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From Al Capone to bridal suites – Thornton Distilling Co. mixes history and community

THORNTON, Ill. (November 11, 2023) – Thornton Distilling Company — previously known as The Well — continues to honor the rich history of the oldest-standing brewery in Illinois while incorporating community-focused changes to their unique building and business.

Colorful history

The brewery’s history can be traced back to the 1800s. The original subterranean artesian well has been on the property since 1836 where a log cabin saloon and brewery once stood.

The brick and limestone building was built by John S. Bielfeldt on the west bank of Thorn Creek in 1857. Bielfeldt built a brewing company and a residence above the well to house his family. He cornered the brewing market by producing beer using the artesian well water.

Thornton Distilling Co. still uses the limestone cave that houses the artesian well to pipe natural spring water from the well to the production area. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

The brewery was owned and operated by Bielfeldt until his death in 1899. After, his son took ownership of the business, and it was renamed Bielfeldt Brewing Company

The building and business continued to grow each year until it became the largest brewery in the region despite floods, tornadoes, and fire.

At the onset of the prohibition era, the brewing company was sold to head brewer Carl Ebner. Ebner turned the building into a “soda-pop” bottling plant but later the authorities discovered it to be a front for beer and booze production under the leadership of infamous Chicago mobster, Al Capone.

The building ultimately became the largest bootlegging facility in Capone’s network until federal agents raided the brewery with axes, destroying the vats and pouring thousands of gallons of beer into Thorn Creek.

After the prohibition era, several breweries operated in the building until the last one closed its doors in the early 1950s.

The doors to the historic building stayed closed until 2014 when a group of craft distillers took interest in the building and its colorful history.

“Thornton is the oldest township in Cook County and has an intriguing history, and folks are now finally visiting and exploring Thornton which has been wonderful to witness first-hand,” said Andrew Howell, co-founder of Thornton Distilling Company.

COVID contributions

The distillery was forced to close its doors a couple of months after its grand opening in 2019 due to the pandemic.

The business was deemed essential during the pandemic, and the owners wanted to keep the staff working, so they “continued to distill spirits and lay down barrels of whisky to mature,” Howell said. “We also wanted to make sanitizer and offer it for free to the public.”

“We saw how expensive sanitizer was for so many folks and we wanted to offer it for free to our community, first responders, and non-profits,” he continued.

Thornton Distilling produced over 5,000 gallons of sanitizer in 2020.

Rebranding and renovations

According to Howell, they decided to rebrand and transition from The Well to Thornton Distilling Co. to help avoid confusion for anyone looking for the business online.

“A lot of regulars still refer to our bar as “The Well” because we used over 10,000 pounds of Thornton limestone from a decommissioned portion of our historic artesian well to construct the massive bar,” Howell said. “We believe it’s the heaviest bar in North America.”

The bar at Thornton Distilling Company is made of limestone from a historic artesian well onsite. Seating booths were added to the bar area after the business opened a restaurant with a full kitchen. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

The rebrand also comes with several renovations and new features to the distillery.

“The village of Thornton has been incredibly supportive of our distillery and the restoration project,” he said.

What’s new at Thornton Distilling?

The distillery has recently launched several new features including a full-service bar, updated cocktail menu, and event space.

Thornton Distilling Co.’s newest cocktails are made with the brewery’s Dead Drop Spirits. (Photo provided by Thornton Distilling Co.)

They are currently offering a Sunday brunch and are in the process of expanding brunch service to Saturday as well.

“Our head chef, Carlos Recendiz, creates everything from scratch, from his authentic barbacoa tacos to the staff favorite, the bourbon BBQ Burger,” Howell said.

The restaurant offers online reservations for those who would like to book a table in advance.

The distillery updated its cocktail menu regularly before the pandemic, but there has not been an update since 2019. The recent update to the cocktail menu has brought “genuine excitement” to the distillery, Howell said.

“Each drink has a history and story to tell,” he continued. “Guests can read about the drink origins and history on the menu, and our bartenders love to chat about the drinks.”

A gem of the business is the renovated Coopers Hall event space. The hall was completed in 2020, and over 100 weddings and private events have been hosted in the space.

The newly renovated “Coopers Hall” was used to make beer barrels in the past. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)
In the lower level of the newly renovated bridal suite at Thornton Distilling Co., the banister on the staircase is the original banister from the log cabin saloon located on the property in 1836. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

“The couples that get married here are like family to us, and several actually met here on their first date,” Howell said. “It’s wild to think about playing such a special part in their family stories.”

The upper level of the newly-renovated bridal suite is mainly used by the bridal party while the lower level is often used by groomsmen. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

Awards and certifications

According to Howell, the distiller was recently certified as Illinois’ first “Craft Malt Certified Distillery” by the American Craft Maltsters Guild.

“We work closely with Sugar Creek Maltsters in Lebanon, Indiana, and use only locally sourced heirloom grains to distill the first Illinois Peated single malt whiskey, which is the first whiskey in the Midwest to utilize a locally sourced peat, which we harvest by hand in western Illinois,” he said. “It’s been barrel aging for almost four years and is slated to be released in 2024.”

The Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau gave the “Award of Merit” to Thornton Distilling Company at this year’s annual meeting and award luncheon.

From left: Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau President Jim Garrett, Thornton Distilling Company co-founder Andrew Howell, and Illinois Office of Tourism Director Daniel Thomas at the Chicagoland Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau 2023 Luncheon. Howell accepted an Award of Merit on behalf of Thornton Distilling Co. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

“We were recently awarded the Illinois Maker Award by the Illinois Department of Tourism which has helped to shine a spotlight on this special little gem in the south suburbs,” Howell said.

The front of the historic brewery that now houses Thornton Distilling Company, located in Thornton, Illinois. (Photo: Kinise Jordan)

Thornton Distilling Company is located at 400 E Margaret Street in Thornton, Illinois.

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Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan brings local experience and a long list of journalism skills to her work with The Lansing Journal. She understands the need for reliable, factual information in equipping people to build community. An Audio News internship with WBEZ honed her interviewing skills and her sense of timing and deadlines. A native of Calumet City, Kinise is familiar with the interplay of local government, local schools, and local businesses.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I have lived in Thornton most of my life. I still live there in the house that my parents had built many years ago. Their names were Tony and Virginia Starkus.

    It’s great to see our “Brewery” enjoyed by many people. It a wonderful part of history.

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