Dig: Local Bourbon

Ever since I tried their Young Buck Bourbon, I’ve been wanting to visit the JK Williams distillery, a craft distiller out of nearby East Peoria, Illinois. Schedule conflicts and inclement weather made it tough, and the JK Williams line continued to grow. Finally, the Rugrats were out of town this past Sunday, and the Wife and I were looking for something to do.

Perfect time for a visit. We called another couple and the four of us made the trip.

The distillery is a small place, easy to miss on a frontage road in a row of small businesses and offices. They offer hourly tours on weekends, and though it was 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, their lobby (and bar counter) was fairly crowded with a group who just finished a tour and another group waiting to take one.

Kassi Williams started our tour with a history lesson of both the company and the whiskey business in Peoria. I knew Peoria was once the whiskey capital of the world prior to Prohibition, but the JK Williams crew, particularly the ladies, put together a nice timeline of historic photos and filled in some details I wasn’t aware of.

Then it was on to the still. I knew they were a small operation, but I didn’t realize they only had the one still. We got to see where they cooked up their mash, we smelled the results of the distillation process every step of the way, and Kassi explained the different mixes and mashes that make up their various products.

Something I really respect about them as a craft distiller is they source as much as they can locally. Their corn is local, and the fruit they use in their fruited liquors are picked by adults with special needs who work with the Tazewell County Resource Center. Way cool.

Then we got to see the aging room.

This room and the barrels were a lot smaller than I expected, too, but their output is still quite high for a four-person operation with only one full-time employee.

JK Williams called their first bourbon Young Buck because it was too young to be legally called a bourbon (bourbon must be aged at least two years). One of the owners, Jon, told me at a tasting that they used special barrels to “age the bourbon faster,” and we got to see one of those barrels: they simply drill several holes on the inside of the barrel staves to increase the surface area the whiskey is exposed to. I liked the Young Buck, but I remember finding it a bit strong to drink neat.

After seeing the aging room, we returned to the lobby bar and were invited to try a quarter ounce of up to four different products, free of charge. (Score! Cocktails were available for purchase, too.) I was eager to finally try their fully-matured bourbon and rye. Unfortunately their High Rye wasn’t available just yet; it’s due this Fall.

The ladies went straight for the fruit drinks: the Peach Whiskey, the Blackberry Whiskey, Smitty’s Apple Pie, and the new Pineapple Whiskey. A bottle of the Pineapple Whiskey came home with my wife.

I went for two of their unaged products, JK’s Corn Whiskey and JK’s Naked Rye, the Straight bourbon, and one I wasn’t aware of, JK’s Select Bourbon.

The Corn Whiskey was sweet as promised, and the Naked Rye had a spicy burn. Jesse and Kassi served up the drinks and advised mixers for both, but I’m kinda dumb and wanted to see what the whiskeys were like solo. It doesn’t make a lot of business sense to have barrels and barrels of product sitting in a warehouse doing nothing, so these products, as well as the Young Buck, give them something to market while the rest of the line matures.

The Bourbon Select, if I understood correctly, comes from a barrel chosen by the distiller, Jesse, and this one was aged 17 months. The Straight had a full two years in the barrel. I rather liked both, though it was hard to get a full sense of the flavors with just a quarter ounce sip. Just the same, I found them both pleasant, with a bit more of a burn on the Select’s finish.

In the end I opted for a bottle of JK’s Straight Bourbon and a shiny new JK Williams whiskey glass (about time I added one of those to my collection). When I got home later that night, I didn’t waste time getting it onto some ice and then mixing up an Old Fashioned.

Let me tell you, this is good stuff. I found it smooth and sweet on ice, with those wonderful, subtle hints of caramel and vanilla. Maybe I finally nailed my Old Fashioned recipe, but I was very pleased with that, too. I’m hoping to set up a tasting for myself soon to compare it to the Woodford Reserve and Four Roses Small Batch that I have on hand.

JK’s stock is appearing in several local stores, and the Young Buck is in Costco. It’s probably worth talking to your liquor store to see if they can get their hands on it. Myself, I’ll just stop on back to the distillery for another tour when the High Rye is released.

Looking for something to do in Peoria? Passing through on I-74, or willing to take a small side trip from I-39? Drop on in and check it out. The tours are open on the weekend and they’re free. If you’re at all interested in whiskey, it’s well worth the trip.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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