Ari Klafter: Distilling History at Thornton Distilling Co.
Thornton, Illinois is a city rich with history, and Ari Klafter distills it into every bottle from Thornton Distilling Co.
Ari Klafter calls himself a cinephile. Saying he’s “watched more movies than I sometimes care to admit.”
He also considers himself an explorer, telling us, “I also love exploring cuisines of the world, and I’ll try any food at least once. And usually twice.”
His professional title is Head Distiller. But, as he explains it, that does not encompass all he does at Thornton Distilling Co.
“Being a small craft distillery, I get to wear many different hats,” Ari tells us with a sense of pride.
“In addition to distilling and managing production, I support co-founder Andrew Howell with many of his sales and marketing efforts, I R&D new product ideas, work with our bartenders to dial in new cocktails in our tasting room, and curate our beer menu.”
That’s a lot of hats.
When it comes to distilling, Ari’s background is just as varied as his hat collection. And he says that affects how approaches distilling.
“I studied whiskey production over in Scotland, but got my first job stateside at a rum distillery whose head distiller in turn got her start at a brandy distillery that drew heavily from the cognac tradition.”
From obtaining his Master’s of Science in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland to working as the Assistant Distiller at Privateer Rum, each of Ari’s experiences have added to an arsenal of techniques that he pulls from when fashioning Thornton Distilling’s craft spirits.
An Illinois distillery bottling Thornton, Illinois’ legacy
“Thornton Distilling Co. decided to take our namesake from our hometown, which is near and dear to us,” Ari tells us.
The hometown is Thornton, Illinois. Which Ari explains is “home to the largest limestone quarry in the Western Hemisphere.” The quarry helped build the city of Chicago, and is in operation today. And as Ari tells it, “This massive limestone bed is at the heart of what we do.”
“All of the water we use in our distilling process comes from our limestone-filtered artesian well that was first dug in the mid-1800s.”
Thornton Distilling Co. has become accustomed to life near the quarry.
Ari smiles saying, “There are even regular quarry blasts that rumble throughout the distillery each week that we joke makes for a very unique maturation process by agitating our barrels.”
But their proximity to the quarry isn’t the only thing tying the Illinois distillery to the history of the greater Chicagoland area.
They occupy a building with a great deal of brewing and distilling history.
Both legal and clandestine.
“The distillery’s building is the oldest standing brewery in Illinois, and it continued operating during Prohibition as the site of one of the largest bootlegging operations in Chicagoland.”
The building housing Ari Klafter’s Illinois distillery is home to a vibrant alcohol history.
That is to say, the walls ooze alcohol legacy. A legacy Ari and Thornton Distilling Co. are actively continuing, “Our line of Dead Drop spirits are a reference to picking up where our predecessors left off.”
“The building was established as a brewery in 1857, and has continued as a series of breweries since then,” Ari teaches us, noting that includes the time through Prohibition when is was “disguised as a ‘soda-pop factory.’”
The building housed breweries for almost a century until the 1950s, when the final brewery closed its doors and the building fell into disrepair.
Then, in 2014 the renovations began. Three short years later, Ari and the Illinois distillery were off and running.
Pecan whiskey and a pair of personal favorites
“I love an expertly made Margarita. There’s really nothing else like it.”
But even that singular cocktail experience was Ari’s second choice when pressed to name his favorite cocktail.
He tells us his favorite libation with certainty, “The Aviation.”
“I actually designed our gin with the Aviation a little bit in mind,” he admits. The gin in question is Thornton’s Dead Drop Gin.
“The lavender and hibiscus add a subtle floral backdrop to the otherwise bright, citrusy flavor profile, making it really well suited for this cocktail.”
Even with the tailormade balance of flavors of Dead Drop Gin, Ari points elsewhere for the most unique ingredients used within the walls of Thornton Distilling Co.
The intricately crafted Dead Drop spirits from Thornton Distilling Co.
The winner of the most-unique-ingredient title goes to Thornton’s Dead Drop American Pecan Whiskey. The ingredient?
“Hand-cut pecan wood from one of the last remaining pecan farms in Illinois.”
Ari explains, “They have groves with native pecan trees that are over 125 years old, and we partner with them to responsibly source fresh wood staves.”
Those staves are cut and toasted by hand before being dropped into barrels of maturing whiskey to add layers of rich, nutty complexity, transforming the whiskey into Dead Drop American Pecan Whiskey.
But Ari’s favorite of Thornton Distilling’s spirits hasn’t even hit the shelf yet.
Ari points at “our single malt whisky, which I’ve been laying down over the past couple years with an eye to release in a few years from now.”
He elaborates, “Can’t say too much about it at this point, but it incorporates multiple specialty malts into the base recipe, and we’ve also been experimenting with different yeast strains and different selections of barrels for maturation.”
We’ll be patiently waiting for Thornton’s new release.
Thornton Distilling Co., a community effort
Ari speaks with passion when it comes to the community that surrounds the Illinois distillery.
“They have been enormously helpful and supportive.” He continues, “Our local community continues to support us, both as patrons and sources of encouragement.”
Ari credits the community with keeping the Thornton Distilling Co. going as they continue to lay barrels for future release.
But like his favorite cocktail and favorite spirit, Ari has a special shout-out within the Thornton community.
“The director of the town’s historical society.”
Ari explains, “The director has been instrumental in helping us find primary sources and photographs of the building’s history, and tell its story.”
One of the predecessors to Thornton Distilling Co., The Bielfeld Brewery.
That has been crucial for Thornton Distilling Co. Because as Ari notes, “Craft distilleries rely on the brick and mortar experience more than the large producers to not only generate sales, but also tell our unique story.”
And Thornton Distilling Co.’s story is a century-plus old tale well told.
An enduring single-malt legacy
Single malt is no longer just Scotland’s game.
“These days,” Ari tells us, “there are terrific single malts coming out of smaller distilleries in Taiwan, New Zealand, France, Israel, Canada, Japan, and the U.S.”
With eyes to the future, Ari speaks with confidence, “I’d like Thornton Distilling Co. to grow and be known as a world-class producer of single malt whiskey in a truly unique, historical setting.”
Until that day, Ari will continue to work with a smile on his face.
Ari Klafter has exciting products on the Illinois distillery’s horizons.
“I’m able to make products that people love and enjoy and are fascinated by,” Ari says with a well-earned sense of pride, “And also pay homage to an ancient craft and the countless, amazing distillers that came before me.”
“It’s incredible to me that I’m able to work in a field where I’m able to spend my time doing and learning about something I love, and also bring a smile to people’s faces, trite as that may sound.”
That doesn’t sound trite, Ari.
It sounds like you’re well on the path towards making history.