If you were a fan of the band Pool of Frogs a few years back you might have had a little taste of bassist Brenton Engel’s Illinois Joy. At the time, Engel was living on a farm downstate near Springfield and commuting up to Chicago once a week for practice and classes at Columbia College. “We were whiskey-drinking hippies,” he says. “We thought to save money we could start making our own and learn about the possibility of making fuel for motors and engines.”
He got hold of an old corn-sugar recipe, rigged up a still on the farm, and to impart barrel flavor began steeping the small batches he ran off with wood chips. Before long he had aged whiskey. And not long after that he was running moonshine into Chicago, and passing the bottle into crowds when he played out.
“We’d take bottles to shows and people would start e-mailing me wanting to buy them. I was getting orders for multiple gallons at a time,” Engel says. He later moved to town and got a job behind the bar at Lula, where he met his girlfriend, Miriam Matasar, then the general manager. His whiskey remained popular: bottles were passed among chefs around town, and a certain boutique even placed labeled jars discreetly on its shelves for sale to the public.