition came in 1920 with the 18th Amendment, things changed in Kansas City…kind of. The saloons and some of the liquor distilleries were gone, but speakeasies sprang up in popularity. The era of the Kansas City Bootlegger had begun. People like Tom Pendergast and mobster John Lazia acted quickly, and this section of the city became known as the "Wettest Block."

The city’s underground distilleries flourished, and although there were some casualties like the original J. Reiger and Co, others continued to meet the black-market demand for liquor.

Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment, although Kansas still hasn’t technically ratified it. Since then, Kansas City has revived its distillery scene, and then some.

These days, whiskey, bourbon, scotch, gin, agave liquors, and even absinthe can be found around town. Enjoy the legacy of these distilleries new and old all around Kansas City.

J. Rieger & Co.

A clear glass bottle next to a clear glass snifter, both with amber colored liquid inside, placed on the top of a wooden barrel.
J. Rieger & Co.
J. Rieger & Co. was founded in 1887, then closed during Prohibition. The brand was resurrected in 2014.

J. Rieger & Co. is your connection back to the end of the Wild West. In 1887, right after Kansas’ Prohibition, family patriarch Jacob Rieger set up shop on Genesee Street in the West Bottoms. In 1900, his son, Alexander Rieger, expanded into mail-order spirits, complete with marketing gifts like corkscrews and shot glasses.

After the 18th Amendment, the distillery shut down and the family moved into banking. But decades later, in 2014, J. Rieger & Co made its comeback, revived by Ryan Maybee, Dave Pickerell, and Andy Rieger - who the company says was the “only living ‘Rieger’ of Jacob’s bloodline.”

They started distilling again in 2015, and now have a wide selection of whiskey, gin, vodka, and bourbon.

Whiskey is the umbrella term for liqueurs made with a mash of cereal grains such as corn, rye, or barley, which is then aged in oak barrels to transform into that iconic amber fluid.

Bourbon, on the other hand, is a specifically American invention. Much like how champagne, tequila and Scotch must be from distinct regions to earn their name, a whiskey has certain extra requirements to be called bourbon: The mash must contain at least 51% corn, be aged for at least two years in a new, charred barrel, and have no artificial flavors added.

Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey is described as smooth, well-balanced, and somewhat sweet. It was named the “Best American Whiskey” by the American Spirits Council of Tasters (ASCOT) in 2023. J. Rieger also partnered with Kansas City Chiefs to produce the Chiefs Championship Vodka and the Red Kingdom Vodka.

And there is a ton to do at J. Rieger’s distillery itself, which is now over in the East Bottoms, including tours, whiskey tastings or simply enjoying cocktails at their multiple bars – including the underground Hey! Hey! Club. Check their website for dates and times.

Tom's Town Distilling

Wooden barrels with the words "Tom's Town" stamped on the top of the barrel.
Tom's Town Distilling
Tom's Town Distilling evokes the bootlegging era of Tom Pendergast.

Tom’s Town Distilling foundersDavid Epstein and Steve Revare recall the time of Prohibition with the namesake of their distillery, Tom Pendergast. A mobster and political boss, Pendergast thrived and shaped Kansas City for decades (asked why he ignored liquor bans, he allegedly declared, “the people are thirsty”).

This distillery, which opened in the Crossroads Arts District in 2016, offers a set of spirits called The Machine that’s inspired by Pendergast’s political organization in Kansas City. In addition to their gin and whiskey offerings, the collection includes a brandy, which is made by distilling fermented wine, and a “white port bourbon” that was aged in port wine barrels.

You can grab a cocktail or dinner at the Tom’s Town tasting room, but there are also tons of fun adventures to be had at their site, including tours. On Tuesdays, you can join the Bottling Crew, where volunteers bottle the spirits and get to take home one when you leave. The distillery also offers Pendergast Cocktail College, where participants can learn drink recipes from their pro bartenders.

Union Horse Distilling

Three people lift up a drink, each different, next to a bottle of Union Horse whiskey.
Union Horse Distilling Co.
The family run Union Horse Distilling Co. was founded in 2010.

