By Elena Chaikin
The Midwest Bioprocessing Center is proud to have gotten our start in Peoria, IL. Located halfway between St. Louis and Chicago, Peoria and the surrounding area has a rich history as a fermentation and bioprocessing technology hub.
In a series of posts, we will take a walk-through Peoria’s early days as the whiskey capital of the world; visit the formation of the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research to produce penicillin, house the NRRL strain collection and innovate agricultural fermentation and bioprocessing; through to its role as a modern bioprocessing center.
In this first post, we start with the birth of Peoria as a center for fermentation and the colorful history this generated.
From 1837 to 1919, Peoria was the center for distilling and brewery industries. An eclectic group of immigrants, who knew what they were doing, coupled with the needed ingredients to produce alcohol, helped Peoria thrive on innovative fermentation. Peoria was called the “Alcohol Capital of the World.”
By 1880, the city was producing 18 million gallons of liquor a year, which was more than Kentucky at 15 million gallons. Between the years 1837 and 1919, there were 24 breweries and 73 distilleries in central Illinois, making it one of the centers for the world’s largest fermentation industry. There is a good reason for why this area was chosen: the clean, natural spring water available (filtered through limestone), the ample amount of corn, and the vast transportation channels (the river and the railway) by which goods could come and go in barrels or bottles.
Many people who settled in Peoria were immigrants. The demand for distilling was immediate. Peoria’s first brewery was established in 1837 by Andrew Eitle. Then in 1843, Almiron Cole became the first commercial distiller, who opened up shop by the river. He was a wealthy merchant and steamboat captain. By 1865, there were 14 distilleries. Most of them were located at ‘Distillery Row” along the Illinois River. Peoria became a boom town and its rich expertise in fermentation had begun.
Whiskey Barons in the Sin City
Some of the influential whiskey barons that established themselves in Peoria included Joseph Greenhut, from Chicago, the Hungarian Woolner Brothers, and the Clarke Brothers. At the time, Greenhut’s Great Western Distillery was the largest in the world. Peoria’s liquor barons and brew masters helped shape the foundation of the city’s society and culture. Many being Chicago transplants, they helped Peoria prosper. They built mansions, civic centers, theaters, hotels and more. Peoria was a city of entertainment. In fact, many called it a sin city.
Halfway between St. Louis and Chicago, Peoria was a stop for all sorts of people, from gamblers, traders, and laborers to many types in between. Because of this, Peoria thrived on vice. Aside from the booze, Peoria traded in gambling, racketeering, and bawdy houses.
Joseph Greenhut helped establish The Whiskey Trust in 1887. His goal was to gain power over the distilling industry, essentially creating a monopoly to reduce competition and ensure profit for the Trust’s members.
Most don’t know that Peoria distillers helped the Union fund the Civil War through the “Sin Tax” on alcohol and tobacco. Historical records prove that 50 percent of the national “Sin Tax” during the war was collected from the Peoria area distilleries and breweries. By 1880, the “Sin Tax” was the largest revenue stream for the US Government.
Prohibition Changes Everything
Peoria’s entire economy was bolstered by its alcohol production. When Prohibition started in January 1920, half of the city’s citizens, including those with expertise in fermentation, went out of work. Bars turned to soft drink parlors where customers could smoke and listen to jazz…and they could get a little something extra—a shot of Canadian Whiskey. Illegal alcohol didn’t just become prevalent elsewhere in the United States but in Peoria, too.
Some of Peoria’s distilleries were given an exemption and continued running. The whiskey that was made was considered “medicinal” and given to those people with doctors’ prescriptions. Other parts of the work force pursued less legal methods of contining their distilling expertise. “Rotgut whiskey” or “moonshine” became available.
Moonshine got its name because it was made “under the moonlight.” It was also called by other names during Prohibition, such as rot gut, likker, shine, bathtub gin, white lightning, and more.
Moonshining has always been around, even in Peoria. After the Revolutionary War, taxes were placed on alcohol and most people weren’t too happy about it. The solution was natural—to ignore the law and make alcohol illegally. Before Prohibition, making homemade alcohol was just another side business for people when times were tough. When crop yield was poor for farmers families on the frontier could make extra money.
