I’ve always been fascinated with the history of Kansas City. I was born here, and I’ve lived my entire life here. I remember visiting downtown from my home in the suburbs when I was a kid. I remember the old buildings, the beautiful architecture, the smell of the Folgers Coffee Plant, the West Bottoms’ warehouses, and the remnants of a city that once hummed and buzzed with all kinds of life. When I turned 21 I landed a job as an apprentice bartender at a high-end restaurant in the newly renovated Union Station, originally built in 1914. The building itself is grandiose, and it’s history is rich with political rallies, gangster shootouts, and film shoots in the beautiful marble-clad halls. It is still the 3rd largest train station in the country and was the primary hub of the midwest at the height of train travel. I moved downtown and never looked back. I fell in love with the Crossroads, just a couple blocks from where I worked. It was here that I also fell in love with wine, food, and classic cocktail culture. It now seems that there was a very clear purpose for all of this.
Fast-forward about 11 years, and I find myself opening Manifesto in the basement of 1924 Main, the former Rieger Hotel. Manifesto epitomizes a respect for history and a love for spirits and mixology. The setting is dark, discreet, and styled as a 1920′s speakeasy in a 95 year old building just two doors down from where Tom Pendergast’s office was located during the height of Prohibition. The drink-making is approached with great care, taking cues from chefs and utilizing century-old techniques. It’s a perfect location for such a “concept”, and something I’d been fantasizing about for years.
While I knew that the location was absolutely “perfect”, with the entry through the alley and down the stairs, and the small, dark room with the walls of original basement stone, I also had no idea that the history of this building had so much more to offer.
The building was finished in 1915, and was opened as The Rieger Hotel. The owner was Alexander Rieger. Its openening coincided with the addition, just a couple of blocks away, of Union Station. The hotel serviced travellers, railroad workers, and salesmen in a booming area of downtown Kansas City that was just starting to spring to life. I wouldn’t discover until last spring just how much history exhisted at this building, and it goes much further back than 1915, all the way to 1877, and the J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey Distributorship.
Jacob Rieger opened the J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey Distributorship in 1877 in Kansas City’s West Bottoms. They officially opened at 1512 Genesse, and by the time of their closing, in 1919, they occupied the properties from 1512-1529. Fortunately for the Rieger business, the state of Kansas became the first state to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol, in 1881. The west bottoms neighborhood on the Missouri side of KC quickly became known as “The Wettest Block in the World”, as everyone would cross the state line to drink, dance, gamble and revel. It’s easy to imagine Rieger Whiskey as the drink of choice, a la our modern “Boulevard”. J. Rieger became one of the largest whiskey distributors in the country. And at that time, in the late 1800′s to early 20th century, running this type of business was quite a bit easier than it was after prohibition. Whiskey and spirits, while they had their opponents, were still widely considered medicinal, and were commonly prescribed by doctors to cure common ailments. J. Rieger & Co. thrived, shipping whiskey, brandy, and liqueurs all over the country. They were, apparently, so successful that Jacob’s son, Alexander, opened the Rieger Hotel in 1915. Documentation is hard to come by from this time, but it appears that this was clearly a way for the family to expand its business. The lobby (now our restaurant space) would have included a front desk and a lounge/restaurant. The original tile floor still graces our room, with the original “R” shield. And if you look closely to the South side of the building, you can make out the faint outline of a J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey advertisement, complete with a 20ft. tall bottle and slogan “O! So Good”.
After discovering the history of Rieger Whiskey and the Rieger name, it became somewhat of an obsession to dig up as much information as possible. Spending hours online searching archives and ebay, I finally came across a collection of old bottles, shot glasses, and ephemera owned by a gentleman named Paul Gronquist. I contacted him, explaining that Howard Hanna and I were planning on opening a restaurant in the old Rieger Hotel building, and naming it The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. Paul lives in Alma, Kansas, about 2 hours from Kansas City. We spoke on a Thursday, and on Sunday he made the drive to KC with a part of his collection in tow.
Paul is a high school teacher in Topeka, and his hobby is collecting pre-prohibition era whiskey memorabilia. And he has plenty of it. We met him at The Rieger, and he brought in a box full of bottles and a notebook full of 100+ year old newspaper ads. He brought about 12 bottles, ranging from the J. Rieger Monogram Whiskey to a Blackberry Brandy bottled under their name. While most of them were empty, he even had one bottle of Rye that was full and unopened, but the cork was pretty worn through, and by turning it upside down we could extract a few drops and give it a taste. Howard and I and my girlfriend Chelsea all got the privilege of tasting a more than hundred year old rye whiskey that was bottled in KC’s early days.
This history is something we don’t want to take for granted. It’s an important part of Kansas City’s history, and an important part of our country’s history. Our fascination with this is more than just a passing interest, it gives our restaurant character, charm, and personality. The building began as The Rieger, and we don’t want people to forget about its ties to our city’s beginnings. It’s also valuable to acknowledge the impact that Prohibition had on our country’s history. For 14 years, Prohibition did a lot more than make it illegal to sell or consume beverage alcohol, it destroyed legitimate businesses and gave rise to crime. Hopefully by recognizing the businesses and people that this affected will help us all learn from that mistake.
There are signs and images of the Riegers’ beginnings all around our restaurant and bar. From the old bottles on the back bar to the old newspaper ads framed and hanging on the wall in the bar; from the mural of the J. Rieger & Co. logo and bottle in the private dining room to our own logo that pays homage in the form of a crest. While we are a modern restaurant that takes great pride in our product and service, we believe that our history and legacy will play an important role in making this a landmark restaurant for years, or decades, to come.