With the relaunch of the JK Williams brand, Peoria’s distilling heritage continues to be updated and renewed for a new century. Joining owners Andy and Stacy Faris on the venture is head distiller Jeff Murphy, who moved his family to Peoria last fall. Originally from the small copper mining town of Bagdad, Arizona, Murphy joined the Navy out of high school and became a hospital corpsman. After his early career in medicine and law enforcement, he got into brewing and distilling—working his way up from cleaning kegs and floors at a brewpub to serving as operations director of a large rum distillery. Having been involved in numerous startups and expansions, he brings that experience with him to Peoria.
Along with the Farises, Murphy is reimagining and building upon the legacy of the JK Williams brand, which first launched in 2013. That includes a new production facility, new equipment to handle expanded production, and the eventual addition of rum, vodka and gin brands to their portfolio of craft spirits. Peoria Magazine checked in with Murphy to learn more about his journey to the River City and plans for the future.
How did you first get into brewing and distilling?
Some Marines were working the beer booth at the hydroplane races in San Diego in 1993. They knew I was a corpsman and sold me the first craft beer I ever had: Pete’s Wicked Ale. I thought it tasted great and realized I could buy the ingredients to make it from scratch. That started my journey into brewing, which became my profession for a few years while living in Singapore. Then I transitioned into the spirits industry after returning from overseas.
Tell us about your previous work at Rebecca Creek, Privateer Rum, and Bayou Rum. How have those experiences informed your approach as a distiller?
Each distillery had its own challenges, and I learned much from each of them. I was new to distilling at Rebecca Creek and had to cut my teeth somewhere. At Privateer, I was more aware of the possibilities that were out there. I learned a lot about myself while at Privateer. In my eight years at Bayou, their large production facility and company went through several expansions. That gave me an enormous amount of responsibility and experience.
In my opinion, the brewing side of the house is just as important. There are plenty of innovation opportunities in distillation, and in selecting yeast strains and grains.
How did you first connect with Andy Faris and JK Williams? What attracted you to this position?
Andy and I connected on Indeed.com back in May of 2020 when I was looking at positions around the country. After several Zoom calls, he invited my wife Stacy and me to visit Peoria and check out the equipment and city.
Initially it seemed like a smaller setup than I was used to working. However, after learning more about J.K. Williams himself, the history of Peoria and Andy’s vision, it became apparent that this was an excellent opportunity to tell the story of the brand—and maybe reinvigorate the “Whiskey City” from a spirits’ perspective. I think it’s pretty neat to be part of the groundwork that will hopefully accomplish that.
When did you move to Peoria? Did you know much about the city’s distilling heritage prior to accepting the position?
I came to Peoria briefly in July to harvest some of the bourbon and rye barrels we had in stock that would be bottled in the new packaging design as we relaunched the brand. Until I met Andy, I really did not know about the city’s rich distilling history. Many in our own industry aren’t even aware. It’s a story that deserves to be told, and that was partly why I came here.
I permanently moved here in September 2020. Peoria is great; it’s a larger city than where we moved from, so it has the perks of a few more amenities while keeping the midwestern feel. With family in both Kansas and Arizona, we’re a lot closer to them now, too.
What were some of your initial responsibilities as you prepared to relaunch the JK brand?
My initial startup roles included taking inventory of everything we had in barrels and moving all stock and equipment from the old location in East Peoria to the new location on North Industrial Road (in the old Biehl’s Cleaners building). We’re now renovating the building to suit our needs and bring it up to code. I have also been involved in the marketing efforts of JK Williams. It’s important for us to get out and spread the story of the brand as we restart.
Describe your plans for 2021 and beyond. What is your vision for the company?
My immediate goal is to get our old equipment back up and running once we pass inspections. After that, my goal will shift to preparing for our new equipment, which should land in Peoria sometime this summer. We have a 1,000-gallon system, which will significantly increase our production capabilities. The older, smaller equipment will transition to testbeds for future products, including small-batch gins, rums and whiskeys.
My vision for the company is all about quality. If it has the JK Williams name on it, you know it’s going to be good. I’m also looking to dive deeper into Peoria’s history and find ways to share our history from a whiskey viewpoint. While I can be introverted at times, I am looking forward to getting out in Peoria and meeting more locals, and learning more about its history.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Honestly, I love what I do. As the saying goes, when it’s your passion, it doesn’t really seem like work. It might be easier to ask me about the least favorite part of the job: paperwork. It has to be done... but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it!
What hobbies/interests do you have outside of distilling?
I enjoy fishing, hiking, riding my motorcycle, and some photography. I’m also looking towards the Chiefs and Rivermen getting back into action!
Anything else you wish to add?
I’m excited to get JK Williams back up and running. We have some great goals planned—short- and long-term. And it’s going to be fun! PM
For more information, visit jkwilliamsdistilling.com.