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How Peoria whiskey won the Civil War

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Tim Alexander
/
WCBU
Maureen Naughtin, curator for the Peoria Historical Society, displays a copper stencil used in a Peoria distillery, circa late 1800s.

Peoria’s economic importance as the whiskey capital of the United States helped the Union secure victory over the South in the Civil War. Drug store giant Walgreens built its profile as a licensed medicinal distributor of whiskey distilled here in the River City during Prohibition. Peoria was once known as the alcohol distillery capital of the world.

These and other interesting facts associated with Peoria’s rich history in the mass production of distilled spirits were toasted during an hour-long presentation by former Peoria Historical Society President Bernie Drake, an expert on Peoria’s whiskey history, at the Chillicothe Public Library.

Like good whiskey, Drake’s claims came with a high percentage of, ahem, proof.

“Sometimes people object to Peoria being called the whiskey capital of the world, and technically they’re correct. Peoria was the alcohol capital of the world,” said Drake, referring to the boom period of Peoria distilleries-- and the small group of rich and powerful distillery owners who left a lasting legacy in the River City-- in the 1880s and the two decades that followed.

Peoria’s distilling history actually began when settlers arrived in the early 1800s and frontier distilling was common, according to Drake. The settlers distilled “soft” or underdeveloped corn to produce a high-octane liquid commodity that could be traded for needed goods and services-- or consumed.

It was in 1843 or 1844 when the first commercial whiskey distillery was built along Peoria’s riverfront (near present-day State and Water streets) by Almiron Cole, a pioneer settler who died in 1891 at the age of 86. Cole is interred in Peoria’s historic Springdale Cemetery. (Prior to the arrival of Cole’s whiskey distillery, early Peoria artisans had been brewing beer commercially for a decade).

After Cole established his small whiskey works, the distillery business grew quite quickly in Peoria. By 1865 the number had grown to 14. From 1844 to 1919 there were no less than 73 distilleries paying taxes in Peoria County.

“During the Civil War Peoria was the alcohol capital of the United States. We were making more alcohol here than anywhere,” said Drake, before describing how, through taxes paid to the federal government used to fund war materials, Peoria distillers indirectly helped win the Civil War.

“Prior to the Civil War the only income the federal government had came from tariffs. (They’ve) got to pay for the war. In previous wars, such as the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the government would pass a temporary income tax to pay for the war. They did this in the Civil War as well, but it wasn’t enough money, so (the Union) instituted what was known as the ‘Sin Tax’ on alcohol and tobacco in 1862,” Drake explained, adding that by the late 1880s the Sin Tax provided the single largest annual revenue stream for the federal government.

Records show that as much as 50 percent of national Sin Tax revenue collected by the government during the Civil War originated from the Peoria-Pekin Fifth Federal Tax District, generated largely by Peoria distilleries and breweries.

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Tim Alexander
/
WCBU
Items related to Peoria's whiskey distilling legacy on display included a copper yeast jug, whiskey strainer, proof gauge, stencils, stamps and other barrel branding tools.

Drake noted that although some whiskey “purists” might assert that the majority of the nation’s whiskey was made in Kentucky by the late 1800s, historical data refute that misconception. “By 1880 the 200 distilleries located in Kentucky produced 15 million gallons of proof alcohol. In Peoria in 1880, we had 10 distilleries which produced 18 million proof gallons of alcohol. The difference? In Peoria, we had industrialized the production of alcohol,” he said.

By 1880, a host of natural and social attributes had made Peoria the ideal location for a booming “distillery row” that would satisfy much of the nation’s alcohol demand-- and also lead to new and vibrant livestock feed and stockyard industries that provided thousands of jobs for area workers. First, Drake explained, the Illinois River and, more importantly, the underlying SanKoty Aquifer, provided a more-than-adequate water supply for dozens of distillers and other related industries.

“The aquifer was the difference. From springs, it provided a constant stream of cool, limestone-filtered water that was known to be beneficial to the whiskey distilling process,” said Drake.

In addition, as a rail, boat and wagon hub surrounded by rich crop land, Peoria’s riverfront offered an ideal location for the river-dependent distilling industry. Finally, the warm and welcoming attitude reportedly displayed by Peoria leaders and citizens towards prospective distillery investors-- many of whom came from Chicago-- all but ensured Peoria’s place in history as the whiskey capital of the world.

Many of Peoria’s “whiskey barons” were instrumental in shaping the early political, social and cultural foundations of the city. The short list of influential distillers includes Chicago transplant Joseph Greenhut, the five Hungarian Woolner Brothers and the Clarke Brothers, capitalist investors who also left behind lasting physical legacies in the form of stately homes, civic buildings, commissioned artwork and magnificent burial crypts that overlook the Illinois River Valley from Springdale Cemetery.

“Greenhut’s mansion is now an apartment-condominium complex located at the intersections of Moss, Sheridan, and High streets. A Civil War veteran, he donated the money for the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall. He was also the primary donor for the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War monument down at the (county) courthouse, and he was also into art. Peorian Fritz Treibel’s sculpture, Love Knows no Caste, is now on display in the Peoria City Hall. It was commissioned by Joseph Greenhut,” said Drake.

Woolner Bros. and Clarke Bros. paraphernalia such as authentic bottles and from their distilleries are still selling on eBay, according to Drake. As a monument to their hard-earned wealth, the Woolner crypt is one of the largest and most ornate within Springdale. Sumner Clarke’s historic dwelling is still in use on High Street.

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Tim Alexander
/
WCBU
Bernie Drake, past president of the Peoria Historical Society, led a presentation on the city's reputation as the 'Whiskey Capital of the Nation" on March 10 at the Chillicothe Public Library.

Another interesting factoid revealed by Drake: due to a special exemption granted by the federal government to select Peoria distillers, some River City distilleries remained in legal operation during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. The distilleries’ primary customers were individuals who were given pharmacy prescriptions for “medicinal” whiskey by their doctors. Among the entrepreneurial beneficiaries of the “medical whiskey” law during Prohibition was Galesburg native Charles Walgreen, who opened his first pharmacy in 1901 on Chicago’s south side.

“This was a big loophole in the prohibition law and it is where Walgreens got their start. They expanded all over the Midwest by being a drugstore that could provide medicinal alcohol made in Peoria,” said Drake.

The former Peoria Historical Society president was accompanied in his presentation by Maureen Naughtin, artifact curator for the Peoria Historical Society. Nautin brought along historical items including a copper yeast jug thought to have been salvaged from Cole’s first Peoria distillery, whiskey strainer and proof gauge, and barrel branding implements, stamps and templates from Peoria’s early distilleries.

The Chillicothe Public Library’s series on Peoria’s whiskey history, That’s the Spirit! concludes on Thursday, March 24, from 6-7 p.m. The topic is modern distilling, and whiskey sampling will be available. RSVP to Catherine Barnett, programming librarian, at (309) 274-2719 to pre-register for the free event.

On Sunday, May 1, Drake will offer a presentation about the Peoria Whiskey Trust, a coalition of powerful distillery owners based in Peoria and led by Greenhut that colluded to control the amount of alcohol the nation’s distilleries produced-- and its price. The event will be held at the historic Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Hall, 942 NE Glen Oak Avenue, in downtown Peoria.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.