A FOUNDATION BUILT ON MALT FERMENTATION
The colorful history of Thornton Distilling Company, located in the oldest standing brewery in Illinois, can be traced back to 1857, when immigrant brewer, John Bielfelt erected a brewery with a ten barrel kettle, on the west bank of Thorn Creek in the small limestone-mining village of Thornton, Illinois. The artesian well already was on the property where a log cabin saloon and brewery had opened in 1836.
Just down the street from the brewery was the beginning of a large rock quarry which today is the largest limestone quarry in the western hemisphere. John S, Bielfeldt would go-on to quench the insatiable thirst of the multitude of workers and quarriers that mined the land and laid the foundation for what is today the great city of Chicago. Our historic artesian well was tapped into a 1500 ft deep underground aquifer that originates from Lake Superior. The minerality of the limestone-filtered water provides a desirable effect on the production of fine spirits both then and now.
At the onset of Prohibition, the Bielfeldt Brewing Company was sold to Carl Ebner. Ebner bottled “soda-pop” but also continued to secretly produce beer. Soon, federal agents raided the brewery with axes, smashed the vats, and thousands of gallons of beer were poured into Thorn Creek. The brewery fell under the control of Al Capone and his henchman, Joe Saltis who supplied Chicago speakeasies far and wide. Eventually, Capone and Saltis were named on the first “Public Enemies List” released by the Chicago Crime Commission.
From creation to restoration, Thornton Distilling Company has a rich history. Check out our timeline as we continue to add photos and memorabilia.
In 1833, John Kinzie partnered with Gurdon Hubbard to purchase land from Indigenous American, Claude LaFramboise. Hubbard was a well-known fur trader and became aware of the property while trading with the local Indigenous American population. On several trips throughout Illinois, Hubbard became the adopted son of Chief Waba of the Kickapoo and married Watseka, niece of Chief Tamin of the Kankakee Potawatomi. In 1836 Kinzie and Hubbard developed the land to form what is today the Village of..Read More
1857-1897: John S. Bielfeldt Brewing Co. John S. Bielfeldt was born January 27, 1834, in the town of Hemme, Holstein, Germany. He emigrated with his parents in 1851 and settled in Blue Island, IL. In 1857, John Bielfeldt relocated to Thornton, Illinois, and erected a brewery with a ten-barrel kettle and a cooperage. The grain was ground by horses on a small-scale grist mill. The Bielfeldt family then built a residence above the well and..Read More
In 1895, John S. Bielfeldt Brewing continued to grow and he invested in a 50 barrel kettle. By 1896, Bielfeldt brewed the most popular beer in the region. The famous beer was known as “J.S. Bielfeldt Lager Beer.” Upon J.S. Bielfeldt’s death on new year’s eve, 1899, the brewery was turned over to his son and renamed, Beilfeldt Brewing Co.
Flood partially damages Bielfeldt Brewing Co.
The Bielfeldt brewery was partially destroyed by a tornado.
After using horse-drawn carriages to deliver beer for over half a century, a truck was acquired in 1910. The Bielfeldt Brewing Company thrived as it continued to grow year after year into the largest brewery in the region. The Bielfeldt family’s production persevered despite floods, tornadoes, and fire. What ended the brewery wasn’t an act of nature, but an act of Congress. Enter Prohibition and public enemy number 1.
Nationwide Prohibition did not begin in the United States until January 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. The 18th amendment was ratified in 1919, and was repealed in December 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. At the onset of Prohibition, the Bielfeldt Brewing Company was sold to Head Brewer, Carl Ebner, Sr. According to the 1920 census, Ebner ran a “soda-pop” bottling plant that proved to be a front for..Read More
Once Prohibition ended in 1933, the brewery came under the control of successive owners beginning with John M. Kubina. Kubina claimed to have been approached by Joe Saltis wanting to own a piece of the new business. Kubina swiftly declined. Renamed “The Thornton Brewing Company,” Kubina’s company was able to produce 25,000 barrels per year of their “Thornton Special” until falling upon hard times and filing for bankruptcy in 1936.
1937-1940: Illinois Brewing Company: In 1937, Dominick Frederick and his brothers joined Mr. J. Capodice to incorporate the Illinois Brewing Company in Thornton, Illinois. Among their many brands were “Old Fashion” Lager Beer, Pennant, Queensville, Export Pale and Muenchener Bohemian Beer. In mid-1940, the brewery contracted with Crown Cork and Seal to produce J spout cans of Pilsner and Frederick’s beer. Later that year, the company name was officially changed to Frederick’s Brewing Co.
1940-1948: Frederick’s Brewing Company: Frederick’s Brewing was a partnership of James, Frank, Joseph and Dominick Frederick. Brewmaster was Henry Scholl and assistant brewer Ernest Buehler. They operated two bottling lines and had a 75,000 barrel capacity and manufactured Frederick’s Four Crown Special Beer. The beer was shipped by railroad car to army camps throughout the U.S. Boys from Thornton were always surprised to get beer from home. The empty bottles would be shipped back to..Read More
1948 McAvoy Brewing Company: Founded in 1865, McAvoy Brewing was originally located on Brewers Row in Chicago and was one of Chicago’s largest breweries before Prohibition. After Prohibition in 1948, McAvoy relocated to Thornton. They brewed McAvoy Malt Marrow beer and had a 100,000 barrel capacity.
In 1951, the brewery was renamed “White Bear Brewing Company.” They produced a Lithuanian-style beer that proved unpopular with local residents. This, combined with the owners refusing to pay a crime syndicate for protection led to big trouble. Once again Thorn Creek was filled with beer, this time dumped by the crime syndicate as retribution. At this point, The owner and his partner were through with brewing, and in 1953, the beer brewing ended. After..Read More
In 2014, as the old brewery sat vacant and in disrepair, a small team of craft distillers happened upon its colorful history as Illinois’ oldest standing brewery, with a rich legacy of malt fermentation. When they discovered the fabled limestone-filtered artesian well water still flows forth from the ground they fell in love and committed to the arduous task of restoring the 18,000 sqft property to its former glory, to honor its past and the..Read More
After 3 long years of meticulous building restoration, Thornton Distilling Company laid down its first 53-gallon barrel of whiskey using that same spring water that beckoned the immigrant brewer, John Bielfeidt from Germany in the early 1800s.
After distilling and laying down barrels of whiskey and rum for 2 years, Thornton Distilling Company celebrated its Grand Opening on the anniversary of Repeal Day, December 5th, 2019 with the launch of Dead Drop Spirits. Dead Drop Spirits are now distributed throughout Chicagoland and the US. A “Dead Drop” is an old prohibition-era bootlegging term. Often times barrels of whiskey would be left at a secret location for pick-up at a later date when..Read More
In a hyper-local, terroir-driven take on our signature single malt whisky, Head Distiller Ari Klafter and Founder Andrew Howell visited a private family-owned bog along the banks of the Mississippi River in western Illinois, where they hand-cut blocks of peat. We then dried our peat at the distillery for five months before handing it off to our good friends at Sugar Creek Malt Co., a third-generation family farm. True to our mission of using local..Read More