Union Horse’s giant distilling container is named Chester Copperpot, a name inspired by the 1985 movie “The Goonies.” At 500 gallons, it towers above just about everything else in their Lenexa space. Copper acts as another layer of filtration during the distilling process. By removing impurities, you get a “cleaner” taste.

Founded in 2010 by the Garcia family – Eric, Patrick, and Damian – Union Horse wanted to bring “something special and unique to our hometown of Kansas City,” and they’re doing so in a portfolio of whiskey, bourbons and vodka.

This is where it’s helpful to know more about what’s in a whiskey “mash.” Typically, it can include corn, rye, malted barley, wheat or any combination of the above.

When a whiskey is referred to as “single malt,” that means that the mash contains malted barley only, and made at a single distillery. That’s what you’ll get in Union Horse’s Rivalist American Single Malt Whiskey, which has been aged for four years.

Their Anniversary Release Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a highlight as well. Aged for 10 years, each bottle is signed by the master distiller and co-founder Patrick Garcia.

Head to a distillery tour, where you’ll learn about the distilling process from milling to bottling, and get to try out their selections. And keep an eye out for their next Distillery Social, where you can enjoy their space and hobnob with new friends.

Mean Mule Distilling

A clear bottle with the label for Mean Mule Distilling Co. is next to a large terracota planter and a clear glass with clear liquid in it, on a Southwest style run.
Mean Mule Distilling Co.
Mean Mule Distilling Co. makes all their spirits with agave.

The family myth around Mean Mule Distilling goes that Great Great Grandma and her son built a still in the 1920s, making liquor with whatever corn and grain they could find. When the law came, their beloved family mule got kicking.

Today, what makes Mean Mule different is that they use agave in all their process. Agave is the plant that is the main ingredient for tequila and mezcal - they just can’t call it that. (Both tequila and mezcal must be made in Mexico, among other requirements, to claim the label.)

Founded by Meg and Jeff Evans in 2016, Mean Mule opened their tasting room in the Crossroads Arts District in 2019. Their Silver Spirit, with “notes of vanilla and delicate florals,” won a gold award from the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and their agave gin has won awards too.

Mean Mule also puts out a dark brown Heritage spirit that’s made from agave, that tastes somewhere between whiskey and tequila. And keep an eye out for their collaboration with Korean restaurant Chingu, which will claim the title of the first soju (a rice-based distilled alcohol) made in the Midwest.

Stop by for one of their happy hours or weekly specials — and let your curiosity do the ordering. Or get adventurous at home with one of Mean Mule's cocktail kits.

West Bottoms Whiskey Co.

A crowd of about thirty people mingle outside a gray-painted and wooden framed city building with the painted numbers 1 3 2 1 on it. Some people are seated at picnic tables and others stand in an area that is cordoned off from the street by chains attached to wooden barrels.
West Bottoms Whiskey Co.
Before Prohibtion, there were many saloons in Kansas City's West Bottoms, and now the area has the award-winning West Bottoms Whiskey Co.

The West Bottoms Whiskey Co is located in an actual pre-Prohibition train tunnel, and its dark oak bar and loft stairs remind you of a refined gentlemen’s drinking club from the 1920s - even though it opened in 2021.

Start with their Kansas City Whiskey, a blended whiskey that combines rye and bourbon with Oloroso sherry from Spain. It’s a perfect sipping whiskey that goes down smooth, and it won the best in state award last year from the International Whiskey Competition.

West Bottoms’ single malt whiskey and blended malt whiskeys deserve your attention as well. And when you’re in this historic space, take a distillery tour to see how it all gets made, and try out refreshing drinks in their cocktail parlor.

You can also find West Bottoms Whiskey Co. at all kinds of events throughout Kansas City, as well as partnering with businesses like the Mid-America LGBT Chamber and the Folly Theater.

Restless Spirits Distilling

A bottle with amber liquid with the label Restless Spirits Stonebreaker next to a clear glass with amber liquid with a large copper distilling container in the background.
Restless Spirits Distilling
Restless Spirits Distilling creates Irish-style whiskeys, in keeping with the founder's heritage.

To all the days here and after, may they be filled with fond memories, happiness, and laughter. That Irish toast welcomes you in the door of Restless Spirits in North Kansas City.

