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What makes a whiskey great? We asked a master distiller based in the Whiskey City to find out

Tim Shelley

While Peoria's days as the "Whiskey City" are long over, the alcoholic beverage is seeing a resurgence in the region with the opening of new distilleries.

Jeff Murphy is master distiller at J.K Williams Distillery, which recently won a "Best In State" award for its Gold Zephyr Bourbon in the American Craft Spirits Association Heartland Whiskey Competition.

It all starts with choosing the right grain, Murphy said.

"Whether you're using corn as the base or whatnot, you know, you've got rice, wheat you've got oats, you've got all kinds of different things you can throw in there. And that's just your mash," he said.

Different yeast strains can also give different flavor profiles. How the strain is treated during fermentation also has an impact, he said.

From there, the distiller's beer mash produced using grain and yeast goes into processing. Murphy said the "cuts," or choosing when to switch containers, is an important point for determining the flavor profile of a whiskey.

"That's where the art comes in. And that's where distillers differ," he said.

The type of barrel used during the aging process also has an impact on how a whiskey turns out. The seasons also factor in. In warm weather, barrels expand. And in colder winter weather, they tighten.

J.K. Williams is currently using original recipes from the old owners of the distillery, but Murphy said he's also putting his own spin on things.

He's also looking into vintage Peoria whiskey recipes after a chance encounter with a local whiskey history buff.

I have kind of taken photos of a few bottles, I think have great names, that were made in Peoria. And I need to try to research those and see if I can find that mash bill so to speak, and maybe you can do something fun and bring that back as well," Murphy said. "Anybody that's in a craft like this, there's always something going in their head to say, 'hey, how can I flip this up? And how can I make this really interesting?' So there's a throwback."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.