Bourbon bar owners have ‘Great Expectations’

Union County couple works to revitalize southern Illinois economy
Bourbon bar in Alto Pass has Great Expectations
Updated: Sep. 20, 2022 at 9:45 PM CDT
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ALTO PASS, Ill. (KFVS) - Wine put the tiny town of Alto Pass on the map decades ago when Alto Vineyards started what would eventually grow into the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Now, investors hope a different drink will start a new trend and help attract more business to Union County.

Union County couple Nick and Jerri Schaefer bought an historic old building on the tiny town’s Main Street that was in bad shape.

“The poor building was kind of on its way downhill and my wife had a dream about it and so we decided to make it happen,” said Nick Schaefer.

They rehabilitated the old structure and are set to open a brand-new bourbon bar called Havisham Bourbon, Brew and Spirits.

“Bourbon is not really a big thing yet in southern Illinois and we’ve been on the bourbon trail in Kentucky and loved it,” said Jerri Schaefer. “We thought, what a great asset that would be to this small town.”

A new bourbon bar is opening in southern Illinois.
A new bourbon bar is opening in southern Illinois.(KFVS)

The Schaefers hope their efforts also help revitalize the town’s Main Street and bring more visitors to the area.

“Some small towns in southern Illinois are just -- some of them are just kind of disintegrating and disappearing and people moving away and without things like this,” said Nick Shaefer. “It seems like we’ve lost a lot of our businesses around here. So, this just seemed like something that would help attract people to southern Illinois.”

Rehabbing a building built in the 1880s was not an easy task.

A new bourbon bar is opening in southern Illinois.
A new bourbon bar is opening in southern Illinois.(KFVS)

“It’s been quite a challenge,” said Nick Schaefer. “There’s actually water leaks and underground springs and a lot of things we uncovered.”

But this wasn’t Nick and Jerri Shaefer’s first time pushing back against the ravages of time and mother nature-caused decrepitude.

“Someone brought our attention to an old house here in the middle of town that was falling down - it had been damaged by tornadoes,” said Jerri Schaefer.

On leap day, 2012, the storm that would spawn the deadly EF4 tornado that destroyed an entire neighborhood in Harrisburg, Illinois first made a stop as an EF2 in Alto Pass. The high winds severely damaged an historic brick home in the center of town. Locals were sure it would meet the wrecking ball. Instead, it met the Schaefers.

“We fell in love with it.” said Jerri Schaefer.

“My wife had a vision and I really believed in her and I thought it would be good, but it’s worked out much better than we both expected,” Nick Schaefer said.

The completely renovated home and a smaller carriage house now serve as overnight vacation rental properties. They’ve done so well the Schaefers built a wedding pavilion next door that’s seen dozens of couples say their “I dos,” and brought thousands of new visitors to Alto Pass.

“Maybe 200 a weekend for the weddings,” said Jerri Schaefer. “A lot of them have never been to southern Illinois before, particularly Alto Pass. We feel there will be more coming and stepping into the bourbon bar and they’ll find other things to do, and they’ll need places to stay, so we hope this fits into the tourism and adds to what’s already here in southern Illinois.”

Alto Clay Works owner and Alto Pass village board member Steve Grimmer says he is optimistic that Havisham Bourbon, Brew and Spirits will funnel more traffic into the tiny town to his, and other businesses.

“We get a lot of people coming from out of town for the wedding venue, who’ve never seen the place before. It seems like every one of them says ‘Holy cow this is an amazing place,” said Grimmer. “Then they start looking at the hiking trails, and the wineries, and now the bourbon bar, and my pottery place and all the cool things around here. Then, they go back home and tell their friends, and their friends come here.”

While the new bar won’t be distilling its own bourbon in the near future - that is the eventual goal. In the meantime, the new business will work to build partnerships and clientele to hopefully keep the old building, and maybe southern Illinois bourbon – going for many more years to come.

“We hope that we are the first bourbon bar and people take from that and we have a bourbon trail right here in southern Illinois,” said Jerri Schaefer. “That is our hope.”

Havisham Bourbon, Brew and Spirits will hold its grand opening September 23 and 24, and then be open every Thursday and Friday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturdays from noon to 11 p.m.