Samantha Kannawin and her groom, Jake Hammer, relax between wedding group photos in the barrel room of the Union Horse Distillery in Lenexa. Roy Inman | Special to The Star

Distill their hearts: Why craft liquor and weddings are the hottest new pairing

For the Hammers' wedding reception, Union Horse served the Blushing Bride, made by shaking the distillery's reserve straight bourbon with orange liqueur and lemon juice and topping it with a red wine float, and the Golden Groom, a Moscow mule variant featuring Rider vodka and Kansas City Canning Co.’s blood orange ginger shrub. Roy Inman | Special to The Star
“I’ve done a lot of event spaces in Kansas City. Every single one of them was fun, and beautiful, and great, but (Union Horse) is way different than anything I’ve seen," bride Samantha Hammer said. Roy Inman | Special to The Star

Signature cocktails were a given when Samantha and Jake Hammer planned their May wedding, but the Lenexa couple didn’t settle for just picking a recipe. They held their reception at Union Horse Distilling Co. and celebrated their special day alongside gleaming fermentation tanks, a copper still and aging whiskey barrels.

It was a perfect fit for Samantha Hammer: the distillery suited her natural boho style, was big enough to accommodate their large families and completely unlike other venues she’d considered.

“I’ve done the mountain thing a thousand times,” Hammer said, referring to the mountain-top weddings popular in her home state of Colorado. “I’ve done a lot of event spaces in Kansas City. Every single one of them was fun, and beautiful, and great, but (Union Horse) is way different than anything I’ve seen.”

Non-traditional venues like Union Horse and two other Kansas City distilleries, Tom’s Town Distilling Co. and Lifted Spirits, are increasingly appealing, and the trend shows no sign of abating.

“More couples want to personalize and customize their wedding, and distilleries are a great example of that,” said Ivy Jacobson, senior digital editor for wedding resource The Knot.

Personalization is certainly possible at Union Horse. The distillery is booked every weekend through November, but the customizable space means each wedding can be different, said Mary Gallagher, one of the distillery’s co-founders and its director of special events.

The three event rooms can be used separately for smaller gatherings or combined for up to 350 guests. Subtle creams, tans and golds dominate the color scheme, while dark wood, marble, stainless steel and copper details lend themselves as easily to an elegant aesthetic as they do rustic or eclectic styles.

It’s not only the look, though. The fact that it’s a working distillery creates a distinctive atmosphere people connect with, Gallagher said.

“For people who love food and drink, the distillery lends itself to their passion,” she said.

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About 70 percent of the distillery’s weddings include both the ceremony and reception, and many also use it for pre-wedding festivities like tours, tastings or bachelor or bachelorette parties.

Couples have invited guests to sign a Union Horse barrel in lieu of a guest book or requested barrel heads engraved with their names and dates and engraved glassware that can then be used during a rehearsal dinner or given as gifts.

And then there are the signature cocktails. The Hammers served two: the Blushing Bride, made by shaking Union Horse’s Reserve Straight Bourbon with orange liqueur and lemon juice and topping it with a red wine float, and the Golden Groom, a Moscow mule variant featuring Rider Vodka and Kansas City Canning Co.’s Blood Orange Ginger Shrub.

They didn’t have to come up with them on their own, though — Union Horse’s team offered a range of drink suggestions and bar packages. On the day-of, its own bartenders are serving.

“Our bartenders know our products. They can tell guests how long a whiskey’s been aged, what the mash bill was,” Gallagher said. “That goes a long way to enhancing the event.”

Kirsten McGannon, marketing director for Tom’s Town Distilling Co., said that’s also an essential part of the experience for their guests, too.

“They know Tom’s Town inside and out,” she said of the distillery’s bartenders. “They have a lot of pride in Tom’s Town.”

Tom’s Town has been a wedding venue since its start — co-owner David Epstein and his husband, Wade Tajerian, were the first to marry there. Since then, it’s played host to countless weddings and receptions, corporate events and private parties.

“The difference at our distillery is the history of our building, the (political boss) Tom Pendergast history, and the Gatsby feel to it all,” said Tom’s Town events manager Lisa Hickok. “Some people even come dressed in Gatsby-era clothes, have a jazz band and get into that whole theme.”

The first-floor speakeasy-style Vault is small and intimate, while the upstairs Rickenbacker Room boasts 5,000 square feet, original wood floors, exposed brick and beams and views of Kauffman Center and other downtown landmarks. Although the still is on lower level, its column extends up through the floor, and a glass surround offers a peek at what goes on down below.

“It’s a cool place to display the wedding cake,” Hickok said.

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Like Tom’s Town, Lifted Spirits also comes with a side of history. Originally a stable built in the 1890s, the thoroughly restored upstairs Hayloft retains its brick-and-wood charm and can hold up to 175 guests.

