Young Spirits: JK Williams Distilling

This revived Illinois distillery aims to reclaim Peoria’s whiskey history.

Article by Gabrielle Nicole Pharms

Whether your palate leans toward the distinctive single malts of Oregon or the bold bourbons of Kentucky, you no doubt have a go-to when you’re whiskey shopping. When you think of whiskey, though, many source locations might come to mind before you ever consider Peoria, Illinois.

However, this Midwestern city was once known as the “Whiskey Capital of the World.”

Between 1837 and 1919, Peoria was home to 73 distilleries and 24 breweries. Before the Revenue Act of 1913, which reestablished a federal income tax, one-third of US revenue came from liquor sales, and Peoria paid more than any other city. Then Prohibition hit. Peoria’s booze industry did not survive the blow—but a whiskey recipe from that time period, one created by bootlegger J.K. Williams, did.

The recipe was rediscovered and now JK Williams Distilling has relaunched in hopes of highlighting both the bootlegger’s story and Peoria’s unique history.

“It’s a fascinating tale, and it’s all authentic,” said Andy Faris, who co-owns JK Williams Distilling with his wife, Stacy Shunk Faris. “We’re using the same recipes here that were used 100 years ago.”

Head Distiller Jeff Murphy, an industry veteran, previously worked on brands including Louisiana’s Bayou Rum and Rebecca Creek Blended Whiskey out of Texas. He and Andy Faris met online during the pandemic in 2020 ahead of his joining the team.

Faris has over two decades of experience in the beer and spirits industry, including 11 years on the board of directors of Fort Worth, Texas-based craft brewery Rahr & Sons. In 2015, after attending a mergers and acquisitions conference focused on craft distilling, Faris’s interest in launching a distillery was sparked. “I ended up getting a contact and was asked, ‘Would you be interested in acquiring a [distillery]?’ I thought, This is a really good shortcut, having an existing distillery and then coming in and putting my own touch on it,” he said.

That distillery was JK Williams. Prior to the Faris acquisition in April 2019, the company was named J.K. Williams Distilling. Williams’s descendants created it in the early 2010s to continue their great-great-grandfather’s legacy. J.K. Williams Distilling ceased production in 2018. The Farises acquired their stills and aging inventory and removed the punctuation from the name.

“The original iteration of JK Williams made terrific product,” Andy says. “They just were selling it, in my opinion, at too young of an age. Everything we sell will be a minimum of four years. Instead of selling at two and a half years, we’ve now got an extra two years-plus on that. It just needed extra time in the barrel.”

The current JK Williams Distilling spirits were distilled at the previous distillery in East Peoria.  The company is now distilling and warehousing in a new facility on North Industrial Road in the city of Peoria.

The company offers two core expressions: Stormy River Rye Whiskey and Gold Zephyr Straight Bourbon Whiskey. After being on the market only since the end of 2020, Gold Zephyr won a gold medal in the 2020 USA Spirits Ratings.

Both the rye and bourbon were aged and distilled in-house. “In terms of our first release under new ownership, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s terrific, but it would be even more terrific at six years,’” Andy says. “We put four years on the bottle to say, ‘Hey, we distilled this. It’s not sourced product.’ We wanted people to say, ‘Hey! That’s their own juice.’”

The bourbon mash bill consists of 80 percent corn, 10 percent wheat, and 10 percent barley. The corn is locally sourced. The rye is 90 percent rye and 10 percent barley.

“The thing that put Peoria on the map was not Caterpillar,” the construction-equipment manufacturer once headquartered there, Andy says. “It was our distilling.”

“If you go back 100 years, the aquifer under Peoria was one of the purest in the world. The Illinois River at that time was crystal clear,” he says. “We had this great abundance of water, corn, wheat, barley, and a bunch of thirsty immigrants. That’s the history of the area, and we’re drawing on that. Jeff’s been out in the cornfields. We’ve already been actively sourcing local ingredients.”

The distillery plans to release an American wheat whiskey in summer 2021, Murphy says. It is a blend of 16 barrels of their bourbon recipe, but they were distilled at a little over 160 proof so they are not legally bourbon.

“I think there’s a lot of room for experimentation. We’re really looking forward to the journey,” he says. “People are actually realizing there’s more to bourbon than Kentucky.”

Michael Eman
Official Contributor
Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Bourbon+ magazine, Thrillist, and Alcohol Professor.