For founder Michael Shannon, it’s all about his Irish family. Throughout the distillery, pictures of his ancestors look down in blessing. Like other liquors, Irish Whiskey – which typically uses malted and unmalted barley, and must be aged in a barrel for at least two years – can’t be called Irish if it’s made outside of Ireland. But you can recreate some of those distinctive tastes, which Restless Spirits has done.

Restless Spirits’ Stone Breaker Whiskey, is a delicious example of a blended whiskey, which uses imported Irish whiskey along with its own recipe to create a smooth and crisp taste.

Their newest offering is called the Sons of Erin, a partnership with the Great Northern Distillery of Dundalk in Ireland. It’s aged four years and “is sweet in taste and light on the palate.”

Beyond their Irish-ish whiskeys, Restless Spirits also offers a cinnamon-flavored whiskey, a botanical gin, a barrel-finished gin, and a vodka. Restless Spirits also has a fun distillery tour, where you’ll get to see their huge, custom-made copper distilling tank. It’s at least half a story tall and wide enough to take a nap in if you wanted to.

Head on back to see the bottling set up and then end up with the barrels. Restless Spirits uses local and imported barrels depending on their needs. And like many other distilleries, they offer an event space as well.

Lifted Spirits

 A lineup of the gins, absinthe, whiskey and vodka made by Kansas City's Lifted Spirits.
Lifted Spirits
A lineup of the gins, absinthe, whiskey and vodka made by Kansas City's Lifted Spirits.

Lifted Spirits in the Crossroads specializes in gin, and has taken the liquor to a whole new level.

Gin has its own set of rules on how it can be made: The base must be made from a neutral grain or fruit such as wheat or grapes, and all gin must contain juniper berries. Then each distillery will add its own botanicals — things like flowers, herbs, bark and spices — to distinguish that gin’s flavor.

Founder Michael Stuckey opened Lifted Spirits on December 2016, and has put together a line of gins you might not find anywhere else. The fragrance of their Bold Gin, with deep berry tones that remind you of spring, hits your nose a split second before you taste the liquor.

Lifted Spirits also carries a rye whiskey and an absinthe, a bright-green spirit made from herbs like fennel and wormwood that’s used in drinks like a Sazerac. Absinthe is a high-alcohol liquor, though, so drink carefully: Lifted Spirits’ version is 136 proof, meaning it’s 68% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Lifted Spirits offers distillery tours and tastings, or you can stop by their tasting room for a signature cocktail.

Holladay Distillery

Wooden barrels with the logo for Holladay Distiller branded on them roll on a metal frame toward a man in the background.
Holladay Distillery
Holladay Distilling, in Weston, MO, is the area's oldest distillery, founded in 1856.

Holladay Distillery was originally founded in 1856 by Ben Holladay, who was quite the character. At one point was known as the Stagecoach King, Holladay was once the largest single employer in the U.S., owning the famous Wells Fargo Express and Pony Express. Plus, he made whiskey.

Many may remember when this distillery operated under the name of McCormick Distilling Company. However, for their 160 anniversary in 2016, the current owners decided to turn back time and go back to the original Holladay name.

Located in Weston, Holladay Distillery puts out a Ben Holladay Bourbon that is marked as Real Missiouri Bourbon. This means, because of a 2019 state law, that it must be “mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in the state.” Don’t miss out on their Ancient Cave Collection, an experimental bourbon that has been aged for six years in “level-three-charred, white oak barrels” that are housed in a structure dating back to 1837.

Those who really want to go down the rabbit hole can also look up their Distillers Journal, which chronicles when and how each batch of whiskey is made.

On their distillery tours, you’ll get a history lesson and an adventure, with a look at a limestone spring that was first discovered by Lewis and Clark. And they often host events throughout the year that are well worth the trip.

(Correction: A version of this story incorrectly identified a co-founder of Tom's Town Distilling. David Epstein founded the company along with Steve Revare.)

Shannon Carpenter is the author of The Ultimate Stay-at-Home, and is a nationally known contributor on fatherhood, parenting and at-home parenting.
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