With no legal alcohol available aside from “prescription” whiskey, people changed their opinion on moonshiners. Their businesses boomed. Suddenly, they weren’t the desperate ones. The public embraced their enterprise.
Organized Crime Gets into the Act
Organized crime took advantage of the situation, and speakeasies opened in every town. Bootleggers were the runners who would distribute the alcohol while avoiding getting caught. In colonial times, bootleggers would hide bottles in their boots, which is where the name came from. To make moonshine was simple—you basically needed corn meal, sugar, yeast, and water. In Peoria, “hooch houses” were found down by the river where a person could get a drink of homemade liquor.
The obvious difference between the liquor distilleries’ goods and what moonshiners churned out was the lack of science and sanitation when the moonshine was made. Industrial made whiskey had a color to it because it was aged for a period of time in wood barrels. Moonshine was usually colorless. Without the aging, it had what people called a “kick,” and was far from mellow in taste.
Unfortunately, during the making of moonshine, mistakes could be made. The moonshine may have needed several more runs through the still to filter out any contaminants. Sometimes, if the still got too hot, the alcohol level was even higher than anticipated, therefore producing a product with a very high proof level. Distilling was, and still is a complicated process. It is very easy to make alcohol that is dangerous to consume.
Industrial distillers like those on distillery row in Peoria used the same method as the moonshiners, although the distillers were much more professional and efficient in scale. Making moonshine was a gamble. Moonshiners weren’t inspected, they weren’t sanitary, and sometimes they used unsafe ingredients that left drinkers dead after the product reached their mouths.
Just because loopholes were granted to those distilleries and many doctors made bank from giving out prescriptions for whiskey, that didn’t mean that moonshiners and bootleggers didn’t profit from the situation. Everyone knows Al Capone due to the huge amount of publicity he had garnered bootlegging in Chicago. In south and central Illinois, the Shelton Brothers gang were one of the most infamous mobsters and bootleggers.
Carl Shelton was the leader. Bernie and Earl managed the bootlegging operations. Most of the time they successfully got around law enforcement—well they didn’t, they just paid them off. Corruption was widespread. Bribes were a part of the business. Bootleggers had to pay off judges, government officials, and prosecutors. Because of this, law breaking and the flaunting of it was considered almost cool.
Charles Birger (who had once been a part of the Shelton gang) was a big rival and fought them over the control of the whole operation. The Brothers couldn’t win and went to jail for mail robbery in 1925. Birger controlled the bootlegging for a while, until he too was convicted. Though instead of being sentenced to prison, he was hanged for the murder of an Illinoisian mayor of West City, Joe Adams. When the Shelton Brothers got out of prison, they took on a new enterprise—gambling in Peoria.
Prohibition finally ended in 1933. Legal alcohol production started up again. National Distillers Products Corp. revamped the Clarke Brothers distillery, which once made Clarke’s Pure Rye, a popular whiskey before Prohibition. Hiram Walker, from Canada, opened a plant on the site of the Great Western Distillery, which had been operated by Joseph Greenhut. Pabst Brewing Co., opened up a brewery in Peoria Heights. Pabst had 62% of the beer market in 1976 until 1982.
Nowadays, craft beers and whiskeys are produced in Peoria and continue the fermentation legacy. One such modern distillery is J.K. Williams. The distillery was opened in 2013 by Jesse and Jon Williams, whose great-great grandfather was a whiskey master before Prohibition. After, he had to turn into a smuggler and bootlegger in order to continue his business. Decades later, his great-great grandsons continued the tradition, an echo of the glory days of Peoria’s alcohol trade. More recently others such as the Black Band Distillery have been winning national attention.
Although Peoria’s liquor trade never quite returned to its former height after Prohibition, Peoria’s reputation for fermentation and bioprocessing grew and its heritage as the former Whiskey Capital of the World is still ensconced in its memory.
Peoria’s reputation was a key factor in the city being selected as the site of the first industrial fermentation – the production of penicillin and in the increasingly important production of ethanol from corn. But these are exciting stories for another time.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our blog series where we’ll take a fascinating tour of Peoria’s USDA Ag Lab and learn about the birth of industrial fermentation.
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