The metro’s liquor scene is thriving like back in the days of Boss Tom thanks to a recent crop of small-batch Kansas City distilleries.
Story by Lindsey Corey | Photos by David Allison
Steve Strong, S.D. Strong Distilling
Steve Strong’s distillery may be well hidden, but word is spreading fast about S.D. Strong Vodka. The boutique distillery in Parkville, Mo., is the nation’s only distillery in a cave.
“The first person I talked to was the fire chief, and he recommended the cave for its existing sprinkler system,” Strong says. “At first, I thought it seemed out of the way, but it has a really cool vibe.”
Other parts of the limestone cave are still being mined.
“Around 5:30, you can feel dynamite going off,” he says. “I feel that shake and think ‘I’m risking my life to make alcohol.’ It feels like I’m some sort of bootlegger.”
If that’s not risky enough, Strong says regulations requiring a distillery to be built before you can get a license to distill almost scared him off.
“When I learned about that rule, I thought ‘Who’s crazy enough to put all that money and then get permission?’” he says. “But here I am a year and a half later. It’s super satisfying to start off with a grain and end up with a product that tastes great and people enjoy.”
Strong sold his first bottle of vodka in March 2013 and is on target to sell about 800 cases this year in Missouri and Kansas.
“Right now, it’s a Kansas City thing, and we’ll be really happy if we continue to do well here,” he says.
He and his wife, Lisa, spend most weekends underground filtering and bottling. The small-batch vodka is filtered 16 times, 200 gallons at a time.
“It takes a long time, but I wanted to make a great tasting vodka that’s smooth enough to serve in a martini and clean enough to mix with anything but still reasonably priced,” he says. “We’re doing this one bottle at a time.”
Volunteers often help with the bottling, and Kansas City’s Bernstein-Rein Advertising is creating a new website and doing some rebranding for S.D. Strong.
“The support has been amazing,” Strong says. “People want to support local businesses, and I’m the same way, but doing this whole thing has made me re-evaluate my buying decisions even more. Every little thing helps us, so I know it makes a difference to other local businesses.”
The distillery gives back locally too. S.D. Strong was a sponsor for this year’s Nelson-Atkins Summer White Party. Strong plans to release Pillar 136 Gin, named for the distillery’s spot in the cave, later this year and a limited rye whiskey in 2015.
“It has my name on it, so it has to be good,” he says.
S.D. Strong Vodka was awarded a Washington Cup Spirits Competition silver medal in 2013. It’s on tap at Green Lady Lounge and also available at Rye, Michael Smith Restaurant, Extra Virgin and other KC establishments. You can pick up a bottle at Berbiglia, HyVee, Gomer’s and others for $19.99.
Damian, Eric and Patrick Garcia and Mary Garcia Gallagher, Dark Horse Distillery
The best things come to those who wait. Just ask the Garcia siblings, co-owners of Dark Horse Distillery in Lenexa, Kan. They established the family business in 2010 and began the nearly two-year aging process for their Reserve Bourbon Whiskey and Reunion Rye Whiskey in 2011.
“It’s a huge waiting game,” Damian Garcia says. “You can’t rush whiskey; you got to let it do its thing.”
Barrels were tapped and both Dark Horse signature spirits were hand-bottled and distributed last March. There was plenty of “tinkering and experimentation” in the meantime, Damian says.
“We wanted to take our time and really do it well,” he says. “If you rush, you’ll make mistakes. We don’t cut corners. Everything we do is with care and compassion, and we want that to shine through in our spirits.”
The grain-to-bottle distillery launched its small-batch Rider Vodka and Long Shot White Whiskey, an un-aged liquor, in 2012. But before a drop hit the Dark Horse bottles, the Garcias invited local bartenders and retailers in for taste-testing.
