Peoria’s Whiskey Barons

by Brian Fox Ellis

Boasting over 24 breweries and 73 distilleries between 1837 and 1919, the “Whiskey Capital of the World” was an apt name for Peoria. The city was chosen by so many in the industry because of its plentiful supply of grains, clean and abundant spring water, dependable transportation, and fuel resources (wood and coal).

During the 1860s and 1870s, often regarded as the “boom” years for Peoria’s liquor industry, the amount and capacities of breweries and distilleries nearly doubled. Many of Peoria’s alcohol-producing sites were concentrated on “Distillery Row,” which stretched along the Illinois River from State Street to the I-474 bridge.

At peak production, the Peoria tax collection district supplied nearly half of the federal government’s entire revenue. The tax on distilled spirits accounted for 95 percent of this amount.

With the construction of bigger and better plants and an influx of new brewers and distillers, the era from 1880 to 1919 can be considered the “golden” years of the liquor industry in Peoria. It is from this period that the whiskey barons would arise.

In the early 1880s, Joseph B. Greenhut (pictured) helped to build the Great Western Distillery in Peoria, which would eventually become known as the largest distillery in the world.

Peoria’s wealthy distillers and brewers used their vast fortunes to contribute to a substantial number of projects in the Peoria area, including the building of the Orpheum (Edward and Albert Leisy) and Palace (William Hull) theaters, the expansion of Peoria Park District land, the construction of the Jefferson Hotel (Wiliam Hull), and the creation of statuary and other artwork (Joseph B. Greenhut).

The golden era of Peoria’s liquor industry met its end in 1919, with the introduction of the 18th Amendment. 1933 brought the passage of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th and ended Prohibition. Yet despite the presence of Hiram Walker & Sons and Pabst Brewing Company, Peoria’s alcohol industry never returned to its glory days. a&s