Soltis Family Spirits, a distillery opening this summer in a 19th century building in the south suburb of Thornton, was a long time coming. The building was once owned by Joe Soltis, a Prohibition-era gangster and a self-described “beer baron,” according to his 1947 obituary. On and off since then, his family’s tried to get it back.
Now they have. Steve Soltis, Joe’s great-grandson, has been restoring the building for the past three years and will reopen it as an 18,000-square-foot distillery that’ll start off producing pecan whiskey, gin, and spiced rum. Expect the space to open in July with tastings and tours; they'll be selling bottles to retailers as well.
Here, Soltis and his partner Andrew Howell tell the story.
You’re not the first Soltis in this building. What do you know about your great-grandfather?
Steve Soltis: I’ve never met him, but everybody in my family says I’m just like him—I walk like him, I talk like him, I’m big like him. I had a love/hate relationship with him. I knew he killed people, and I’m an artist, a more peaceful type, so I was a little embarrassed by it at some points in my life. I [heard stories] growing up. A lot of it is glorified, but actually I’m finding some of it was true, now that I’m reading about him. They called him “Polack Joe,” but he was from Budapest. He was known as a beer guy. He had saloons all over the place.
Andrew Howell: Back then, a lot of the local saloons would brew their own beer. Then Prohibition came along and that hurt Joe’s livelihood so he transitioned to [being a bootlegger] to bring money in.
What brought him to Thornton?
A.H.: He prospected around here because there was a brewery and a great source of water. He approached the owner [of the building] and said essentially, "I want to go into business with you," and sort of strong-armed him. The guy said no and then disappeared four days later, presumably dead. And then Joe took the building over.
Do you think he was a play-by-the-rules guy before Prohibition?
S.S.: Ehhh… I don’t know about that. He was a boxer. He broke horses for the U.S. Cavalry in World War I. He became really good friends with the Menominee Indians. He’s an interesting guy, a Renaissance man. He loved fine things and art and nice rugs, and he was well read. In the newspaper, they make him out like a buffoon. But the whole downstairs of his Beverly house was a library with the sliding ladders and the whole nine yards. He was a different kind of gangster.
There’s one story, in Barker Lake [where Soltis owned a home], my dad’s swimming with Joe and he’s got his bathing suit on and he’s got all these holes in him, you know. And my dad points and says, "What are those?" And he says, "Oh, those are mosquito bites." But really, he’d gotten shot nine times.
That’s the same part of Wisconsin frequented by another Chicago gangster: Al Capone. What was their relationship like?
S.S.: Capone’s place was just a few miles down the road. They were in business together for sure. Joe didn’t work for Capone though. He was his own satellite gang.
A.H.: The Newberry Library has a giant gangster map from the 1920s. There’s Capone’s territory to the north, and then the Soltis territory to the south. So he was one of the only people, when Al Capone was at his prime, who had an independent territory.
His name’s often misspelled as Saltis in newspaper articles from back then. What’s the deal?
A.H.: Joe didn’t like all the publicity. There’s a scene in Boardwalk Empire, which was based on a real historic event, where Capone goes into a press office and says, "It’s Capone with an e," and beats the shit out of this guy because they misspelled his name. Capone wanted the attention, whereas Joe would spell his name differently in the press because he was trying to avoid the scrutiny.
OK—fast forward to today: Why did you decide to reenter the family business?
S.S.: I got seriously hurt building a sculpture in northern California. I went to this farm a friend of mine owned to heal and keep doing my art, and I found this old book. There was a section in there strictly on making whiskey. I’ve always been interested in making everything—I make art, I cook, I make cheese, so I just wanted to make it. That was five or six years ago. We made the first still. It was a trial-and-error thing.
A.H.: We initially wanted to do it down in New Orleans, but with the family history we figured we should do it up here. Steve knew about this building. It’s been vacant for 10 years. [Jake Weiss, the building owner], is our fourth business partner. [The third is distiller Micah Kibodeaux.]
Any clashes within the family since you’re making liquor and not beer?
S.S.: I just wasn’t that interested in beer. It doesn’t move me like whiskey. Joe made whiskey, too, though he was known for beer. The “beer baron” has a ring to it, but the “whiskey baron,” not as much.