This drinking story starts like so many before it…with something lost. A little over four years ago, Manifesto’s Ryan Maybee stood in the parking lot of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, the restaurant he owns with chef Howard Hanna, staring at the faded red brick of the building’s south wall. It was there that he saw what appeared to the painted outline of a bottle and the name, ‘J Rieger.’
“I swear I could make out the word whiskey. And that sent me to Google and down the rabbit hole,” Maybee says. “J Rieger Whiskey was an amazing bit of Kansas City history and I instantly knew I wanted to bring it back.”
He tells the origin of the new Kansas City whiskey — bottled for the first time earlier this month — with the practiced lilt of a man who has long worked behind the bar. Sitting only a few hundred yards from the whiskey barrels that will be blended with sherry, Maybee settles in to tell the tale.
J Rieger & Company began selling whiskey in 1887. The ‘J’ in J Rieger was Jacob, who sold his Mongram whiskey out of the West Bottoms. His son Alexander built the Rieger Hotel in 1915. The original J Rieger whiskey company would close four years after the hotel opened.
As the pieces started to come together, Maybe began collecting pieces in real life. He had the mural in the parking lot restored and started a collection of Rieger ephemera and whiskey bottles. It was also around this time that he met Andy Rieger, an investment banker in Dallas who grew up in Fairway and would become the operator of the resurrected J Rieger.
The idea for a Kansas City whiskey was born in the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar. Maybee was bouncing off ideas of Dave Pickerell, a beverage consultant and the former master distiller for Maker’s Mark Bourbon.
“Bourbon was too expensive. Straight rye is incredible hard to find and incredibly expensive,” Maybee says. “But looking at the TTB guidelines [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] we were allowed to blend in up to 2.5 percent of sherry into the whiskey and still call it American whiskey.”
Maybee had been using sherry in cocktails since his days at JP Wine Bar (a restaurant that was in the space now occupied by Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen).
“Sherry was really common in the 1860’s because it added color and sweetness to products that would be harsh,” Maybee says. “We realized that we could something historically accurate to the time period that’s still unique to today’s market.”
Maybee reached out to sherry expert Steve Olson and in the fall of 2013 toured bodegas in the Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Maybee settled on a medium-sweet oloroso sherry from the Williams & Humbert Bodega, something that would give depth and character to the whiskey.
The sherry is blended with an eight-year-old aged whiskey, made from 99 percent corn and 1 percent malt, and a straight rye whiskey, that is 95 percent rye and 5 percent malt, purchased from other distilleries.
“You get more bourbon-like characteristics up front. It’s like corn bread and then the sherry comes in with almond and butterscotch and toffee – these sweeter notes. The finish is spicy with caraway and rye, more bready notes to balance out the sweetness. It kind of warms you, but it’s not hot,” Maybee says.
The blend comes in at 92 proof, which was important to Maybee because it could hold up to bitters or other elements of a cocktail. While he prefers it neat, he also recommends the Horsefeather – a cocktail made with 1 ½ ounces of whiskey, three to four dashes of Angostura bitters, Cock & Bull ginger beer and a squeeze of lemon in a Collins glass.
The new whiskey company is located in the East Bottoms at 2700 Guinotte Avenue (across the street from the Local Pig). The 14,500 square foot brick building is a former bottling plant for the Heim Brewing Co. It’s a property owned by Boulevard founder John McDonald.
“John is an amazing landlord. He’s someone we can confide in and talk to based on everything he’s done here in Kansas City,” Maybee says.
J Rieger has ordered a pair of stills to be installed in the building where they’re headquartered. The first, a Vendome copper still, arrived last week, and the second is slated to be delivered before the end of the year. Their goal is to begin producing their own rye whiskey, bourbon, gin and absinthe on site.
In the interim, they’re blending whiskey and sherry for the Kansas City and St. Louis markets with plans to start distributing Kansas in the near future. The addition of sherry means that the whiskey produced by J Rieger is technically American whiskey. But Maybee, inspired by what Jack Daniels started with Tennessee whiskey, saw this a chance to put Kansas City on the spirits map.
“Here we can come up with process of blending sherry into American whiskey and identify it as a Kansas City process,” Maybee says. “And if others follow suit and we’ve got a new tradition, that would be amazing.”