PHOTOGRAPHY BY SETH LOWE
When it launched in the fall of 2013, J.K. Williams Distillery in East Peoria was the only the fifth craft spirit license approved in the state of Illinois for manufacturing and tasting of whiskey.
That field has grown much more crowded, to roughly 30, as small batch distilleries are popping up all over the state. In a little over two years, the production has increased and the operations have grown, but J.K. Williams still retains a boutique distillery feel.
Located off of Interstate 74, in close proximity to R.J. Distributing, they have used their relationship with the neighboring distributor to help navigate the local market and beyond. They have also added two other distributors in Illinois and one in Wisconsin to assist with getting their whiskey and bourbon offerings into the empty glasses of thirsty consumers. This has translated in an increase of 30 percent year-over-year of volume shipped out.
That’s a good problem to have for this early-stage company formed by two brothers. The bourbon is an old family recipe dating back to the days when Peoria was the Whiskey Capital of the World.
“There has been a high demand for premium, quality bourbon”
Today, the business is also a family affair as both Jon and Jesse Williams bring their wives and kids into the mix. Jon shows off the playroom with toys and coloring books, jokingly saying, “This is probably the only kid-friendly whiskey distillery in the country.” As the only full-time employee of J.K. Williams, Jesse stays busy with all facets of the business throughout the warehouse, even while the product ages to perfection in specially-made barrels.
While “quality assurance” is one of the most desired aspects of this job to a casual outsider, Jesse laughs and says he doesn’t get much time to sit back and enjoy his own product like you’d think. “Sure, I’ll have to taste test something at 9:00 a.m., but it’s such a small amount and I’m not drinking it to have a good time. It’s business. It just happens to be a good business to be in.”
And the proof of that statement is more than just a percentage on the label. As a testament to the dedication and quality, their Young Buck Bourbon took home the bronze medal from the Great American Distillers Festival in Portland, Oregon back in late 2014.
Partnering with other area businesses has been key to introducing their brand into different markets. One of the most successful to date is with local coffee roaster, thirty-thirty Coffee Co. The bourbon barrel blend ages a Kenyan brew in the bourbon barrels, and the taste is so unique they have people calling the distillery asking when they’ll be releasing the next batch.
Additionally, Bloodshot Bloody Mary Mix made in Springfield, pairs surprisingly well with the Naked Rye. Corn, a key ingredient to JK’s Original Corn Whiskey among others, is grown at a farm in nearby Mackinaw, which rounds out the local flavor.
While touring the facility Jon notes, “Three things have been the foundation of our success: craftsmanship, passion, and flavor.” It’s easy to see (and taste) what he means.
There’s certainly a lot to appreciate in how far things have come in a short amount of time. The aging process has become streamlined, and new products continue to roll out of the warehouse. A “Drink Local” campaign will also be launching in the spring to introduce local restaurants, bartenders, and patrons to J.K. Williams Distilling’s offerings.
Pride in their craft is evident. It’s certainly well-worth a tour and tasting of what is quickly becoming Central Illinois’ best unkept secret.