EAST PEORIA -- They didn't know it when they first started plotting to open the first distillery in central Illinois in who knows how long, but the brothers Williams both have a little bit of whiskey in their blood. Even when they haven't been drinking whiskey.
"We learned that our great-great-grandfather, J.K. Williams, worked in a distillery in Peoria in the early 1900s when Peoria was the center of the whiskey universe," said Jon Williams. "When Prohibition shut the distilleries down, he went to the backwoods to make his own moonshine."
Jon and Jesse Williams, and their respective wives Kristin and Kassi, are embarking on a family business, J.K. Williams Distilling, that has a built-in family heritage. After learning from their grandfather, Ron Williams, that his father, Buck Williams, gave him the original whiskey recipe that J.K. Williams used to cook up illegal batches of the stuff during Prohibition, they had a foundation for the business -- making craft whiskey inspired by a lost family recipe that hasn't been used in 80 or 90 years.
"That was a real `Wow!' moment for us," Jon Williams said. "That we had a whiskey maker in the family came very much to our surprise."
Talk about meant to be.
With Jesse Williams acting as master distiller, the business model is to make high-end whiskey at a reasonable cost. They're currently renovating space at 526 High Point Lane in East Peoria, the road that runs parallel to Interstate 74 at the Pinecrest Drive exit, and are awaiting all the final federal, state and local permits and licenses to make whiskey before they can actually, well, make whiskey.
They hope to open this fall.
J.K. Williams Distilling won't be a whiskey bar. It's a distillery that will sell bottles of whiskey and other types of liquor made on the premises, not cocktails and a social scene. They will provide samples and tours of the production wing of the building. Jon Williams imagines the distillery will mostly be open for business on weekends.
"We will likely produce around 25 to 50 cases per week initially and we would look to have controlled growth over time," Jon Williams said. "In our industry you can be considered `craft' when your production is less than 250,000 gallons annually. We'll produce less than 5,000 (gallons) per year initially, so we're very small."
All of the Williamses have other jobs, although Jesse Williams, currently a diesel technician, hopes to eventually make distilling his full-time job. Jon Williams is a banker; he and Kristin both have master's degrees in business.
Jon Williams, who is an accomplished brewer of beer, said the plan to make whiskey has been about two years in the making.
"You don't just wake up one morning and say `I think I'm going to open a whiskey distillery,"' Jon Williams said. "We've traveled the country researching this and have put a lot of time and effort into it."
Small-batch whiskey is by its nature a different kind of product than what the large distillers produce, the Williams brothers explained. Large-capacity distillers produce whiskey in a continuous process. Small-batch distillers -- the J.K Williams still holds 60 gallons -- have more control of the process. If the entire batch is considered the "heads, hearts and tails," as Williams described, the best whiskey contains the "heart," and maybe a little bit of the strong tasting and aromatic "tail." Mass produced whiskey is one product, the combination of all three steps in the process.
"We're able to capture and select bits of the product," Jesse Williams said. "The best of the best."
There are 250 craft distilleries in the U.S. that make less than 25,000 gallons a year. Nationally, small-batch distilleries are popping up all over. They're something of a trend; a natural evolution of the home and craft brewing trend with beer. J.K. Williams will be the first whiskey distillery in central Illinois.
"The only product we'll sell will be products we produce in the building," Jon Williams said. "We hope to make a big splash in the fall when we open and see where this takes us."