J. Rieger & Co. Resurrects a Legacy
By Diane Euston
Once hyped as being the largest mail-order whiskey house in the United States, J. Rieger & Co. was lost and erased during the dry days of Prohibition. But its incredible history and the resurrection of this brand in Kansas City is a story of the legacy of one family, the perseverance of an interested bartender and a lot of guts between them all.
Emigration to America
Rieger & Co.’s beginnings rest with Jacob Rieger, who uprooted his family from present-day Slovakia and arrived in New York in 1879 after a 30-day trip at sea. They settled in Ohio for a few years before moving to Kansas City where Jacob opened a grocery store at 3rd and Gillis, working side-by-side with his son, Alexander. In a 1929 article in the Kansas City Star, Alexander recalled, “America was marvelous in my eyes. I was treated kindly.”
The Creation of a Distillery
The Riegers knew opportunity when they saw it, and Jacob was willing to create supply when there was demand. In 1887 he founded J. Rieger & Co. in the West Bottoms amid saloons, brothels and casinos. And since the state of Kansas had become virtually dry long before the 18th Amendment gripped the nation, he was one of the entrepreneurs who responded by opening a business near the state line.
By the turn of the century, he turned over the business to his son. Alexander was a
visionary who had the idea to sell mail-order whiskey to thirsty patrons across the country. J. Rieger catalogs were sent to thousands of home addresses and newspaper ads touted rums, whiskeys, gins and other company products. In 1899, one advertisement even promoted blackberry brandy as “a good thing for the grip.”
The West Bottoms frequently flooded, so when the original Union Depot Station moved to higher ground in 1914 to its current location, Alexander saw an opportunity to further expose travelers to his popular spirits. He opted to open a “budget hotel” at 20th and Main. When The Rieger opened in 1915, it was advertised as a “3-story fireproof building” with 21 rooms, private baths and a restaurant. That same year, Jacob Rieger passed away at age of 86.
Prohibition Bans the Booze
Meanwhile the temperance movement was gaining momentum. After the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Alexander had no choice but to shut the doors on J. Rieger & Co. He left the hotel and booze business to become a successful banker. But years after the distillery closed, he would still receive several mail orders just before Christmas. One such letter in December 1929 reads, “Dear Sir: Please send me 8 qts. of your monogram whiskey you have advertised in the World Almanac. Please send it C.O.D.”
His descendants stayed in the banking business after he died in 1936. The only surviving mark was on the top of the Rieger Hotel where the name “Rieger” was delicately carved in marble.
A Bartender Bets on an Old Brand
Fate and some creativity from a local bartender would soon resurrect the Rieger name. In 2009, Ryan Maybee opened Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel. One year later, after phenomenal success, he opened a restaurant named “The Rieger” upstairs on the main floor. On opening night, in walked Andy Rieger, who wanted to thank Ryan for honoring his family. He discovered that Ryan had even bigger plans. Let’s partner up, Ryan told him, and reopen J. Rieger & Co. as a whiskey distillery.
Andy found the opportunity hard to pass up, so in 2014, he quit his job in Dallas and came back home to Kansas City to resurrect his family’s business with Ryan Maybee as a co-founder.
“Honestly, some people were 100 percent supportive and excited, and others thought I was crazy,” Andy explains. “I was 26 years old and had a great job in the financial world when we moved back to KC to re-start the distillery. I thought, if not now, when? If I fail, I’m young enough to get back into corporate America. But if I succeed, I’ll have a lifetime of building this company ahead of me.”
Because the original distillery was torn down in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot, Ryan and Andy chose the site of the old Heim Brewery in the East Bottoms for their new business venture. Fittingly, they started by launching Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey at the 100-year anniversary celebration of Union Station.
Rieger is Resurrected
Just shy of four years later, the success of resurrecting J. Rieger & Co. is felt across the city. The brand has taken off and rebranded Kansas City as being more than just a beer town. A whiskey distillation is currently being done five days a week to build an inventory that will be ready for sale four to six years from today. The primary focus is on growing the J. Rieger & Co. brand nationally. Their products are available in 19 states and they hope to have California added by April.
Rieger & Co. is proudly sponsoring the Whiskey Run 5K in Martin City as part of the Irishpalooza festivities on March 11. One of J. Rieger’s goals is to be intertwined with local events while they continue to build their distribution and portfolio.
There are, of course, no plans to revitalize the old mail-order business of the 1900s, but Andy is happy to rejuvenate the business his great-grandfather built in 1887. “We thought that was something our city deserved to have back,” he says. “We hope to honor the legacy Jacob Rieger built while also building something we, and our city, can be proud of forever.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com