Peoria, And the Birth of Industrial Fermentation and Bioprocessing – Part I: Whiskey Capital

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.

Peoria’s Distilleries

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.

After Prohibition

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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The History of Sun Protection

By Elena Chaikin, Marketing Manager

Sun protection has been important to people for centuries. Many cultures developed their own methods to keep their skin from burning, from pastes and lotions derived from ingredients found in nature, to special clothing that warded off the sun. It’s fascinating to know how far we’ve come with sun protection, especially since nowadays, sunscreen is nearly invisible on the skin. Let’s take a walk through history.


Ancient Times

In 3100 – 300 BC, Egyptians used crops such as rice, jasmine and lupine (flowering stalks of purple flowers). They would combine the ingredients and use them as a thick paste over their skin. The mixture absorbed ultraviolet (UV) light. In 800 – 500 BC, the ancient Greeks used olive oil to protect their skin and also used it in their daily skin care routines.

The women of Namibia coated their hair and skin in red paste called Otijize to ward off the sun. The concoction was a mixture of butter, fat, and red ochre. Burmese women made their own invention called Thanaka, a golden paste from the bark of the Limonia acidisssima tree. It’s still used as sun protection today in modern Myanmar.

Native American tribes used sunflower oil and pine needles to protect their skin. In addition, these natural ingredients were used to treat bad sunburns. Vikings created a paste made out of burned almonds, lead, copper, and ash as sort of “eyeliner” to protect their eyes during battle.

What’s more, the first use of zinc, which is in modern day sunscreens today, was found to have been used as far back as 500 BC in India.



Clothing and accessories were very important to protect people from the sun as well. Parasols and silk umbrellas were popular in ancient China, especially among the higher classes. Also in Assyria, modern-day Iraq, parasols were made from palm tree leaves. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European women wore visards (velvet face masks) that kept the skin protected and preserved the beauty standard of smooth, pale skin.

Natives to the Polar Regions made goggles from leather, bone, or wood that would keep their eyes from getting snow blindness, as well as to keep out UV rays. Across Southeast Asia, people would wear conical leaf hats, and to this day they still do. In ancient Rome, sun protection was incorporated into architecture in the form of “velariums,” which were awnings. Velariums were constructed in public places like colosseums so that spectators could watch gladiators fight, chariot races, and other events.


Ultraviolet Rays

It wasn’t until 1801 that Johan Wilhem Ritter, a German chemist and physicist, discovered why the sun was so dangerous – not just because its light burned. It emitted ultraviolet radiation. The ozone layer is located in the stratosphere, and it can naturally absorb as much as 98% of the sun’s UV light.

Unfortunately, the thinning of this natural protective layer in the sky has caused ozone holes and increased levels of UV. So, it has become more important than ever to wear sunscreen in our daily lives. Let’s get into the difference between UVA and UVB rays.

There are two basic types of UV rays that reach us from the sun, UVA and UVB. UVB rays cause sunburn and can sometimes do much worse – cause skin cancer, particularly malignant melanoma. UVA works in tandem but penetrates the skin even further, causing skin aging and wrinkles.


Modern Sunscreens

Fortunately, you can protect yourself from the effects of the sun. Modern technology has given broad-spectrum sunscreens and even UV-blocking clothes, hats, and sunglasses. Let’s specifically talk about sunscreens. You can find them in many formulations and delivery types, whether in spray, stick, or cream forms. Whatever you decide to use, there is usually an SPF number on the front of the packaging. SPF stands for sun protection factor.

For example, SPF 30 would mean that it takes 30 times longer to burn under the sun as opposed to if you were not wearing any sunscreen. Broad spectrum means the sunscreen has ingredients within it to protect you against both UVA and UVB rays. Unfortunately, sunscreen cannot be waterproof, so reapplying it is key when outside, whether on the beach, poolside, or even while simply outdoors for extended periods of time. It’s important that the sunscreen you use has an SPF of at least 15.



Two Types of Sunscreens

Currently, there are two types of sunscreens: chemical (organic) and physical (inorganic). Both need to be applied evenly and uniformly onto the skin for protection before you go outside in the sun. It’s important to wait until the sunscreen is dry (about 15 minutes) to get the SPF protection on the label. Otherwise, there’s a chance that the sunscreen will move and transfer (onto clothes), or be swept away by makeup that you put over it, before it’s physically bound to your skin. After the sunscreen is dry, put your makeup on, clothes, swimsuits, and go enjoy the sun!

How the sunscreens work: Physical sunscreens allow UV rays to bounce off your skin. However, they are often thicker and known to leave a white cast on the skin, so they will be apparent on those with tanned or darker skin tones. In addition, because physical sunscreens are thick and heavy, those with oily skin may not like them.

Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, converting them into energy before they can burn you. These types of sunscreens are great for the face, and spray bottle sunscreens are often chemical. While chemical sunscreens are more water resistant and can provide the greatest UV protection, sometimes they can irritate the skin, particularly in children or those who have skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. Ultimately, the choice of sun protection is up to you.


FDA Approved Sunscreens

The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved 16 types of ingredients for sunscreens, but in the United States, most sunscreen manufacturers use 8 of those: avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. Because the FDA classifies sunscreens as drugs, it is quite hard to have other ingredients (especially other types used in Europe and Asia) be approved.

Recently many of these ingredients are coming into disfavor with FDA. It turns out that many chemical sunscreen ingredients may absorb into the skin and possibly get into the bloodstream. Not to mention, Oxybenzone and Avobenzone are unfriendly to coral reefs. These can affect corals’ growth cycle, damage their DNA, and cause coral bleaching.

These ingredients can also hurt ocean life, such as fish, dolphins and whales, algae, and more, and cause problems like mutations and reproductive issues.

Unfortunately, the effects of sunscreen ingredients absorbing into your bloodstream are largely unknown. It calls for further testing to determine how safe chemical sunscreens really are, especially with chronic use.

This leaves us with the question: are there alternatives to the sunscreen ingredients currently allowed in the United States?


iActive™ Feruloyl Glycerides

Here is where we come in at Midwest Bioprocessing Center. We have developed an innovative proprietary ingredient for personal care use called FeruliShield™. FeruliShield is a UV stabilizer and antioxidant, which can be used on its own or in combination with approved sunscreens to enhance their properties by boosting SPF.

FeruliShield contains ferulic acid, which is known to possess powerful UV-protective and antioxidant properties due to its ability to form stabilized radicals when exposed to environmental oxidants or UV-radiation. Because of these properties, ferulic acid has found its way into numerous personal care products and is frequently combined with commonly used UV-sensitive ingredients, such as vitamin E and retinol.

FeruliShield combines the UV-stablization and antioxidant properties of ferulic acid with the formulation advantages of natural oils, such as soybean oil and coconut oil. The resulting products are stable, easy to formulate, lipophilic, and provide long-lasting protection from environmental damage. They also help maintain the efficacy of other active ingredients by protecting against photodegradation and can be used as an SPF booster.

FeruliShield can be added to many types of products, such as skincare (cleansers, serums, creams and lotions); sunscreens, of course; hair care (shampoos, conditioners, leave-in treatments, and masks); and even cosmetics (foundations, primers, settings sprays, etc.); allowing all of these potential products to shield you from the sun damage.

FeruliShield provides a sun-shielding alternative. Here at Midwest Bioprocessing Center, we are working to introduce our innovative cosmetic ingredients to products already on the market.


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