Kansas adopted Prohibition in 1881, long before the rest of the country. Anyone on the Sunflower side who wanted the simple pleasure of a cold beer on a hot day suddenly found himself having to cross state lines to find it—or to find it legally at least. The cluster of businesses hugging the border in the West Bottoms that arose to quench that collective thirst included a stretch of West Ninth Street between State Line Road and Genessee Street. Packed with two-dozen liquor stores and saloons, it famously was called “The Wettest Block in the World.”
The intrepid day-tripper can still spot remnants of Kansas City’s boozy past. The building still stands at Ninth St., where famous barman James Flanagan ran one of the city’s best-known watering spots. And the narrow, dark red brick building at 304 Delaware St. was once a depot for the Wiedemann Brewing Co.
A squat, brick structure at 955 State Line Road, built as an icehouse, is all that remains of a Schlitz brewing complex that once covered two city blocks. After buying out the local Muehlebach Brewing Co. in 1956, the “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” became a big presence in our town. Old timers still remember the Schlitz-sponsored Kansas City A’s radio broadcasts and the big “Go for the Gusto” sign at old Municipal Stadium.
Not all is lost, however: You can still get a drink in the West Bottoms. Today the building, the former home of Fahrenheit Gallery, is home to Korruption, a dive-y favorite of local artists. Long ago it was a workingman’s bar owned by Pabst Brewing Co., and a beautiful tile mosaic of the old Pabst logo still adorns the entrance.
Pabst also owned the building at the southeast corner of 21st and Central streets downtown—until Boss Tom Pendergast took over, that is. Like many breweries, Pabst stayed in business during Prohibition by making non-alcoholic “near-beer.” By 1920, notorious city boss Pendergast had muscled in on the business, and the renamed Pendergast Distribution Co. was, in all likelihood, the front for a massive, multicounty bootlegging operation.
The Little Brewery That Could
Once you’ve toured a bit of KC’s sudsy past, drive a few blocks to 25th Street and Southwest Boulevard for a taste of the present. The reservations you’ll need to tour the multilevel, ultra-modern Boulevard Brewing Co. are well worth the effort of calling ahead. Since 1989, when John McDonald lugged his first keg to Ponak’s Mexican restaurant down the street, Boulevard has grown into one of the city’s most dazzling success stories. The ninth largest craft brewery in the country, McDonald now sells beer in 20 states as far-flung as Alaska, employs nearly 100 locals and pumps out some 600,000 barrels of top-tier brew per year.
Once you’ve seen Boulevard make its magic, bought lots of cool stuff you don’t need at the gift shop, and indulged in the post-tour tastings, you may find yourself wanting more. As anyone who has ever toured a brewery can tell you, the much-ballyhooed free samples at the end are just that—samples. Not shockingly, breweries don’t want people to hang around all day and get hammered.
Beer with a Side of Food
Fortunately, Kansas City suffers no shortage of brewpubs. A happy consequence of the rise in craft brewing, these establishments let you satisfy two needs at once. There, one can quaff until tipsy, eat until sober and quaff until tipsy again. It’s pure genius—a man could pitch a tent.
From Leavenworth’s High Noon Saloon in the far north to Barley’s Brewhaus in the antiseptic wilds of Overland Park, the city teems with brewpubs combining occasionally good food with always-excellent fresh lagers and ales. Especially with the unlamented demise of River City Brewing in City Market, there’s nary a bad glass to be had.
But the city’s best brewpub has to be in Waldo—another of those ancient Kansas City drinking districts hugging the State Line. Barley’s big brother, 75th Street Brewery, was an electric shock that brought the old neighborhood back to life.
Once you’ve enjoyed a liquid lunch, get a friend to drive you north for some real drinking.
The Hard Stuff
Sure, a nice, cold pilsner goes well with a picnic or a ballgame, but only frat boys and girls who yell, “Whoo!” at nightclubs catch a buzz off the stuff. Real drinking requires hard liquor, and we’re going straight to a new local source.
Up in Atchison, Kansas, Seth Fox and his family run High Plains Inc.—the first (legal) distillery to operate in the state in 125 years. With no less than six generations of moonshining ancestors, Fox says he’s carrying on the family business.
The University of Kansas alum founded High Plains in 2005, building most of the equipment from repurposed scrap. The first storage tank, for instance, was a repurposed industrial vacuum cleaner. Tubing was taken from dairy equipment used for milking cows. Six years later, and in addition to its flagship, lower-priced Most Wanted Vodka and a premium Fox brand, High Plains is dabbling in tequila, makes a whiskey that’s aged for slightly more than five minutes, and even has dared to attempt the delicate art of crafting gin.
Moving from one of the newest distilleries in Kansas to the oldest in the country, the last stop on our tippling tour goes deep into the pre-Civil War past for a look at the future. Remarkable Weston, Missouri, has more than 100 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of them, McCormick Distilling Co., was founded in 1856, and is one of just two distilleries in the nation to be so honored.
Tours, unfortunately, were discontinued in 1995. But, really, how many big steel tanks does anyone need to look at? What counts at distilleries is what comes out. Despite their reputation for being a bargain brand, McCormick makes some very fine, old-school sippin’ whiskeys. Buy them—along with glassware, barware and other branded merchandise you don’t need—at the McCormick Country Store.
But don’t be fooled by all that down-home countrified marketing. The company doesn’t just revel in its past, rich as it is. It is looking to the future with 360 Vodka, made by Earth Friendly Distilling, a new McCormick division. Like every other product on earth these days, 360 is being billed as “eco-friendly,” but this is more than a standard greenwash campaign.
These folks are serious: Every 360 bottle is made from 85 percent recycled glass. All the shipping, labeling and marketing materials are 100 percent recycled content, and they use only water-based inks in printing.
Earth Friendly Distilling even has its own water treatment plant on site—impressive. Call it “saving the planet,” or just call it brilliant marketing. Maybe it’s a bit of both, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The makers of 360 Vodka have created a product you can feel good about drinking even as drinking it makes you feel good.