Kings County Distillery
Growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, Kings County Distillery co-founder Colin Spoelman was familiar with the local bootleggers who would buy a variety of commercial alcohol in Virginia to resell to residents of the dry Harlan county.
Colin moved to New York City in 2001 after graduating from Yale. When his friends in New York expressed an interest in trying moonshine, Colin procured a bottle from one of those bootleggers on a trip home.
"We drank very little of it, because it was really disgusting," Colin said. But it sparked his interest in moonshine.
Moonshine, Colin discovered, was "a cultural experience people wanted, and it wasn't available to them". He became curious about the technical process and bought a still off of the Internet. From there, he began making small runs of moonshine in his apartment.
Colin would have his friends test the results, and after a while, as his distilling skills improved, began to look into how to make it a business, instead of just "an apartment-based moonshine hobby".
He didn't set out to start a craft distillery, only to get a distilling license, with the idea that he could distill moonshine and age some of it into bourbon. Colin and the other Kings County co-founder, David Haskell, found a lawyer who could help them start a distilling business. At first, the lawyer expressed doubt that they could even make "bourbon" in New York; it is common misconception that all bourbon has to be made in Kentucky. Once he was assured that they could make bourbon, they were faced with figuring out how to start up a distillery in the city, something that hadn't been done in decades.
In the 1800s, there were many whiskey distilleries in Brooklyn, where there was a large Irish population. But after the Civil War, the distillers faced high government taxes, and violence and tension around the enforcement of these taxes culminated in the Whiskey War of 1869 and the killing of tax collector Clinton Gilbert.
It was serendipitous that it was in this historic Brooklyn neighborhood that Kings County Distillery eventually found its home.
In 2010, the newly licensed Kings County Distillery was operating out of a one-room studio in East Williamsburg, where Colin and David made moonshine and gave tours. The Brooklyn Navy Yard leasing office took one of these tours and thought they might have the perfect spot for the distillery.
The Navy moved out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1966, and the city began to develop the area. The building offered to Kings County Distillery was the old Paymaster's Office, where the soldiers came to pick up their paychecks. Built in 1899, the building also served as an officer's club for a time; what is now the barrel room is thought to have been a ballroom for the club.
A small amount of corn is grown in the yard beside the main building, though most of the corn used in the whiskey-making is grown upstate. A few rows of barley are planted beside the corn, and the yard is surrounded by trees and wild grasses. "You wouldn't guess that we're in downtown Brooklyn," Colin remarked.
King County makes both moonshine and bourbon, which is aged in small barrels for approximately two years, giving it the flavor of bourbons aged five to six years in larger barrels. The barrels are pulled for bottling only when the flavor is approved. The spirits are distilled twice in pot stills sourced from Scotland, by the same company that made the stills for Woodford Reserve. Both the moonshine and bourbon have won numerous awards. In October 2013, Colin and David released their book "Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey", further raising the profile of Kings County Distillery.
"All the books about how to make moonshine were goofy and stupid, or well-written but indecipherable." Colin said. The business parters wanted to provide a guide that would be less technical.
Kings County Distillery was the first distillery in New York since Prohibition when it opened in 2010. Since then, more craft distilleries have started up in the city, which Colin sees as a good thing.
"That's the fun of this. For a long time, if your name wasn't Beam, you weren't allowed to make bourbon." Colin said. He considers the growth of craft distilleries outside of Kentucky as a way to add diversity to the industry, much the way the growth of California vineyards democratized the wine industry.
Kings County offers tours of the distillery every Saturday from 1:00 pm until 3:45 pm, at their building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, entrance at the corner of Sands St. and Navy St. Kings County moonshine and bourbon are available in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Texas, and England.
299 Sands St,
Monday — Friday: 10:00 am — 10:00 pm
Saturday: 12:00 pm —10:00 pm
Sunday: 12:00pm — 8:00 pm