The Rieger still and store lobby. Photo © Michael Robinson

Though launched in the autumn of 2014, the story of Kansas City Missouri’s J. Rieger & Co. harkens to 1887 when immigrant grocer Jacob Rieger decided to take advantage of his stateline location to supply those steps away on the dry Kansas side with whiskey he’d made. It didn’t hurt, too, that Rieger’s business was directly across from the Livestock Exchange Building and near to the central Union Rail Depot. But as with so many successful legitimate booze purveyors, Prohibition derailed the family’s work, and they moved into banking.

Cut to 2010 when local bartender Ryan Maybee opened his bar ‘Manifesto’ in the basement a building still known as the Rieger Hotel and, upon also partnering in its street-level restaurant, was visited by the only living direct descendent of Jacob, Andy. Maybee and Rieger soon set their sights on reviving the former J. Rieger brand and distillery and with the help of the famed Dave Pickerell, the partners relaunched the newly fashioned Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey. Soon after Head Distiller Nathan Perry came aboard to be mentored by Pickerell with Perry now overseeing the production of four fundamental products: 100% Wheated Vodka, Midwestern Dry Gin, Caffé Amaro, and the flagship Kansas City Whiskey along with a small assortment of other whiskies.

Its Kansas City is a blend of straight Bourbon, light corn, and straight rye aged at least 4 years with a small amount of 15yr. old Oloroso Sherry from Spain’s Williams & Humbert Bodega added. “In 2021, we used 2,765L of this Oloroso in our KC whiskey production. Previous to our 2017 membership into Spain’s Authorized Food Industry (AFI) organization, we had to import every 750ml bottle in their original packaging, opening every one to add to our blend–it was a pain! But with the AFI certification we receive bulk shipments making us the first, and I believe still the only, American company with that designation.”

The Rieger distillation team hard at work

Maybee was able to cite to the TTB that this process had been applied in the making of Kansas City whiskies before the imposition of Prohibition, and was given dispensation to have it be recognized as a whiskey. Rieger utilizes sourced whiskies though has begun to add in some of its own distillations both to its flagship KC and to its annual Monogram bottling. Rieger uses ten 500L Sherry botas to age whiskey for its Monogram, employing a small solera system for fractional blending so as to slowly increase the production of this limited release. On-site production is now 5 barrels daily up from 1.5 barrels when I visited its original site in 2017. Rieger’s goal is to produce 2500 barrels annually by end of 2023 “if supply chain issues are resolved,” confirmed Maybee.

The first whiskey produced solely at Rieger’s distillery, a 6-year Bottled in Bond Straight Rye, was released August 2021. At 6000 bottles it sold out quickly. A Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon will have been released by the publishing of this article. Maybee reckons that by 2026 his stock from the expanded distillery opened in 2019 will reach maturity with his total Straight Whiskey supply hitting 50,000 cases.

“We grew faster than we thought we would, so were backed into buying whiskies from other sources such as a well-known Lawrenceburg KY operation,” said Perry. His mentor for gin was and is Tom Nichol, formerly of Tanqueray. “A humble Scotsman who said that ‘we make our gins in an inefficient way’ when I’d asked him what I should read. The most surprising thing I learned was how little of our 100% imported botanicals are needed to make a great difference in our recipe with proportions far less than you may think — even Pickerell was off by 5x! The key factor is the rate at which it comes off the still and knowing that the role of angelica root is unsung in gin creation.”

The Caffé Amaro grew out of Maybee’s coffee cordial he’d had as a staple from his bartending days, noting that it was “used more of a cocktail modifier since, when we launched it in 2016, there was nothing like it on the market,” said Perry.

Testing at the Rieger facility

Chiming in was Bo Nelson of direct sourcer & local roaster Thou Mayest: “It all started when Andy and Ryan brought me some booze to play with in 2014 when he didn’t even have a roof over his office where the Rieger guys were having their biz meetings,” and where Nelson had begun experimenting with barrel-roasting coffee. Maybee was equally curious about this method of aging coffee beans, and enthusiastic about creating a Café Correto cocktail using an amaro to extract quality coffee flavor. “It was a weird product at first, I’d never thought to place a bitter element such as gentian with coffee,” said Nelson asserting that “the culinary side of coffee hasn’t yet been fully expressed in drinks. Even most distilleries think of it merely as an adjunct. Coffee differences have a lot to offer, it’s more than using ‘brown mud’.” After multiple tests of roasts, they decided upon a single-origin, full-bodied, medium-dark Sumatran with a richer mouthfeel and a sense of minerality that many beans don’t possess. “I want this Rieger Amaro to be its own thing where my coffee plays a lead though not dominant role…a good spirit made with coffee needn’t be only about coffee.”

Now distributed in 25 states, Rieger’s begun shipping the EU with its 2000 cases having docked in Rotterdam in May, working with a Paris-based marketing company to move it out to Denmark, Netherlands, and in France. “But the whole EU is the goal, as well as the UK and possibly even Hong Kong and China,” said Maybee.

With the new title of Managing Director Maybee oversees all operations both on-site and off but continues to lay the groundwork for expansion having just assumed the Vice President of the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild, representing 60 of the state’s licensed distillers, which seems tied to his working on an initiative in getting legislation passed in the State of Missouri legally defining and outlining the requirements for making “Kansas City Whiskey”, and hiring a National Director of Distribution and Sales.

Head Distiller, Nathan Perry

“We went from six to 120 employees in the six months since we opened our tourism-focused site comprised of four bars, a museum, and gift shop,” proclaimed Andi Ryan, Director of Culture and Development. Charged with cultivating a positive and growth-oriented environment for its team of more than 115 full-time employees, Ryan served in sales 2019-2021 “but in this new role I cannot see the numbers like I did when working sales.” Rieger’s fourth hire now “ensures that our staff is educated on our range of products, that they’re able to share the unique story with the public they encounter.  •