While researching a brand of bourbon, I discovered a segment of bourbon history that was not familiar to me. At one point in American history, The distilling capital of Peoria Illinois was a factual statement. Peoria’s commerce was based on plentiful corn and water. These happened to be the main ingredients of bourbon and helped make Peoria the largest corn market in the world. Cattle and milk production were also industries that relied on the area’s corn.
In 1843, a steamboat captain opened the first distillery in Peoria and later built a second distillery that was the largest in Illinois outside of Chicago. More than 70 distilleries operated in this area from the mid-eighteen hundreds until prohibition. There were so many distilleries that the area along the Illinois River was known as Distillery Row.
Bigger than Kentucky?
In 1880, Peoria and the surrounding area produced eighteen million gallons of alcohol. The production was not limited to whiskey but all distilled spirits. The entire state of Kentucky produced 15 million gallons that year. The distilling capital of Peoria, Illinois, was a boomtown. Peoria had the trade advantage of being on the Illinois River, which is a principal tributary of the Mississippi River. The growing railroad system provided another method for shipping liquor to the ever-increasing western frontier.
By the time prohibition closed down distilling operations, all of the distilleries in Peoria were under the control of the Whiskey Trust. During prohibition, this area became a hotbed of bootlegging activities. It was the home of the notorious Shelton Brothers, who were known as Americas Bloodiest Gang, according to the Saturday Evening Post. Before serving prison terms, the gang-controlled all of the bootlegging operations in Southern Illinois, also known as Little Egypt.
Ten High Bourbon
At the end of prohibition, some tried to re-open and had limited success. The Canadian company Hiram Walker and Sons built the world’s largest distillery in Peoria. The owners of Canadian Club Whisky choose this area for their first American location. This plant went on to produce the blended Imperial brand as well as two bourbons. Walker’s Deluxe is not that well known, but their other bourbon, Hiram Walker’s Ten High, lives on to this day.
Ten High was a famous brand and competed in the marketplace with other high volume low margin bourbons like Old Crow. Ten High is showcased in this article not because it is a great bourbon, but because it is a bourbon that was created in Peoria and is still available today. Now owned by the Sazerac Company, Ten High is produced and bottled at the Barton Distillery. The name Ten High is based on its storage position in the rickhouses.
Still producing today
The Hiram Walker plant stopped distilling in the 1970s but continued to bottle until its alcohol stocks were gone. Today, the distillery is owned and operated by Archer Daniels Midland, which produces ethanol for use in both the industrial and beverage industries. This brief story is another example of the long and varied history of bourbon. The distilling capital of Peoria Illinois provided a lot of liquor to a lot of people for a very long time.