There’s a big project happening in the little community of Thornton, Illinois, that is drawing interest on many levels.
An 1850s structure that sits on Thorn Creek is in the process of a renovation that has been three years in the making. In the end, it will be focused on alcohol production and consumption, as it has been in its past — before, after, and perhaps most significantly, during Prohibition.
Some are anticipating its opening of Soltis Family Spirits to see this architectural jewel restored to the splendor of the 19th century era. Others are interested in the overall history of the building and its use as a brewery and bar for much of its existence.
Some are drawn by the lure of small-batch craft spirits in this beverage trend following the popularity of microbreweries. Interest is also there because of the gangster link of the years of Prohibition. And while Al Capone’s name is often mentioned in connection with the former brewery, it was Joe Soltis who was the bootlegger who kept the bottling going there in the 1920s and earned himself the titles of "Beer Baron" of the South Side and "Public Enemy No. 9."
A Chicago Gangster Map from 1931, with current prints available by the Newberry Library, shows the Southwest Side of Chicago labeled as Soltis Territory, located just to the south of Capone Territory. It seems that the two had a mutual understanding of the separate territories and worked independently rather than collaboratively.
The transformation of what was for a time a vacant and presumed destined-to-crumble building has become an intense labor of love for a trio that got to be friends while living in Louisiana. Steve Soltis, Andrew Howell and Micah Kibodeaux had discussed opening a distillery together, and when Soltis learned that the former brewery that his great-grandfather had owned during the 1920s was available, the three relocated to Thornton.
They then got to work on getting the building back in operation via a new Soltis generation. Strategically built near an excellent water source, the building was constructed in 1857 as the residence of John Bielfeldt and the connecting Bielfeldt Brewing Co.
The combined sweat and muscle of the three men has been used for most of physical labor of the building renovations, but each has his own individual set of skills and niche in the process.
Soltis, besides offering the genealogical connection, is the artist with much of the design, not on blueprints, but etched in his mind. He's painted an image of his great-grandfather, Joe Soltis, that will hang in the tasting room.
Howell is the business manager and has taken on the role of historian, digging up old Soltis newspaper clippings and photos in antique shops. He’s piecing together the storied past of the prominent landmark and Joe Soltis’ journey from honest saloon owner to illegal bootlegger/gangster and his days on the lam. The artifacts, documents and photographs will be on exhibit in the distillery.
“The distillery will be a Prohibition-era museum,” Howell said. “Essentially what we want it to do is show Joe’s family history from being an immigrant to a gangster, the brewery’s history, the Prohibition-era and the gangster facet and we’ll have artifacts to reflect each of those.”
Kibodeaux is the consummate cajun who will serve as the head distiller and his handiwork soon will be sipped by patrons in the form of whiskey, rum and gin. Anticipating an early summer opening of the tasting room, Howell said the restaurant should follow about a year later as they continue the painstaking process of the restoration in phases.
When completed, the three levels will be fully converted into a distilling area, bottling room, multilevel restaurant, tasting room, retail area, museum, private event spaces and two patios with outdoor seating. The original cavern has an updated well and the artesian spring will provide a water source for the distilling process. The building’s original water tower sits on the property in the shadow of the community's modern water tower.
The restaurant plans are still in the works, but the trio expects to have seating for 200 or more. An existing pizza oven in the building will be used to make stone-fired pizza from Soltis' secret recipe.
Throughout the process, Soltis and his partners have been dedicated to ensuring that they’re retaining as much of the building as possible. The original staircase in the residence will be restored. When part of the tunnel to the well was demolished during construction of an adjacent senior housing building, Soltis and his partners salvaged that limestone and reused it for the bar facade and base for the Scottish-style pot still that is the final step for the double-distilled spirits.
The design of the massive limestone-covered bar highlights a significant part of the property — the well — while also paying homage to the roots of the village and the hardworking quarrymen who likely drank a pint or two at that very spot. The 160-year-old brick building has changed ownership many times over the years and housed six documented breweries, a soda bottler (a front for a bootleg brewery and distillery during Prohibition) and at least one restaurant.
Once they’re up and running, the business partners expect the excitement of the new venture to bring in aficionados of quality-crafted spirits or those interested in the unique building, but the gangster lore may be as big an attraction as the food and drink.