Tuesday, 17 January 2023 05:58

How I restarted my family's business nearly a century after it disappeared

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Andy Rieger's great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob Rieger, started selling whiskey under the J. Rieger and Co. brand in 1887. During its time, the company grew to be the largest mail-order whiskey house in the US.

That is, until the Volstead Act forced the company to close its doors in 1920. Nearly a century later, Rieger rebooted the historic brand with new whiskey and a 100,000 square foot distillery and event space in the Electric Park district of Kansas City.

In doing so, he brought new life into a historic brand and a forgotten neighborhood. – As told to Brit Morse

In 2010, I found out that The Rieger Hotel, a three-story brick hotel in the city center that used to be owned by my family nearly a century ago, had been renovated and was reopening.

It's a historic hotel that was home to many traveling salesmen, railroad workers and passersby during Kansas City's formative years in the early 1900s.

My dad, who had passed away six months prior of cancer and heard about the renovations, insisted that someone in the family attend the opening of the hotel's restaurant to show support.

At the event, I met my co-founder Ryan Maybee, the man behind the hotel's new bar, who floated the idea to restart my family's old whiskey brand to feature it on the menu. I took to the idea right away but I had no real interest initially in even being a part of it.

I was living in Dallas at the time, working in investment banking and was on a good career path. I did, though, offer my advice. I told him the business should be a much larger operation, similar to how it was originally.

I helped him restructure the entire business plan to be this distribution-based model. I helped him purchase the original trademark and hire a local creative agency in Kansas City to develop the modern J. Rieger & Co. brand using the distillery's original name, logo, slogan (O So Good) and original bottles as inspiration.

My girlfriend at the time, now wife, knew that one of the things my dad had told me was to never move home to Kansas City unless I had a real reason. Eventually, after all that, she just looked at me one day and said, "I'm pretty confident this is the reason your father was talking about."

So we left Dallas and moved back to my hometown in 2014 and I started working on the business full-time.

I immediately went out and raised a million dollars from private investors, half equity, half debt, right off the bat. We rented a 15,000 square foot building in a historic part of town for $2,500 bucks and started working on the product.

We brought back the whiskey with the help of Dave Pickerell, a master distiller who helped grow Maker's Mark bourbon. It's not the same exact whiskey – you wouldn't want it to be – but it uses a similar blend. Traditionally, when it comes to whiskey, you make it, let it sit for years and then package it.

Well, that's a really bad model from a business side. So what we did is we chose a hybrid of that. We created our own style of whiskey by utilizing different whiskies distilled from different distilleries, along with sherry wine to be blended in with the whiskey.

The addition of sherry was a practice that was very popular in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And the original J. Rieger & Co. blended sherry on site.

Reviving this practice was sort of a way for us to touch the historical elements of the whiskey industry, while creating something that is completely, uniquely ours.

Instead of just calling it whiskey, we got the government to allow us to call it Kansas City style whiskey and since then, a few other distilleries have come out with their versions of Kansas City style whiskey.

Five years into our venture, when we were fortunate enough to have a lot of success, we opened an entirely new facility with 75,000 square feet of production space and 25,000 square feet of bar and event space in the Electric Park district of Kansas City.

It's where the first amusement park in the city was located. It's a severely distressed area economically and what the state of Missouri identifies as an enhanced enterprise zone.

So we are considered a catalyst for the neighborhood and after we were registered as a historic place, we applied for and received various federal funding tax credits, historic tax credits, hiring incentives and sales tax incentives of upwards of $5 million. We were able to put together a truly Class A type development in an area that shouldn't have one.

Our earliest barrels finally turned six years old last year and were finally ready for bottling, so we released Rieger's Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey and it became the first whiskey distilled in Kansas City since Prohibition.

We also offer wheat vodka, dry gin and a caffè amaro. We now sell in 28 states and four different countries for the distribution side of our business.

Being able to bring something back, that's predicated on history, that's predicated on family values, family morals and doing something that has historical relevance and significance, not only to family, but to an entire city is such an honor.

We're bringing back this old, defunct part of town while preserving Kansas City's authentic history. True authenticity and attention to detail will always get you to where you want to be and I would say that's been the most valuable lesson that I've learned.

 

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