J. Rieger & Co.: A Tour through History

 

The Made in KC Explore editorial team goes on a behind-the-scenes tour of J. Rieger & Co.’s distillery.

The name alone speaks for itself, especially to those who know its influence in Kansas City. From the Rieger Hotel and Manifesto in the Crossroads District to the countless bars that stock the specialty spirits on their shelves, Rieger can be found everywhere. Yet, for a company so rooted and ingrained in midwestern lore, have you ever considered how it came to be? Would you be surprised to know that the Rieger name and its place in distilling history was nearly lost forever? But thanks to the dedication of Andy Rieger, a descendant of Jacob Rieger, and Ryan Maybee, a career bartender and restaurateur, the image and legacy of J. Rieger lives on.

As word spread and demand grew for Rieger’s spirits, Andy and Ryan saw the need to expand their operation and ultimately launched the J. Rieger & Co distillery.  Nearly two years in the making, their flagship location opened to the public in July and is a truly memorable and multifaceted experience for all who visit. 

 
All photos by Anna Petrow

All photos by Anna Petrow

 

Rieger has begun offering a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, so some of our incredible MIKC Explore team—Anna Petrow, Amy McDaniel, Grace Pritchett, Kari Dunn and I—escaped to the distillery for an afternoon and took the tour. Now, before diving into what we saw, I highly recommend you experience this for yourself. The tour only costs $15/person and can be booked seven days a week right here. I guarantee you’ll walk away with a greater appreciation of what Andy and Ryan have resurrected and built in our very own backyard.

Now to the fun stuff.

As we first walked into the distillery, we were immediately greeted by a J. Rieger & Co.-emblazoned front desk and a beautifully spacious floor plan. When you visit, take a moment and breathe it in because it really is quite something to behold. We approached the desk, checked in, signed our waivers, made sure we’d all remembered to wear closed-toed shoes (we had), and casually strolled around waiting for our tour to begin. For what it’s worth, I’d highly recommend arriving early and taking some time to mosey around Rieger’s 3,000-square-foot historical exhibit—old relics from yesteryear and photo ops are abundant, so plan accordingly It not only highlights the rich, 130+ year history of Rieger & Co., it dives into the diverse background of distilling and brewing in Kansas City. For Amy, “experiencing the growth of the Rieger name has been the most rewarding. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the brand grow from its inception to what it is today - now witnessing the magnitude of the new building, distillation and entire team is a whole other type of magical.” When it comes to Rieger’s history, magical is spot on. 

 
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Once the video concluded, we made our way to the production facility where copper stills, agitators, tanks and bottling equipment awaited us. From many vantage points in the building, onlookers can watch through the glass the craftsmanship and hard work that goes into making these incredible spirits in this distilling dreamland. It was there that we learned about the entire distillation process—from malt and mash to fermentation and final product. Please believe that these steps are meticulous and you’ll walk away appreciating the effort and consideration that goes into making Rieger’s whiskey, gin, vodka and caffé amaro. Kari definitely did. For her, “the best part of the tour was seeing the distillery production floor in action. It’s a sensory experience—once you step foot in that room, you’re hit with a wave of heat and a warm, bready smell. Distillers were buzzing about the room, watching over each step. This stuff really is lovingly crafted. It certainly gave me a fresh appreciation for the final product.” You also learn so many fun facts in this portion of the tour, including the story of how Tom Nichol (genius distiller and mastermind behind Tanqueray gin) helped craft and perfect Rieger’s gin offering, but you’ll be able to discover his influence and quirkiness when you personally visit.

 
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From there, we headed back to the barrel rickhouse, where more than 2,000 barrels of whiskey are stored and aging beautifully. Depending on the time of year you visit, this area may be very warm or cold, so be prepared. Good news is that the aging spirits are benefiting from our fluctuating temperatures—who knew our unbearable summers and frigid winters were actually good for something? We wove through the barrel stacks, gaining a better understanding of how “Kansas City Whiskey”, a special blend unique to our beautiful city, is crafted and stored. This portion of the tour was especially fun for Grace who’d seen this space in its infancy and well before it became a visitor destination. “The barrel room is impressive to me because when I initially toured this building nearly four years ago, Rieger only operated here—from distilling, sales, marketing and everything in-between. So, it’s fantastic to see how much the Rieger has grown and how impressive it’s become. You gain such an appreciation of the work and care that goes into what they do, growing from a barrel room to an entire building.”

