J. Rieger ‘multimillion’ distillery expansion hopes to draw thousands to East Bottoms
The East Bottoms was once a popular draw — home to the famed Electric Park with its roller coaster, curated gardens, theater and nightly fireworks.
A place where Heim Brewery piped its beer through underground lines to taps that directly served patrons.
Prohibition nixed all that, but Jacob Rieger & Company Distillery now hopes to make the area a destination again. The locally owned distillery announced Tuesday that it plans a major expansion and hospitality center that it expects will draw up to 100,000 visitors annually — and spur more investment in the area.
“A private company like ours expanding at that level, it immediately makes that neighborhood more attractive,” said Ryan Maybee, a partner with Andy Rieger in the distillery. “We want to see more people down here investing in business and we want more people living down here.”
Maybee declined to put a price tag on the development but confirmed it will be a “multimillion dollar” project.
Jacob Rieger will renovate its current 15,000-square-foot building at 2700 Guinotte Ave. and expand into an adjoining 45,000-square-foot building that was once home to Heim Brewery’s bottling house.
The three-story historic bottling building (circa 1901) will showcase the Rieger production facility, including four stills and five 2,500-gallon fermenting tanks. It will have daily tours, tastings, multiple bars, lounges and cocktail spaces, an event space, an interactive historic exhibit on Kansas City, Electric Park, Heim Brewing and J. Rieger, and a gift shop. Customers also will be able to “hand fill” their own bottles of whiskey.
The distillery currently has a half dozen employees but expects to increase that to more than 40 by the time the hospitality center opens in late spring 2019.
The elegant red brick and stone building, at 507 N. Montgall Ave., is mostly in a “Second Renaissance Revival Style” known for its arches, nine-over-nine paneled windows, and a roofline marked by embellished cornice and shaped parapet. It still has its original wood flooring and about 400 feet of underground tunnels dating back to when Heim piped its beers to the bottling house.
The neighborhood was once known as Electric Park, one of the country’s first fully illuminated amusement parks dating to 1899, Maybee said. It featured a roller coaster, 2,500-seat theater that once hosted John Philip Sousa, and a large-scale water fountain. It lit up the sky with a fireworks display every night at closing time.
But the neighborhood never recovered after Prohibition. The Heim building had various uses over the years but has been empty at least since the early 2000s, Maybee said.
The Rieger distillery purchased the bottling building from John McDonald, founder of Boulevard Brewing Co., a year ago, along with an acre lot that will be used for parking for 85 cars. Rieger’s original “O! So good” slogan will be on the parking lot railing.
GastingerWalker& is the project architect for the renovation and A.L. Huber the general contractor. Work was scheduled to start after Tuesday morning’s announcement.\“We are going to open up the floor plan like it was originally, with the two-story-tall stills,” said Kevin Harden, managing partner at GastingerWalker& in Kansas City.
Harden said Charles Smith was the architect for the Heim Brewery bottling building, as well as the newly renovated former Norman School in midtown.
Ryan Maybee also was a pioneer in the redevelopment of the Crossroads as an entertainment area. He opened a modern day speakeasy, Manifesto, in the basement of the former Rieger Hotel in 2009. A year later, he teamed up with chef/partner Howard Hanna to open a restaurant and bar, The Rieger, on the first floor.
That’s when he met Andy Rieger, great-great-great-grandson of the founder of Jacob Rieger & Co. distillery. The brewery originally opened in 1887 in the West Bottoms but then was forced to close in 1919 with the advent of Prohibition.
Maybee and Rieger brought it back four years ago as J. Rieger & Co. Since then they have expanded distribution to 20 states and it is now in the top 10 of U.S. distilleries by sales volume. The expansion will let it quintuple average daily production capacity. Its product line includes Kansas City Whiskey, Midwestern Dry Gin, Caffe Amaro and Premium Wheat Vodka.
While the expansion will allow them to increase production, Maybee said don’t expect a lot of new products.
“We want to focus on what we are really good at and we are known for our Kansas City whiskey,” he said. “And our gin has the potential to be the biggest gin in the United States.”