Whiskey in the Blood

by Lori Beckham

Once known as the “Whiskey Capital of the World,” Peoria’s distilling past is about to make a comeback.

History has a way of repeating itself. It’s not every day a man decides to start up a business, only to discover later that an ancestor had once been successful with the same idea. But that’s exactly what happened to Jon Williams of Germantown Hills. When Williams, his brother, Jesse, and the two men’s wives, Kassi and Kristin, decided to launch a craft whiskey distillery, they were quite unaware of the serendipity that would follow. 

From Passion to Business
Williams says he and his brother had always wanted to run a small business on the side. “For a number of years I did craft brewing… and enjoyed making beer at home, experimenting with the chemistry,” he explains. “The process is very similar.”

After briefly considering a brewery or winery, they turned their sights toward the spirits industry. “We think the craft brewing movement is starting to hit a maturity phase in its business cycle,” says Williams, a senior vice president at Commerce Bank in his daytime gig. “[And] a winery is a huge investment in time and money, and you have to have a lot of real estate. So we started digging deeper and started thinking: We like whiskey and bourbon, too… What about that?”

Williams mentions that prior to Prohibition, there were 2,200 craft distilleries in the United States. Today, there are just over 300, and the closest to Peoria is in the Quad Cities—but it’s a growing field. “There’s kind of a niche developing throughout the country, and really, if you look at Illinois, it’s a wide-open canvas.”

Having decided to move forward, the brothers told their grandfather of their idea. Only then did he reveal a long-held family secret: their great-great grandfather, J.K. Williams, had been a distiller and whiskey bootlegger in the Peoria area more than a century ago.

Revealing A Family Secret
Feeling that enough time had passed, their grandfather told the story of his grandfather during that chaotic time in our nation’s history. “[He] worked in the distilling industry when it was booming, and saw a lot of the tragedy that occurred around the Prohibition period,” Williams says.

When Prohibition hit and the distilleries shut down, J.K. was set on providing for his family by any means. “He had one thing he knew how to do very well, and that was how to make whiskey. [So] he went to the backwoods, made whiskey, and fed his six kids [doing] what he had to do during Prohibition.”

With the safety of his family in mind, J.K. ended his spirit-making when the business grew dangerous. “Chicago boys were coming down, trying to control the situation and make a dollar,” Williams explains. “So he took his kids and moved to the Decatur area... Not a drop of his whiskey has been made since…” That is, until earlier this year.

Divulging that he still possessed J.K.’s original recipe, their grandfather happily passed it on to the Williams brothers. “Lo and behold, it’s a perfect sweet bourbon recipe,” Williams says with a smile. “Original corn whiskey.” Their idea for a distillery business had grown beyond a simple passion for whiskey into a living monument to a storied past.

The Legacy Lives On
With their great-great grandfather’s bootleg recipe and their business named in his honor, the Williamses are confident and enthusiastic about their new endeavor. “We’re very excited to bring back something that is well over 100 years old,” Williams says.

Along with J.K’s Original Corn Whiskey, the new distillery offers Smitty’s Apple Pie, a take on apple pie blended with white whiskey; J.K.’s Tropical Getaway, with the flavors of pineapple, orange, mango and coconut; J.K’s Lemon Whiskey and Peach Whiskey; with a number of fine bourbons on the way.

Following its grand opening on October 25th, J.K. Williams Distilling will offer tours of its facility every Saturday and Sunday, where you can learn more about the distilling process, taste their whiskeys, and discover a piece of Peoria’s history. a&s

J.K. Williams Distilling is located at 526 High Point Lane in East Peoria. Visit jkwilliamsdistilling.com or call (309) 846-3614 for more information.

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