Emporia Adds Distillery to List of Exceptional Attractions

Posted on Mar 31, 2020

CVB Staff
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Emporia, Kansas is celebrating the trifecta! The Trolley House Distillery has been added to the mix of our coveted microbrewery, Radius Brewing Company, and Twin Rivers Winery. One of only six microdistilleries in Kansas, Trolley House has been working hard the past two years and will soon be able to open their doors to the public. Even being allowed to open a distillery in Kansas is pretty amazing considering Kansas was the first state in the U.S. to enact a statewide constitutional prohibition on alcohol. Our state endured the longest prohibition era in the nation, 1881-1948. Even though prohibition ended nationwide in 1933, Kanas held out another fifteen years.

What a great idea

Owner and distiller, Josh Williams, says the idea came about several years ago while touring Ozark Distillery in Osage Beach, Missouri, during his bachelor party. Ozark is a family-owned business run by Master Distiller Dave Huffman. Knowing there was nothing like this in Emporia and realizing this concept could be done on a smaller scale, Williams knew it would add something unique to the community. The idea of opening a craft distillery in Emporia was born.

The learning Process

In addition to several visits and hours of mentoring from Huffman, Williams invested his time learning more about the distillery business. He researched information online, took classes with the American Distilling Institute and toured other distilleries such as Union Horse in Lenexa and McCormick Holladay in Weston, Missouri. Williams finally felt confident this could be a viable business and a tourist destination and made the decision to proceed.

Location, Location, History

Now, where was a good place for a distillery? The Williams family owned a building on the corner of 6th Avenue and Market Street. It was three stories with each story being 10,000 square feet. Quite a bit more room than was needed. As it turns out, Jake Dalton owner of Dalton Gang Antiques on South Commercial Street had wanted to own that building for quite some time and was interested in purchasing it. The building the antique store was in had lots of history associated with it as it was the City’s trolley barn and later bus barn at one time. Location-wise the building was a plus because it is on a State highway and it was already zoned for commercial use. After checking with the State of Kansas and the Emporia City Attorney to make sure the location and zoning were acceptable for a distillery, the Williams family sold their property to the Daltons and the Daltons sold to the Williams, who took possession of 502 S. Commercial Street on May 4, 2018. Finding a building with tons of history and a great idea for a name, the location for the distillery was now secured.

Things are moving along now… sort of

The next thing to tackle was a building permit. An agonizing five months later, the permit was granted. In the meantime there was quite a bit of demolition to be done. The building had no air conditioning and no heat, so it was cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. Williams recalls a particularly brutal time during hot weather when they had to pull carpet off the walls in an upstairs room with no moving air. “It must have been about 130 degrees upstairs. There was an old punch-type time clock up there and the rubber feet were melting off of it. We had to take shifts because you could only spend a few minutes at a time before you had to come down stairs and take a water break,” says Williams.

Once the building permit was approved, the floors needed to be replaced. It was quite a challenge as there was a two foot elevation drop from the back of the building to the front. According to Williams, “You could roll a basketball all the way down starting from the back garage door to the front.” Once the concrete and plumbing was in place and the ceiling was sprayed, all the windows were replaced and heat and air was installed.

Interesting Finds

One of the unique things the Williams found was in the basement of the building. “In the basement there was an old mechanics pit that we assumed was for when they had the trolleys here or the bus barn here, that they could drive over the top of the pit and be able to work underneath them,” says Williams. Another discovery was 12″ diameter tubes running through the floor under a foot and a half of concrete. According to Williams they never did figure out what purpose the tubes served. The sliding door leading into the distilling room was gifted to Williams from Carlos Ramos of Casa Ramos Mexican Restaurant. It is allegedly, a door out of one of the old wooden trolley cars. A stained glass window situated above the door was also donated by Ramos. In addition, there is a display of antique tools from Dalton Gang Antiques in the walk through area from the tasting room to the distilling room.

Just a few days before Thanksgiving, but it seemed like Christmas

The most exciting day, according to Williams was a few days before Thanksgiving (2019), but it seemed more like Christmas day. The equipment he ordered arrived and Williams says, “It became very real at that point. Everybody was there and the equipment arrived around 2:00 pm and took a little over two and a half hours to get it all off the trucks.” Everything was set up by 10:00 that night. Williams says after the equipment was installed, he and his dad just stood around and looked at it for awhile.

