For a city that’s drenched in liquor, I was surprised to hear that New York hasn’t had a distillery since the Prohibition era. For shame, New York! Kings County Distillery
, out in Brooklyn’s historic Naval Yards, has been producing whiskey and moonshine since 2010. Anna and I visited the factory, formerly the paymaster’s office, where founders Colin Spoelman and David Haskell gave us a tour of their hobby garden (filled with corn, tobacco, and pumpkin plants), the distilling room, ageing room, the Boozeum, and my favorite part of the tour, the tasting room. Check out the photos and learn more about this super cool organic and eco-conscious business below.
Gillian Tozer: As a practicing architect, why did you create a distillery? How did David come into the fold?
Colin Spoelman: I was always fascinated with moonshine (and to a lesser extent, bourbon) as a way to connect to my home in Kentucky. There's a part of me that has always felt like a Southern expatriate living in NYC, so this was a way to connect to my Appalachian background. I went to college with David, who was always supportive of my moonshining habit. Only after I got the recipe and process down did he jump on board. We realized that no one had opened a distillery in NYC for 90 years and we would be the first.
GT: How many people work at the distillery and what do they do?
CS: There are about 12 people who are involved with the distillery, but most of them, including myself, have other jobs. That will probably change over time, as more whiskey matures—it's a long, slow business to be in and it takes time to turn it into a living. We have five guys who run the stills, making the whiskey, and then a few people who are focused on everything after the barrel: tasting, bottling, sales, etc. We also have a couple of farmers who are helping us grow corn and barley.
GT: What are the steps to making the bourbon?
CS: Boil 50 gallons of water. Add 100lbs of corn. Stir. Cool to 158 degrees. Add malted barley and cool to room temperature. Add yeast. Let stand 4.5 days. Strain out grain. Load liquid into still, which will boil the liquid, and condense the steam with a cold water jacket back down to a more concentrated, higher-proof liquid. Collect 6 gallons of low-wines. Distill again, this time checking for aroma, taste, and proof. Discard the first half-liter. Collect all whiskey between 80% and 67% alcohol by volume roughly, but you may deviate according to taste and preference. Save the rest for re-distillation. Dilute to 58% and put into barrels. Wait one year or more. Remove from barrel and enjoy.
GT: On average, how many bottles do you put out each week?
CS: Right now we are making about 500 bottles, but they are little baby bottles: half-pint flasks. So, it's not really that much.
GT: I loved the chocolate-flavored whiskey! What other flavors are you experimenting with?
CS: I've really been into jalapeño; strong or intense flavors also seem to work. Grapefruit, cinnamon—we'll see what we end up with.
GT: Dream flavor?
CS: Well, it's not a flavor, but we've always wanted to make rye whiskey. It's been tricky because the grain is hard to work with. Other distilleries use synthetic additives to make it easier; we want to avoid that, but it's not as easy as it sounds. One day we'll figure it out.
GT: We, of course, do not condone underage drinking, but as a kid, what liquor did you get into (or maybe in your case, make)?
CS: I tried to make my own wine when I was very young, mixing baker's yeast and Welch's Grape Juice. I do not recall it being a success. When I was growing up in Kentucky, it was a dry county, so you had to go to the bootlegger to get your liquor. I drank something we called "Mad Dog" or a cheap whiskey called Kessler. The joke was that it was smoother than whoever was drinking it.
GT: What step are you taking to ensure the distillery has organic and environmentally friendly practices?
CS: We recycle nearly all of the waste that is produced as a part of the process. There is a pig farmer who has a booth in Union Square and comes to pick up our spent grain as feed. We also compost whatever is left for our cornfield. But more importantly, we are located close to all our customers, so that gives us a lot of advantages and saves energy in distribution.
GT: Favorite whiskey cocktail and where do you get it?
CS: I usually drink my whiskey straight, to get a sense of the unadulterated spirit. I've been drinking my way through The Sun Also Rises
, which has some lost gems, though most of them involve brandy. A Manhattan is about as far as I'll stray from the straight spirit, and a mint julep is always great in the summer, but I recommend making it without the sugar.
GT: Best meal to drink the moonshine with?
CS: Moonshine goes with anything, but I think it's best consumed right from the bottle, when one wants to get a little rowdy.
GT: What’s in the near and distant future for Kings County Distillery?
CS: We are doing some literary readings in the fall, so opening up the distillery for events—having more of a public presence now that we're settled in. Next summer, we were hoping to get some pigs of our own to eat the grain but it seems like that is pretty complicated, so maybe we'll wait on that.
Photos by Anna Mackenzie