Thanks to a resurgence of local craft brewing that kicked off in the 1990s, it’s hard to pass through a suburb or rural town without spotting a craft brewery or distillery.
Thornton Distilling, about 35 miles south of the Loop, uses water from an artesian well beneath the building.
Thornton Distilling, which opened in late 2019 in an old building on Margaret Street in the quiet little town of Thornton, gets clean water from an aquifer hundreds of feet below the ground for its spirits — whiskey, gin, rum and even absinthe, all under the brand name Dead Drop. Ari Klafter, Thornton’s head distiller, said artesian water is the only water used in production. municipal water is used for cleaning and other non-distilling needs.
The 3-year-old distillery isn’t the first alcohol-maker to rely on that artesian well. Beer was brewed from the artesian water as early as 1836, according to Debbie Lamoureaux, head of the town’s historical society. A series of breweries operated on the site from 1857 until 1955, except for the 13 years of Prohibition. While brewing and distilling on the site hasn’t been continuous since 1836, the history makes it one of the oldest brewing sites still standing in Illinois.
The main Thornton building is from 1857, the same time a riverfront brewery in Rockford was built. Now called Prairie Street Brewing, that site traces its brewing history to 1849.
Even before it was used for brewing, the artesian well in Thornton was a valued water source. Archeologists have found evidence of indigenous people living in the area since about 1100 years ago; it’s a well-documented site and has yielded the largest number of copper-based metal artifacts in the Chicago area.
The fountainhead of the well is now inside a stone vault that you can visit on paid tours of the distillery. From a room off the bar that doubles as social space and museum, your guide leads you down a flight of wooden steps, through a low-ceilinged opening and into the stone vault.
About 20 feet long, it’s a half-barrel shape built of limestone blocks and with a pipe running vertically up through it. That’s the pump that brings water from the aquifer up to the distillery.
The vault, which used to be at least twice as long as it is now, was built sometime in the 19th century as part of the Bielfeldt Brewery’s lagering process. Andy Howell, Thornton Distilling’s founder, said the limestone vault was built into a hillside on the site to provide temperature-stable cold storage while beer matures into lager, a traditional German method that the brewery’s founder, John Bielfeldt, must have brought with him when he immigrated from Hemme, Germany.
The history of brewing on the site is believed to begin in 1836, when Don Carlos Berry brewed it in a log cabin for use in his mother Hanna’s tavern, according to research by Lamoreaux. The tavern, a block west, is still standing, now a private home. Because Don Berry was working on his mother’s behalf, Howell likes to think of his present site as originally being a woman-owned brewery, another historical distinction for the site.
Gurdon Hubbard, an early leader of Chicago development, bought the cabin from the Berry family in the mid-1830s when he came down to open a stone quarry, a precursor to the giant quarry that is still operating in Thornton. Hubbard sold to John Bielfeldt in 1857 and built a wood building on the site for brewing. That year is the start date that Howell uses in tracing the history of brewing and distilling on the Margaret Street site. In 1876, Bielfeldt built the brick building that is now the oldest standing on the site. The upstairs section was the home of Bielfeldt and his wife, Crescentia and their 10 children.
Howell said his products’ name, Dead Drop, comes from the bootlegging tales during Prohibition.
In the years after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the property went through a series of ownerships and brand names, including Frederick’s Brewing, McAvoy Brewing and White Bear Brewing, before closing in 1955.
After more than half a century as a restaurant, an auto body shop and other uses — but with the artesian well and the old lagering vault kept intact all along — the property was sold in 2014 to a development firm, Weiss Properties, which primarily wanted the open land behind the old brewery for senior living apartments with views into the big tract of Cook County forest preserve land east of Thornton.
Weiss “was looking for somebody who could bring the old buildings back to life,” Howell said. At the same time, Howell was looking for a home for his planned distillery. Howell had been looking primarily in the North Side of Chicago, but when he learned about this site in Thornton, the authenticity of its history appealed to him.
Two years of renovations turned the ramshackle place into an inviting place to drink and dine, inside or in the courtyard, have a wedding party in a venue upstairs beneath a long skylight, and learn some history.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.