Nearly 100 years ago, the United States entered into one of the most violent and debaucherous periods in its history: Prohibition. While the country carried on with bootlegging and illicit drinking behind closed doors, Kansas City took a slightly different approach. Though notorious Prohibition activist Carrie Nation called the region home, her hatchet failed to smash through the stronghold corrupt political leader Tom Pendergast had on the city, its vote and its police force. Pendergast’s so-called “machine” did its best to sidestep federal law throughout the country’s 13-year government-enforced dry spell—when it benefited him, that is. With the whiskey flowing readily, people flocked to the Midwestern metropolis for cocktails and a thriving jazz scene. This earned Kansas City the nickname Paris of the Plains. Now, a century after the Volstead Act took effect, these must-visit distilleries are paying homage to Kansas City’s past in order to shape its future.
Located just half an hour outside of Kansas City, in Weston, Missouri, is one of the region’s most storied distilleries. It’s where, in 1856, enterprising brothers Ben and David Holladay purchased a meat-packing plant to repurpose the site’s limestone springs—first documented during Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition—to distill bourbon. The distillery was prolific even throughout Prohibition. Though the site was purchased and rebranded in 1942 by McCormick Distilling Company, its legacy lives on: In 1974, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and now marks the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi River still on its original location. In 2016, McCormick relaunched the Holladay brand and opened to the public for tours and tastings. In 2020, the new Holladay Distillery will release a wheated bourbon, the first under the Holladay label in nearly a century.
S.D. Strong Distilling
When husband-and-wife team Steve and Lisa Strong founded S.D. Strong Distilling in 2012, they chose a rather unconventional location to distill their debut vodka: a cave 65 feet below ground in Parkville, Missouri. Though technically below ground, this operation is entirely on the level. The cave maintains naturally cool temperatures year-round, and the Strongs use a single still to produce their arsenal of spirits, which has grown to include both unaged and aged gins, straight rye whiskey and straight bourbon. They offer tours the second Saturday of every month, during which you’ll be guided through the barrel-lined alcoves of this unusual distillery by Steve Strong himself and have the chance to taste through the entire lineup of spirits.
Union Horse Distilling Co.
One of the first microdistilleries in the region, Union Horse opened shop in Lenexa, Kansas, in 2010. Since then, it’s helped pave the way for local distilleries—particularly those on the Kansas side of the border. In 2012, the family-run business hired a lobbyist to help pass a Kansas microdistillery law that would allow it to serve spirits on premise. That same year, it launched its Rider Vodka and Long Shot White Whiskey, and a range of aged whiskies followed, all of which are made from regionally sourced grains and are made in the distillery’s copper pot still, aptly nicknamed Chester Copperpot. Union Horse opens to the public in spring and fall for tours and tastings—don’t miss its latest Midwestern 4 Grain Whiskey during your visit.
J. Rieger & Co.
The latest distillery making waves in Kansas City’s distilling scene is this whiskey-fueled operation in the up-and-coming Electric Park neighborhood. The Rieger brand first got its start in 1887 and became a successful mail-order whiskey business before the 18th Amendment shut it down. The brand was revived in 2014 when Jacob Rieger’s descendent Andy Rieger and bartender Ryan Maybe partnered to launch Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey. Now, the brand’s lineup also includes vodka, gin and amaro. But the distillery achieved one of its biggest milestones yet in summer 2019 when it opened the doors to its new tri-level distillery experience in the former Heim Brewery bottling house, which also met its demise at the onset of Prohibition. The space is now home to stills and barrels, as well as to a tasting room bar, historical exhibit and its upstairs bar and restaurant, The Monogram Lounge. Stop by for a tour—and whatever you do, don’t forget to take a ride down the 40-foot slide on your way out.
Tom’s Town Distilling Company
Founded by two Kansas City natives in 2015, it’s no wonder that Tom’s Town paid homage to one of the city’s most compelling—and corrupt—historical figures. Located in the heart of the bustling Crossroads Arts District, it claims the distinction of being the first full-functioning distillery in downtown Kansas City since Prohibition. Its core range of vodka, gin and bourbon features an eye-catching Art Deco design that pairs nicely with its speakeasy-themed bar and restaurant. Don’t miss Pendergast’s Royal Gold Bourbon, which is named for the boss’s very own whiskey brand, and the Pendergast Machine series, a line of experimental bottlings including a Garden-Party Gin and a Gingersnap Whiskey.