While the roots of JK Williams Distilling in Peoria, Ill., go back to prohibition, the business is a career change for UW-Madison alumni Andy Faris and his wife, Stacy Shunk Faris, a Madison native. The former co-owner of Taste of Minnesota, Faris bought the business in 2019.
Head distiller Jeff Murphy, who spent nearly a decade at Bayou Rum in Louisiana, joined the team in May 2020. In 2021 JK Williams opened a tasting room and released two new spirits, including the brand’s first wheat whiskey.
Their current lineup includes the Bridge Series American Wheat Whiskey, Stormy River Rye Whiskey, Gold Zephyr Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and Blueprint Vodka, with labels designed by Faris’ son.
This year they’re working on expanding distribution in Wisconsin and adding a 1,000-gallon distilling system, which is expected to arrive in April.
Faris will be on hand with JK Williams for a tasting with three pours for $30 from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 3 at Natty Oaks, 11505 W. National Ave., West Allis. For reservations go to nattyoaks.com.
How they connected
Andy: My wife and I are both UW-Madison grads. Stacy is from Madison originally. I grew up in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis.
Stacy: I’ve known Andy since I was 15. He was my older brother’s fraternity brother. We kept in touch all these years. About seven years ago I had just gotten divorced, he was going through a divorce. We reconnected at (UW-Madison) homecoming then. We got married February 2021.
Andy: The company was founded by John and Jesse Williams, brothers, the great-great grandsons of the namesake of the business, JK Williams, a distiller and bootlegger back in the 1920s. He had nine children to support and when Prohibition hit, he went into bootlegging and ran afoul of the criminal element in town. …He fled town to Decatur.
Then in 2012 his great-great grandsons started the business. For a variety of reasons they were looking to sell. …
I had been at a conference where my name was on a list. … “Are you interested in acquiring a distillery?” My wife said “Over my cold dead body am I moving to Peoria." …We ended up closing in April 2019.
Patience and proof
Andy: We bought all the inventory. … I always thought the base product they produced was great. …
They were releasing products before their prime. They had one called Young Buck, a one year bourbon. They were doing some corn whiskey and “moonshiney” things. …
We’ve got products aging today in barrels. We’ve got three barrels of six year bourbon, and one of seven year. We’re looking to do a very limited release, yield 400 barrels total. It will come out with higher proof, Gold Zephyr 6 and 7 year at 105 proof. …
Everything that goes in the bottles (currently) is truly the smallest batch you have ever heard of, comes off a 60 gallon pot still. We were fortunate to have inherited all these barrels and have aged inventory.
Whiskey and water
Andy: Peoria is a river city. It was built on liquor. The city of Peoria would not be there today had it not been for distilling. It was truly the whiskey capital of the world before Prohibition. They had 73 distilleries and 21 or 22 breweries…
We still use the original mash bill. The same recipe from JK Williams for both bourbon and rye. We’ll keep those the same.
Someone mentioned it is high corn content for bourbon, which only needs to be 51% corn to be considered bourbon. Ours is 81% corn, giving a sweeter taste.
Andy: The wheat whiskey goes great with everything, that’s the lightest of them. I can drink that neat, but it goes great in a cocktail. Our bourbon goes wonderfully in a Manhattan. I like the rye neat.
Stacy: Although it is really good in a bloody mary. My favorite cocktail we sell is the Augie, named after our dog, a 125-pound German shepherd who comes to work with us every day.
A lot of women say they don’t drink dark spirits. The Augie is made with strawberry lemonade, sweet tea and a little splash of bourbon. It is the most refreshing thing you can ever imagine.
We also do a pumpkin martini with simple syrup and pumpkin pie spices. I usually make it with vodka, but our bar manager makes it with bourbon, adds a cinnamon stick and whip on top. It is dessert in a glass.
Andy: We’re releasing a grapefruit-flavored gin, probably in March. I worked for a UK based company. … I was over there all the time and picked up, alongside my bourbon fetish, an appreciation for gin.
In the home bar
Andy: I’ve got a few Pappy Van Winkles. … I have Woodford (Reserve) double oaked, one of my favorites. A year ago we were in Louisville and met the CEO and distiller of Bardstown Bourbon. Then Peerless, another of my favorites.
Making their way to Wisconsin
Andy: We signed on with Wisconsin Distributors in October. We went to Madison for the initial launch. We’re in Milwaukee now and some of the suburbs west and south of Milwaukee.
Off the Whiskey Trail
Andy: It doesn’t matter where it is from any more, people say oh, Kentucky. There is terrific whiskey from Kentucky, but don’t look overlook other states. There is terrific whiskey being produced in Wisconsin. I love Dancing Goat, J. Henry, Driftless Glen.
Every state has some of those gems that are producing quality product. Certainly as I’m traveling Wisconsin I try to pick up a bottle of Driftless Glen, or a bottle of Limousine rye (from Dancing Goat Distillery).
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UW-Madison grads bring JK Williams Distilling whiskey to Wisconsin