During prohibition, the nation looked on Kansas City as a center of boisterous culture, with cutting edge cuisine and fashion fueled by a lively music — and speakeasy — scene.
Nearly 100 years later, a pair of businessmen with Prairie Village ties have used that era as inspiration for an addition to what they call the “Kansas City renaissance” currently under way in the city. Prairie Village resident Steve Revare and partner David Epstein, a Prairie Village native, are set to launch Tom’s Town Distilling Co. in the Crossroads Arts District next week. The distillery’s official opening Jan. 6 will be the result of nearly two years of plotting by the duo, who first teamed up as partners in one of the region’s first web-design companies in the mid-1990s.
Seeing the burgeoning craft beer scene spawned by the success of Boulevard Brewing Co., Revare and Epstein began to wonder whether there was space in the market for a craft distillery. They registered for some courses at Moonshine University, a distilling school in Louisville, Ken., in 2013 to get a sense of what it takes to make it in the industry.
“I wish I’d gone there for undergrad — it was a lot of fun,” said Revare. “We like to say that we’d had a lot of experience drinking, but not a lot of experience distilling.”
What they learned through those courses was that starting a scaled distilling operation isn’t for the faint of heart. But despite the high start-up costs, the two saw an opportunity they couldn’t resist.
“We saw this broader renaissance that was happening here, and kind of said, people are making all sorts of cool things here, what could we do to make this particular contribution to the scene?” Revare said.
The pair hired a distiller from St. Louis and began working on recipes for small-batch gin and vodka. The branding for the initial offerings features art deco designs and names that hearken back to the time when Tom Pendergast’s political machine held complete power in the city. McElroy’s Corruption Gin is named for Pendergast’s city manager, Henry McElroy, who helped funnel projects to Pendergast’s concrete company. Eli’s Strongarm Vodka is named for Elijah Matheus, the mayor’s bodyguard.
“We wanted to make it not just a nostalgic brand, but an update to the era as well,” Revare said. “Vodka, for instance, wasn’t really a prohibition era drink, but it’s something people consume a lot now.”
In addition to the vodka and gin, Tom’s Town will be debuting with a 10-year-old bourbon that it licensed from another distiller. The company is planning on bottling its own short-run whiskeys in the coming years.
The company will have set tasting room hours at its downtown location, 1701 Main Street, starting next Wednesday.
Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Tom’s Town will be the first legal distillery in Kansas City since prohibition. It will be the first distillery in downtown Kansas City since that era, but J. Rieger & Co. opened in the East Bottoms last year.