There are so many small distilleries and independent bottlers out there today, that yet another young company buying and bottling whiskey from a giant factory like MGP of Indiana is hardly worthy of mention. Indeed, as a writer it’s hard to not eventually tune that sort of thing out, when you hear of a new brand and find out “hey, this is some more young MGP bourbon or rye.”
Decently aged, self-distilled spirits, though … now that is more interesting. It’s pretty rare that I get a first press release from a distillery, introducing their new brands, and find them to be 4-year-old bourbon or rye that they distilled themselves. And indeed, that’s what piqued my interest when it came to Peoria, Illinois’ JK Williams Distilling.
The story of this company is a slightly complicated one, steeped in history running all the way back to Prohibition-era America. Before 1919, the central Illinois city of Peoria was actually one of the nation’s leading producers of both beer and spirits—the city was home to no fewer than 24 breweries and 73 distilleries, and proclaimed itself the “Whiskey Capital of the World” for the fact that it paid more excise tax on alcohol production than any other city in the U.S. We’ve written quite a bit previously on this time period, in which taxes on alcohol were the single largest source of income for the federal budget—a fact that directly necessitated the creation of the Income Tax in the U.S. in order to make Prohibition a possibility.
The original J.K. Williams was reportedly a distillery/bootlegger of that era, “run out of town by Al Capone during Prohibition,” according to the distillery. But here’s where things get confusing: A company called J.K. Williams Distilling was created by his descendants in the early 2010s, distilling in East Peoria to continue their great-grandfather’s legacy. This company apparently produced fruited whiskey recipes, although they also were distilling and patiently aging bourbon and rye whiskey. However, that J.K. Williams Distilling ultimately closed down in 2018 after a few years in operation. Their stills and aging inventory was then acquired by new (and current) owners Andy Faris and Stacy Shunk, and the company was subtly renamed as JK Williams Distilling, without the periods in “JK.”
The current JK Williams Distilling product, then, was originally distilled by the previous company, and is now being distilled in a new Peoria facility. There’s both a bourbon and a rye, each of which are four years old and bottled at 90 proof—unusually old spirit for a company’s first true release.
I received samples of both whiskeys, so let’s finally get to tasting.
This is a 4-year-old straight bourbon, distilled, aged and bottled in Peoria, IL. It weighs in at a mid-strength proof point of 90, but as a pretty lofty asking price of $60, which is a lot for a company launching its first product without a familiar pedigree. The mash bill isn’t publicly available, as far as I know.
On the nose, this one is pretty rich, with lots of maple and ginger molasses cookie. It smells both spicy and sweet, and I keep coming back to the word “warm”—it is toasty and somewhat malty. On the palate, this is indeed on the sweeter side, and it does have a maltiness, like strong black tea with sugar. That note heads into gingersnaps, toffee and a spice-forward finish. Alcohol heat is quite low on both the nose and the palate, and although there’s a younger grainy note threaded throughout Gold Zephyr, the dominant impressions are richer and sweeter.
All in all, there’s something slightly unusual here—like a bigger amount of malted barley derived-flavors, perhaps—but that’s the unique nature of trying whiskey distilled by a company you know nothing about, rather than yet another release from one of the giants in Kentucky, Tennessee or Indiana. These truly independent whiskeys are always going to be unique in their own way.
For what it’s worth, the richness of Gold Zephyr is impressive in a younger bourbon, although it might be a touch sweet for some. The asking price, meanwhile, puts it pretty far up the shelf, where it would no doubt have trouble justifying the price next to market leaders in the $60 range, but it comes down to whether you’re interested in supporting a younger operating or not.
JK Williams Distilling’s rye whiskey offering is also distilled, aged and bottled at 90 proof in Peoria. It carries a slightly higher MSRP of $66, which is pretty standard in the sense that craft ryes tend to cost a bit more than comparable craft bourbons.
If the bourbon from JK Williams was slightly individualistic, the rye is downright unusual. On the nose, this one is very malt-bready-doughy, making me wonder if perhaps there’s malted rye in the grist rather than standard, unmalted rye. I get more maple on the nose, but it’s joined by heavy honey, red fruit and rye bread. This smells quite sweet, even moreso than the bourbon.
On the palate, this is indeed a very sweet rye, with a correspondingly syrupy texture. The maltiness is there again, along with clove-like spice, rye bread, honey and a little black pepper, but not much. I’m reminded almost of the grainy notes of say, a bowl of oatmeal with lots and lots of brown sugar, maple or honey. All in all, this is definitely not the “dry and spicy” rye that the market has become very accustomed to in many cases, but an attempt to go in a notably different direction. It’s an admirable effort, but it’s a bit overly sweet to my taste. The $66 price tag, meanwhile … well, that’s a tough level, considering the other options available near that price point.
Still, it’s always a pleasure to try a truly new distillate from a new company. Hopefully, the original J.K. Williams would approve of what they’ve created.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.