Behind the Bar How They Got It Right

One Missouri Company Puts the Whiskey Before the Distillery. And It's Really Paying Off.

It started as just a distillery, making and bottling whiskey in Kansas City, Mo. Yet in early July, J. Rieger & Co. will expand into a boozy theme park, bursting at the seams with multiple bars, event spaces, spots for daytime coffee and coworking, and notably a 40-foot-long metal slide to hurtle revelers from a second-level bar to a ground-floor gift shop.

This is exactly the opposite of how most craft distilleries ramp up nowadays. Many open sprawling guest experiences designed to bring in income while waiting for whiskey or other spirits to age—in essence, running before they walk.

“Honestly, it was never in our immediate business plan,” says Lucy Rieger, the brand director for J. Rieger & Co., of the expansion. “But since day one, it’s the number-one thing we get asked: Can we come see it? Do you have tours?”

Rendering of new J. Rieger distillery.

In fact, she says, when the brand launched in 2014 as an offbeat Kansas City whiskey, meaning it was made with a measure of sherry, the owners deliberately avoided setting up a visitor center. They worried that a “guest experience” would signal that they weren’t serious about the spirit. “We didn’t want people to associate us with the building,” says Rieger. “We wanted to train people to buy us at the store like any other brand; we wanted to focus on the distribution side.”

Five years later, the portfolio has stacked up strong reviews, including Caffè amaro, an unusual amaro made with coffee (regarded as a bartender favorite); Midwestern dry gin, a London dry style made with gin legend Tom Nichol, formerly of Tanqueray; and Monogram, a limited-edition whiskey finished in sherry butts, now out of stock.

“Now we have a good legitimate brand, and [a visitor center] won’t distract from the brand; it will enhance it,” says Rieger. “We sacrificed those retail margins upfront, but we were thinking long-term.”

Rendering of distillery entrance and gift shop.

Sneak Peek of the Space

A hard-hat tour of the space-in-progress reveals how far the enterprise has come since 2009, when bartender Ryan Maybee opened Manifesto, a speakeasy-style space beneath Kansas City’s Rieger. Back then, he had spotted a long-faded billboard on the wall outside advertising “Kansas City whiskey.” A research deep-dive led Maybee to discover that the family behind the hotel, starting with Jacob Rieger, had once operated a distillery, as well as the largest mail-order whiskey house in the country, both shuttered during Prohibition.

When the hotel opened the following year, Andy Rieger, the great-great-great-grandson of Jacob Rieger, stopped by to wish Maybee luck and received an earful about his family’s whiskey biz. Though he lived in Dallas at the time, where he was working in the investment banking industry, he eventually moved back to Kansas City, where they partnered on building the brand.

The 28-foot-high column still and Sherry, a 750-gallon pot still (left); and a 40-foot-long slide that transports guests from a second-level bar to a ground-floor gift shop.

When the J. Rieger brand launched in 2014, it was never meant to be regional. The bottles were almost immediately visible on the shelves at high-end bars and liquor stores in major metropolitan markets, even when supply was limited. It helped to have a well-regarded bartender on the start-up team. Looking back, that quietly built a cult status that a huge, splashy launch wouldn’t have accomplished.

Today, the payoff is evident. When completed, the new expanded facility will quintuple production and double warehouse capacity to hold 5,000 barrels. Two new stills have been brought in, including a soaring 28-foot-high column still that makes a striking centerpiece for the production facility. Production is slated to start June 10, a full month before the distillery opens to the public.

Rendering of Jacob’s Barrel Room.

To accomplish this, Reiger purchased the historic Heim Brewery Bottling building, built in 1901, located next door to the existing distillery. The combined space encompasses 60,000 square feet. In the middle of the warehouse, Rieger is erecting a climate-controlled, glass-walled dining room called Jacob’s Barrel, where guests can host events with a 360-degree view of the barrels. It’s a “fun little hidden gem,” says Lucy Rieger. Other highlights will include a hands-on historical exhibit, a “filling station” for guests to bottle Kansas City whiskey, a tasting room with a white marble bar that looks into the distillery production area, and a 20-seat conference room.

Bring on the Bars

But perhaps fittingly, for a distillery driven by a bartender’s curiosity, the in-house bar program is expected to be the primary draw. Andrew Olsen, formerly of Bluestem, was brought in as beverage director. On the second floor, the Monogram Lounge will overlook the distillery production area and will focus on draft cocktails made with Rieger spirits. The sprawling windowed space can accommodate up to 200 people (and will be open for coworking and coffee service during daytime hours), with eight taps to pour drinks kegged in the basement area. This is also where the famous slide can transport guests to the gift shop below.

Rendering of Monogram Lounge.

In the basement, the much smaller, deliberately darker Hey! Hey! Club will feature live jazz acts, a fireplace and cocktails made with a wide range of spirits (not just Rieger products). Cocktails on draft won’t be served here, but K.C. Bier Co. is crafting an exclusive Heim beer, a German-style lager replica that will be on draft and will be the only beer served. “It’s a nod to where we came from,” says Rieger.

A Clinebell machine and a dedicated ice-cutting room in the basement will provide ice for all the bars on the site, which eventually will include a third bar space: a massive outdoor beer-garden-like space that can accommodate a whopping 500 people. Festooned with vintage light bulbs, the outdoor space will be called the Electric Park Garden Bar. The name pays homage to the Electric Park amusement park constructed by Heim in 1899, adjacent to its brewery. (It was later moved across town and is noted for inspiring a young Walt Disney.)

Rendering of Hey! Hey! Club.

Of note, Rieger is petitioning to have the neighborhood, currently called East Bottoms, renamed Electric Park District, as a way to help spur development around the distillery. It’s impressive enough to recognize that a whiskey brand helped build the distillery and a sprawling “guest experience” around it. But it’s downright astonishing to think of whiskey as a foundation for rebuilding an entire neighborhood.

“In 10 years, it will really be something,” says Rieger in a wistful tone, looking out a second-floor window still finely coated with a layer of construction zone sawdust. “We have a very long-term vision for this.”