Getting to a distillery isn’t always easy. I’ve navigated winding highland roads in Scotland, threaded construction during rush hour on the Oakland Bay Bridge, contemplated mountain passes in Colorado and fought motion sickness on a bus tour through Kentucky bourbon country.
But driving into a cave? That was a first.
“We are the only distillery on the planet, as far as I know, that’s located inside a cave,” says Steve Strong, who founded S.D. Strong Distilling in 2012 in a cave complex 65 feet below Park University in Parkville. “That is the one thing that we have nobody else does.”
It was in many ways a practical choice. Parkville Commercial Underground, a one-time mine the university leases to commercial tenants, offered the space and fire safety systems Strong needed. But atmosphere was the deciding factor. The warren of Argentine limestone caves, divided by thick support pillars and subterranean roadways, had an appeal that fit S.D. Strong’s image.
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“It had this kind of cool bootlegger vibe, and that was the way were going to do all of our branding,” says Strong, who makes vodka, gin, rye whiskey and bourbon.
That vibe is what drew Strong to distilling. He was playing in a rockabilly band some years back when he heard about a guy making moonshine in his garage. Strong, a musician who also works for a high-end guitar maker, couldn’t shake the idea, so he began researching what it takes to produce spirits legally.
Strong discovered the process involves constructing the distillery, purchasing equipment, filing reams of government paperwork and winding your way through an intricate permitting process — all before you can make or sell a drop.
“I thought that was insane. I mean, who would do that?” he laughs. “I’m not sure what it says about me that I did.”
Steve Strong, owner of S.D. Strong Distilling, tells some of the secrets to his Pillar 136 Gin. The boutique distiller is in the Parkville Commercial Underground, a limestone mine complex under Park University.
Strong moved forward only after his wife, Lisa Strong, encouraged him. He began tinkering with still designs and messing around with mash recipes. He read books, visited distilleries and attended workshops sponsored by American Distilling Institute. He also scouted locations in Parkville, finally visiting the underground complex at the suggestion of the city’s fire marshal.
It wasn’t perfect. The 12-foot ceilings are lower than usual for a distillery, ventilation limitations meant Strong would have to forgo milling his own grain and he’d have to be careful with drainage, given the sewage from the cave is pumped up to the surface.
But the existing overhead sprinkler system and loading dock, a constant 72-degree temperature and welcoming management made up for that. Strong signed a lease, worked with Maine-based Trident Stills to fabricate a 200-gallon still suited to the space and bought 1,000-pound bags of ground corn, rye and malted barley.
Strong quickly figured out how to use all that and soon released S.D. Strong Vodka. His reasons were both pragmatic (vodka doesn’t require aging and so it can be bottled immediately) and romantic (vodka-tonic is his wife’s favorite drink).
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“She said if you can’t get that right, don’t bother,” Strong says with a grin.
Strong’s vodka is corn-based, with a bit of rye and malted barley; is distilled three times; and passes twice through a system that uses an eight-layer charcoal filtration pad. He describes the result as super-clean and good for either classic martinis or mixing. Certainly it’s made his wife happy, Strong says, as well as professionals including Caitlin Corcoran, the general manager at Ça Va, a Champagne bar in Westport.
“I like supporting the local economy and putting money back into it,” says Corcoran, whose summer-y Ba$ic cocktail combined S.D. Strong Vodka with creme de cassis, lemon juice and Moscato wine. “It made sense to (spend local) with spirits as much as possible.”
Strong followed his vodka with Pillar 136, a gin named for his address in the cave, which uses pillar numbers in lieu of suites. It took six months of experimenting with botanicals and methods to craft the final recipe, but Strong says Pillar 136 was worth the effort.
“It was a great process for me and helped me understand which botanicals to add and how,” Strong says.
The gin’s juniper hit is tempered by blood orange, lemon, lime, ginger, angelica root, orris root and licorice root. That’s a lot to pack into one gin, but it works, says Kenny Cohrs, head bar man at Jax Fish House in Kansas City and a consulting partner at Kansas City-based beverage consulting company Liquid Minded Concepts.
“The thing I really appreciate about (Pillar 136) is how well-balanced it is botanically,” says Cohrs, who matched it with S.D. Strong’s vodka, dry vermouth and orange bitters to make his Ian Fleming cocktail.
Strong is also making whiskey, but it has so far all gone into a handful of Missouri white oak barrels along the back wall for aging. A limited quantity of rye whiskey will be sold from the distillery later this year, but customers will have to keep waiting for a taste of his bourbon and other whiskeys.
“We’re going to have several different types of whiskey, not just bourbon and rye,” Strong says. “We’re so small I can kind of do whatever we want to do. We might do one barrel of this and one barrel of that.”
For now, it’s enough to keep laying down rye and bourbon while keeping up with demand for vodka and gin. He can’t make much more in his 4,000-square-foot location, where the still, fermentation tanks, barrel racks, bottling and labeling areas and storage are within steps of each other. He plans to double the square footage of his operation soon, allowing S.D. Strong to better accommodate events.
The distillery currently has space for about 145 people, more than enough for a coming lineup of acoustic, living-room style performances Strong calls Cave Concerts. Past months have seen a Slow Food Kansas City mixology seminar, a Corvette Club of Kansas City event, Match.com mixers, corporate meetings, cocktail hours and other gatherings.
“My wife is convinced someone will want to do an apocalyptic zombie wedding or a Batman-themed wedding down here,” Strong says.
While demand for S.D. Strong’s event space is an unexpected plus, Strong’s focus remains firmly on distilling. His brands are available in Kansas and Missouri, with Texas and Illinois next on the list. Strong also plans to begin selling his products in Nebraska, where he grew up.
“When I started, it was always my goal to create something I personally like,” Strong says. “I want to make something I can be proud of.”
To reach spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to email@example.com.
Kenny Cohrs of Jax Fish House and Liquid Minded Concepts created this play on James Bond’s Vesper to showcase S.D. Strong’s Pillar 136 gin. Shaken, not stirred, just for the fun of it.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces Pillar 136 gin
1 ounce S.D. Strong vodka
1/2 ounce Dolin Blanc dry vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker partway with ice. Add gin, vodka, vermouth and bitters; shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.
Per drink: 265 calories (1 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.
General manager Caitlin Corcoran created this Champagne cocktail for Ça Va’s summer menu, but it can easily be expanded to fill a punch bowl for your next backyard party.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce S.D. Strong Vodka
1/2 ounce creme de cassis (Corcoran prefers cassis from France’s Burgundy region)
1/2 ounce lemon juice
3 ounces Moscato wine
Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine vodka, creme de cassis and lemon juice in a white wine glass. Add ice and top with Moscato. Stir lightly, add a straw and garnish with the lemon twist.
Per drink: 170 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 56 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.