“The people are thirsty!” The six-foot letters painted on the side of 1701 Main Street broadcasts Tom Pendergast’s famous proclamation. Eight decades after the Pendergast era, Tom’s Town Distilling Co. founders Steve Revare and David Epstein are hoping the people are, indeed, still thirsty. Tom’s Town, which opened yesterday, is named after Kansas City’s infamous anti-Prohibition boss, and serves house-made spirits, craft cocktails, and small plates.
The century-old brick building was formerly The Pitch’s headquarters (and before that, an auto dealership and home of the Price Candy Company). It has been completely remodeled to evoke 1920s-era glint and art-deco style with a pair of event spaces on two floors.
Revare and Epstein – a pair of lifelong friends – have recruited a collection of culinary and cocktail experts to help launch Tom’s Town. They hired Tim Tuohy of KC Canning Company as the culinary manager; Robert Vossmeyer, who’s worked in distilleries in Chicago, Boston, and Tennessee, as head distiller; and Brian Harper, a barbecue enthusiast with a background in smoking, as assistant distiller.
Tuohy created a menu of 11 small plates and three desserts, made for sharing. The French onion grilled cheese is filled with gruyere, Swiss, and fontina and features a French onion soup jam. The effect is a sandwich that tastes remarkably like it has been dipped in soup. The small desserts fit the polished aesthetic. Tuohy describes the Italian maple-gingerbread budino as a “cross between a custard and a pudding.” The light, sweet custard is topped with a savory gingerbread crumble.
Vossmeyer and Harper came on with Tom’s Town months ago, excited to start from scratch. They built the massive still (which pokes through the ceiling into the second floor) themselves. Vossmeyer worked with a private whiskey broker to procure the inaugural batch of Pendergast’s Royal Gold. (Revare and Epstien note that sourcing whiskey this way is how Boss Tom himself sold whiskey under the Royal Gold name back in the 1920s.) The whiskey is a 21% rye, 5% barley, and 74% corn concoction with notes of caramel, cherry, and even marzipan.
“I blended 34 barrels of that stuff myself,” Harper says. “It got heavy.”
For McElroy’s Corruption Gin (also named for a Pendergast-era politician) Vossmeyer delved into 190-proof neutral spirits (pre-distillation “blank” alcohol) and a library of over 50 botanicals.
“The building process took three months,” Vossmeyer says
The “New Western”-style gin has notes of lemongrass, cloves, allspice, grains of paradise, citrus, star anise, and long pepper. “It looks like a twisted long pinecone,” Vossmeyer says of the complex pepper grown in India and Indonesia. The gin smells so good, bartender Benjamin Miller says that he would even consider wearing it as a cologne.
Eli’s StrongArm Vodka has a local twist. Crafted with wheat and rye, Revare and Epstien wanted it fit in well in Kansas City. The rye is grown on property owned by Revare’s mother-in-law in Lone Jack, Missouri. The vodka has a hint of both grains at the start and finishes on a slight peppery note.
The custom and locally-made bar also has a signature cocktail menu. Bartenders Eric Copeland and Jonathan Koenig-Riley point to a pair of potential standouts: the $50K Bet and the Pinky Blitz. The $50K Bet, invented by Copeland, features the Royal Gold bourbon, Fernet Branca, Heering Cherry Liqueur, and Fee Bros. whiskey barrel-aged bitters. The result is a hyper-old-fashioned with a little more spice and a smoother finish than the original. The frothy Pinky Blitz is made with the StrongArm Vodka, Solerno Blood Orange Ginger Liqueur, and a blood orange ginger shrub from Tuohy.
Tom’s Town has plans for a port-barrel-aged whiskey, their own brand of 4-and-a-half-year whiskey and rum. Vossmeyer especially is excited for the future. He cut his teeth at small distilleries and can’t wait to play with flavors and try non-traditional grains like oats, rice, smoked grains, and ancient grains. Because of Harper’s background in barbecue and smoking, they’re even considering a few smoked whiskies and scotches.
“We need a little hometown pride and hometown competition,” Harper says. After that, it’s just a question of how thirsty Kansas City is these days.
Tom’s Town Distilling Co.’s tasting room is open Wednesday from 4 to 11 p.m., Thursday from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., and 2 p.m. to 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. They’ll be offering distillery tours at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The phone number is 816-541-2400.