Our next member highlight takes us to Thornton, Illinois where a time-honored local brewery building now houses a distillery that’s making history by distilling European heirloom grain grown in Indiana. We asked Thornton Distillery’s Head Distiller Ari Klafter about their origin story and about his passion for peated malt. Here’s what he had to say.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did Thornton Distilling come to be?

Our distillery was a meeting of three forces. Our co-founder Andrew Howell was determined to open a distillery in the Chicago area, and through extensive research came across our building — the oldest standing brewery in Illinois, dating back to 1857, with the original limestone filtered artesian well still intact. It was owned by our partner Jake Weiss who had a passion for breathing new life into older buildings, and liked the idea for our distillery so much that he wanted to be a part of it. What was missing was someone with the knowledge of traditional distilling methods and ability to build out and run the facility. Given my passion for single malt whiskey and time spent doing my Master’s in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, I was extremely keen on distilling authentic single malt whiskey here in the States. With the building’s rich history and our ability to draw from the 166-year-old artesian well for production water, it was the perfect site so I moved to Illinois from Massachusetts, where I had been working at a rum distillery, and we began laying the groundwork. 

None of us were originally from Thornton — I’m from NY, Andrew’s from Omaha, Nebraska, Jake is from Chicago — but it proved to be the perfect nexus. Beyond the building’s history and the historic artesian well, it’s also home to the largest limestone quarry in the Western Hemisphere. The town and its workers arguably built the city of Chicago, despite today being only a 30-minute drive from the city. And because it’s still operational we actually feel quarry blasts at intervals throughout the week, shaking the foundation of the distillery and barrel warehouse. We like to think it’s somehow part of our whiskey’s DNA.

Let’s talk about Edelweiss. 

Sugar Creek Malt Co. has been such a great partner for producing our Illinois peated malt that we now use them exclusively as our grain supplier and I am proud to say we currently use 100 percent craft malt. But they’ve also impressed me with their creativity and passion for traditional malting techniques, and Caleb Michalke had been working to bring this heritage barley back to life since 2016. Edelweiss was originally bred outside Austria around the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a 2-row winter barley descending from the Moravian Haná variety used in the original Pilsner in 1842 and first released after WWI. But it was essentially forgotten after WWII and replaced by more industrious varieties until Sugar Creek procured a 200-gram seed packet and began planting it in Indiana. After about 5 years, they were ready to offer a very limited amount to the world and since the first time Caleb told me about Edelweiss, I knew I wanted Thornton Distilling Company to be the first ever to distill it. 

Because this is an heirloom grain that was lost to the world for nearly a century, I really wanted to treat it in the most traditional way possible. To me this meant distilling off-grain (i.e. creating a lautered beer), double pot-distilling the spirit as single malt whiskey, and finally maturing it in used oak barrels.

Since Edelweiss is very undermodified, a single infusion mash doesn’t get the conversion we need, and since I didn’t want to dilute the flavor by including malt with higher diastatic power, we opted to use some exogenous enzymes to help it along. Some additions of alpha-amylase, glucoamylase and beta glucanase proved to be just the tools we needed, and even though the yields were a bit lower than our regular mashes, the spirit character more than makes up for it.

The flavor profile is exceptional! It’s incredibly fresh and floral tasting, with lots of bright, familiar notes of guava and honeydew, a floral blast of honeysuckle, and just a bit of lingering eucalyptus in the finish. As you get farther into the distillation, some cantaloupe, orange blossom and bread crust start coming through. Because of this fresh, expressive character, I opted to mature this whiskey in casks that previously held 100 percent rye whiskey, rather than new charred oak or used bourbon barrels. In the same way brewers that have been lucky enough to get their hands on Edelweiss opt to use it for clean, traditional lager styles, I want to see if I can give this fresh, fragrant grain a real outlet to shine in whiskey form without overshadowing those wonderful base flavors with too much barrel influence. Now we wait and see how it develops over the years!

We’re extremely proud to be the first distillery to turn this historic barley variety into whiskey, and it’s all thanks to our craft malting partner.

Why do you love smoked malt?

Smoked malt is amazing because it imparts different flavors found in nature to all that is already wonderful about malted barley! You can capture the singular flavor of different wood species, get extremely creative with it using herbs, flowers or fruits, or in the case of traditional single malt whiskey, showcase a single region though peat. 

I consider peat to be the purest expression of terroir in whiskey because it takes thousands of years to form, rather than a season or two, so it really reflects the unique ecosystem it inhabits. Peat is composed of partially decomposed plant matter, so it mirrors the flora that has existed in its region for millennia. To me that’s incredible, and it’s incredible to think that us whiskey-makers can actually capture that through flavor. Sadly, not every wonderful aspect of malt flavor gets carried over through distillation — the residual sugar left behind by caramel malts for example doesn’t make its way through the still. Phenolic compounds from smoked malt on the other hand, do, and allow distillers to create beautifully nuanced, unique and hyper-local whiskies. 

Our craft malt journey actually started with smoked malt. I had always wanted to create a whiskey with local peat, and it took several years to line up the right partners, and in early 2021 we began working with Sugar Creek Malt Co. to create our Illinois Peated single malt whiskey, made with hand-harvested peat from Illinois bogs. We loved Sugar Creek’s commitment to sourcing grain from other local family farms and hands-on, no-corners-cut approach to malting that mirrored our own distilling ethos. That’s an approach I never saw from the large grain suppliers, and it made them the perfect partner to custom-smoke malt for us using our Illinois peat, and makes them the perfect partner now as our primary grain supplier. 

Why is investing in craft malt important to you?

The craft malt sector has so much to give, and without it, there’s no way brewers and distillers could make all the exciting beers and whiskies we do. Supporting craft malt also means working with and supporting local businesses and farms, and the families and communities that run them. 

Additionally, only the craft malt sector has the flexibility and interest to be a partner in some of the projects that we, a small craft distillery that strives to use traditional production methods to make interesting, novel single malt whiskies, want to do. There’s no way we were going to get a large global malt company to custom-smoke malt using local ingredients for us, particularly at the volume and cadence we’re looking for as a small brand.

Craft maltsters understand the needs of small independent craft producers better than just about anyone in my experience, and also share our passion for local agriculture and traditional production methods, and get excited about the exact same projects that we do.