So Close

The equipment is set up, all distilling permits are in hand and supplies have been ordered to begin production. Recipes and labels for whiskey are being submitted to the State for approval. A Facebook post on March 16, indicated the grains had arrived which means by now the equipment has been fired up for the first run.

The first product for Trolley House will be flavored moonshines and vodka, both of which are unaged. These products can be made, flavored and bottled in approximately two weeks. Next in line will be Rum and the ultimate goal is bourbon, which has to age at least two years and bottled in bond bourbon, which requires four years.

Gin is another possible item on the production agenda, however additional equipment would need to be purchased in order to proceed. Williams says he is open to learning what the community needs and wants.

The finished product

Walking in to Trolley House Distillery you immediately feel the warmth of the wood tones. Right away you see what appears to be the top of a gargantuan whisky barrel wrapped around the door to the hallway. There is a Mason jar chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room which adds to the rustic home feel. There is a huge antique mirror behind the bar with a gorgeous wide wood frame. Multiple enlarged photos of the trolley car era grace the walls and a large custom fish tank adds a splash of color to the area.

Williams says once product is ready for consumption and the doors are open to the public, people can visit the tasting room weekdays during scheduled hours. They plan to serve a revolving menu of cocktails on a fairly regular basis. Locals can have a preview of new flavors in the tasting room before they go out for distribution. Also, bottles can be purchased for off-site consumption. Williams says they are working with local business Uncommon Threads for Trolley House merchandise such as T-shirts, rocks glasses, hats, and stickers to sell as well.

Saturdays will be tour days with 3-4 different times that people will be able to sign up for, with free tastings immediately after the tour. There has already been interest from the community to rent the front area –  the tasting room and bar, so it can be rented for small groups (25-30). Eventually Williams says they are planning to create an outdoor patio area as well.

The plan is to distribute Trolley House products in Kansas and possibly other states as well. Initially, Williams will handle the workload himself, but anticipates needing to hire someone for the tasting room and eventually another distiller.

Helping hands were much appreciated

There were several people who helped the distillery become a reality and Williams says he is very appreciative of each and every one of them. His father, Rex Williams was the architect and created almost all of the wood projects in the distillery as well as the Mason jar chandelier in the tasting room. He also helped set up the equipment the day it arrived. He’s grateful to Debbie Williams, his mother, “for helping to keep us sane and figuring out how to pay for all of it,” says Williams. Also, K.C. Christ with Air Conditioning Specialists who helped pull permits and for overseeing the electrical, the mechanical, the boiler, the air conditioning and heating. “Keeping the hot things hot and the cold things cold in this kind of business is very important. He’s been instrumental in the whole thing. It wouldn’t have happened without his help,” says Williams.

There is also Jesse Cooper of Fulsom Bros. Inc., who loaned them his paint sprayer. Williams says, “There’s just a lot of different things, he’s come and just given of his own time and his own money and never expected anything in return. We were telling him we needed a gate out back and he’s like ‘OK I’ll get it done tomorrow’ and he put the gate up for the fence in the back.” Travis Hitt worked with Williams for about seven months helping wherever he was needed. “Without him we’d still be behind. He handled a lot of the miscellaneous work while Dad was doing the custom woodwork and I was working  on the business side. We had a pile of things to do and Travis came and did whatever job we needed him to do,” according to Williams. “This is a short list of people that were really important in making this whole thing happen,” says Williams.

Opening Date?

The two-year anniversary of securing the Trolley House Distillery property is May 4, 2020. Williams is hoping that could be the date for the opening, however, in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic those plans are tentative. In fact, with the recent closing of non-essential businesses and the shortage of hand sanitizer, Williams decided to put the distillery to good use and make hand sanitizer the first official Trolley House Distillery product. His plan is to supply health care workers first and keep them stocked, then make it available to the general public. Be sure to follow Trolley House on Facebook to track their progress and see what’s happening.

CVB Staff
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