But the real attraction is Lifted Spirits’ family vibe, said events manager Tricia Claypool. Claypool’s son, Kyle Claypool, founded the distillery with Michael Stuckey. Stuckey’s wife oversees accounting for the company, and Tricia Claypool’s brother is also on staff.

“I want you to understand the feel of who we are,” she said. “If you’re getting married in our space, you’re getting married with family.”

Want to tour the distillery? Take photos by racks of whiskey barrels? Have a spirits tasting or hang out next to the still? It’s all possible, Claypool said.

When it comes to cocktails, couples can pick from the menu or request something entirely their own. One of Claypool’s favorites was a drink a bride had previously enjoyed in the tasting room, a Hail Mary the bartender spontaneously created for her. He jotted the recipe on a napkin, and she brought it to her first meeting with Claypool.

“The bride loved her Hail Mary, so that was one of the cocktails at her wedding,” Claypool said.

While distilleries aren’t suited to every wedding, signature cocktails clearly are. Twenty-three percent of all weddings served them last year, The Knot’s 2017 Real Weddings Study said.

“Couples are really into mixology. They’re really knowledgeable and want that to reflect in their drink choices,” Jacobson said.

Many begin with a drink they love, but The Knot’s Jacobson recommends focusing on what your guests will enjoy, rather than your own favorite Manhattan or mojito.

“If your wedding is in summer, go lighter, maybe something with lemon or cucumber that’s more refreshing,” she said. “If it’s fall or winter, lean into something bolder or heavier, maybe with cinnamon notes.”

Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be so complicated it slows down the bar line. Instead, go for a drink that can be partly made in advance, what bartenders call batching. Remember, too, that not every guest wants to drink alcohol. That’s where ingredients like Boozy Botanicals, a locally made line of flavored simple syrups, come in. They mix readily into cocktails, but also make non-alcoholic sodas perfect for kids, designated drivers or anyone else not imbibing.

“Club soda is fine, but wouldn’t you rather have a lavender and Earl grey soda?” said Boozy Botanicals’ owner, Cheryl Bisbee, whose mostly organic syrups also come in rosemary mint, classic rose, ginger hibiscus, three pepper, cardamom spice and vanilla allspice flavors.

It’s just another way to set a wedding apart and include every guest in the signature celebration.

Recipes

Blushing Bride

Signature cocktails are increasingly popular at weddings, and Samantha Hammer chose this one for her wedding reception at Union Horse Distilling Co.

Makes 1 drink

1-1/2 ounces Union Horse Reserve Straight Bourbon

3/4 ounce Grand Marnier Orange Liqueur

3/4 ounce lemon juice

Red wine float

Combine bourbon, orange liqueur and lemon juice in a mixing glass. Fill with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. Top with red wine and serve.

Golden Groom

His-and-hers cocktails are a fun way to celebrate, and this Moscow mule variant was Jake Hammer’s pick.

Makes 1 drink

1-1/2 ounces Union Horse Rider Vodka

1/4 ounce Kansas City Canning Co. Blood Orange Ginger Shrub

1/4 ounce lime juice

Ginger beer

Lime wedge, for garnish

Combine vodka, shrub and lime juice in an ice-filled copper mug and stir until cold. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge and serve.

The Pinky Blitz

This is one of Tom’s Town Distilling Co.’s most popular wedding cocktails. Bonus: it can be batched ahead of time, which helps keep the bar line moving.

Makes 1 drink

1-1/2 ounces Tom's Town StrongArm Vodka

1/4 ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur

1/4 ounce Big O Ginger Liqueur

1/4 ounce Kansas City Canning Co. Blood Orange Ginger Shrub

1-1/2 ounces Barritt’s Ginger Beer

Orange wedge, for garnish

Combine vodka, liqueurs and shrub in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass and top with ginger beer. Garnish with an orange wedge.

Hail Mary

A bartender at Lifted Spirits’ tasting room spontaneously created this drink for a bride-to-be one night. He jotted the recipe on a napkin; it later became a signature cocktail at her wedding.

Makes 1 drink

1-1/2 ounces Lifted Spirits Bright Gin

3/4 ounce lemon juice

3/4 ounce raspberry simple syrup (see note)

Club soda

Lemon twist, to garnish

Combine gin, lemon juice and raspberry simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice, and shake until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass and top with club soda. Garnish with lemon twist.

For raspberry simple syrup: combine 2 cups granulated sugar (or sugar of choice) with 1 cup water in a saucepan; heat on low until sugar has dissolved. Add 1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries, stirring until berries form a pulp. Strain syrup into a jar and refrigerate; skim off any pectin that rises to the surface. Reserve pulp and use to top yogurt, stir into oatmeal or add to smoothies.


Distill their hearts: Why craft liquor and weddings are the hottest new pairing