 
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After making a brief stop at Jacob’s Barrel Dining Room (an intimate space that’s quite possibly one of the coolest private dining rooms I’ve seen), our official tour concluded in the Tasting Room—a brilliantly lavish private bar that offers a glimpse of distilled decadence to passers-by. Awaiting us were samples of all four Rieger spirits alongside a placard highlighting various fun facts and tasting notes. Shannon walked us through each, providing insightful commentary while we sipped and swirled, swirled and sipped. After we offered our opinions and picked a favorite, we turned in our tour lanyard for one final Rieger specialty—a draught cocktail. Yes, you read that correctly. Draught cocktail. Amy and I went with the KC Chinotto that showcased the caffé amaro; Grace and Anna chose the Seasonal Gin & Tonic with elderflower; and Kari sided with the Horsefeather, highlighting Rieger whiskey, ginger beer and lemon. Needless to say, each was fantastic—I know this because we all sampled each others like responsible and considerate adults do.

 
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We grabbed our drinks and made our way upstairs to the Monogram Lounge that offers floor-to-ceiling views of the distillery production floor we just toured. Our group grabbed a booth, ordered some snacks and admired our surroundings. The space harbors an abundance of natural sunlight, the bar is substantial and the hardwood flooring is originally from 1901—all to say that the ambiance we experienced is unrivaled. The cocktails on the menu are delicately crafted and deliciously easy to drink. The snacks are savory and delightful—if you don’t believe me, order the popcorn with Joe’s KC BBQ seasoning or the charcuterie board and see how long either lasts. We took in every ounce of the atmosphere as we laughed, shared embarrassing stories and sipped Rieger whiskey with Andy Rieger himself.

As the hours passed and the sun began to set, the mood was perfect for us to tour the Hey! Hey! Club, but not before experiencing the most fun and exhilarating part of Rieger’s distillery - the two-story, 40-foot slide appropriately named ‘O! Chute’. Buckle up and make your way down to the ground floor. If necessary, head back up the steps and repeat the process. Multiple times. A few of us most certainly did.

 
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Once we posted our slide-riding videos to our social channels, we ventured down the back staircase to my personal favorite area: the Hey! Hey! Club.  Adorning the basement of the Rieger is a brilliant sign ushering you toward the entrance of this jazz-inspired speakeasy. Set to open in September, this underground lounge is dark and swanky with elegant furniture plucked straight from the 1920s. If you were to imagine what a decadent speakeasy looked like during prohibition, there’s a good chance you’re imagining the interior of Hey! Hey!. The bar will feature live music, small bites and all the charm and ambiance you could possibly want while sipping your handcrafted cocktail. If you enjoy Manifesto—another Rieger original—you’ll most certainly enjoy your time here. My love for speakeasies is no secret and I could easily see Hey! Hey! becoming one of my favorite spots in Kansas City.

Before leaving, make sure to visit their retail space which is chock full of Rieger-inspired merchandise, including apparel, home decor and a wall dedicated to all their bottled spirits. You can even fill your own personalized bottle of whiskey straight from the barrel and craft a custom label for your creation—a perfect souvenir from a day well spent.

 
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Speaking for Anna, Grace, Amy, and Kari, I highly recommend the experience that is the J. Rieger & Co. distillery. The tour easily pays for itself by the incredible insight it lends into their business and historical relevance to Kansas City. The effort and attention to detail in each aspect of the Rieger does not go unnoticed and sets the standard for a true, midwest original. So gather your pals, mark your calendars and experience J. Rieger—you will not be disappointed because it is O! So Good.

 
 

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