“We knew what we liked, but we wanted those who would be selling and serving them to give us their opinions to make sure they were the best they could be,” Damian says. “There aren’t a lot of craft spirits in the market, and we’re going up against whiskeys from Kentucky that haven’t changed in 100 years. We’re not trying to compete; what we’re doing is totally different than the bigger brands, but we still feel like a long shot and the underdog.”
Lucky for them, Kansas City likes a long shot. Dark Horse has already doubled its output from 2013 and has 12 full-time employees, including the sibling owners.
“It’s unbelievable that it’s done this and done it so quickly,” Damian says. “We laid down a lot of whiskey in the very beginning to prepare for this, but we still pinch ourselves all the time. In some ways it’s been a long journey too. We’ve done everything from getting the grain from local farmers to turning it into a spirit that people can enjoy.”
People are enjoying Dark Horse spirits in Kansas, Missouri, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but the bulk of sales are in the KC metro.
“The local vibe is so supportive from food to coffee to beer to artisan shops,” Damian says. “We’re born and raised in this city and wanted to contribute to the growth it’s experiencing now and to show people that a good craft spirit could be made locally using local ingredients and local high-end equipment. We’re looking into expanding into other states, but we’re taking it one step at a time. Continuing to meet the demand in our market here is what it’s really about.”
And giving back. Dark Horse donates for two to three charity events a month, supporting local initiatives like the Ronald McDonald House, Cultivate Kansas City and the American Cancer Society.
To arrange a distillery tour or view the Dark Horse event spaces, visit dhdistillery.com.
Ron Bailey, Todd Bukaty and Chad Fordham, Good Spirits Distilling
Chad Fordham’s grandfather used to make moonshine. But—“other than drinking” —he says that’s the extent of liquor experience he and his partners brought to Good Spirits Distilling when they founded the micro-distillery five years ago. Now Fordham and longtime friends and co-owners Ron Bailey and Todd Bukaty distill, bottle and distribute more than 5,000 bottles of Clear10 Vodka every month from their Olathe, Kan., property. And Fordham says people around KC often call him The Vodka Guy.
“Looking back, it’s a really difficult business to get into with all the big guys who’ve been at it for a long time,” he says. “We probably should have thought twice, but here we are still expanding. It’s been fun to watch it grow and turn into something really fantastic.”
Clear10 Vodka has picked up four gold medals from two international blind-tasting competitions and is available in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. It will soon be sold in Colorado and Texas too.
“We’re proud of being crafted locally and awarded globally,” Fordham says. “We’re trying to grow from our own city out, and as long as it’s good, locals will support it.”
Good Spirits supports locals too. They’ve donated vodka to fundraisers all over town from Children’s Mercy’s Big Slick Celebrity Weekend to events for the Kansas City Free Health Clinic, Big Brothers Big Sisters, American Cancer Society, the Overland Park Arboretum and others.
“It makes us feel good about what we do when we can give back to the city we live in,” Fordham says.
Their artisan vodka, which goes through a 22-step filtration process, was kicked up a notch when KC’s Vodka Guy and Coffee Guy (Danny O’Neill, owner of The Roasterie) got together to create a coffee-infused spirit two years ago. The Roasterie brews 40 gallons of its popular espresso, and Fordham picks it up when he’s got a batch of 225 gallons of Clear10 ready. The local liquid combo sits for a week to be fully infused before it’s bottled as Dizzy Three, named for the plane at The Roasterie headquarters – and for the punch it packs.
“It’s cool to have two Kansas City companies collaborate on something like this and come up with an amazing product,” Fordham says. “We’re pretty proud of it, and it’s a great niche. There aren’t a lot of coffee-flavored vodkas out there, and even if people don’t like coffee, they like this because it has a sort of savory, chocolatey-mocha taste to it.”
Fordham suggests the caffeinated liquor as an after-dinner treat or as the key ingredient in a martini or Colorado Bulldog. Clear10 and Dizzy Three are available at liquor stores, bars and restaurants throughout the KC metro.