“Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.” — Walker Percy
By Jacque Lynn Schiller
There are few things more iconically American than bourbon, so I was fairly stunned to learn that the first whiskey distillery opened up in NYC (Brooklyn, to be exact) just nine months ago. If the phone call I received on New Year’s Eve from my brother – after he had enjoyed a nip of the Kings County moonshine I’d secreted to him over the holidays – is any indication, this stuff is pleasantly potent. Colin Spoelman and David Haskell are the distillers responsible for the clear, unadorned bottles of white lightning.
I visited the sweet smelling operation in Williamsburg, where Colin schooled me on the difference between moonshine and bourbon, the value of bootleggers, and where to find a proof thermometer. Who knew?
Let’s start at the beginning – can you give us a Kings County Distillery history lesson?
Kings County Distillery, even though it is the oldest whiskey distillery in New York City, is only 9 months old. I grew up in a dry county in Kentucky and was interested in moonshine, which was relatively common there. After a recent visit, I brought some back to New York and it was surprisingly popular. It seemed like something I wanted to learn how to make myself, although try to do it in the city and do it legally.
After doing some research, my partner and discovered that there hadn’t been a distillery making spirits in the city since prohibition, and recent laws had made getting a license easier. It still took a little over a year to get licensed and cleared to sell, but we have been running now since April of 2010.
And the name?
Unless you vote or pay taxes in Brooklyn, most people probably don’t know that Brooklyn is Kings County. It seemed like a good name that referenced where we were located without being too overt.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I lived in Manhattan for six years, but my business partner encouraged me to move to Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since.
And to the Distillery?
The distillery is in East Williamsburg, in the industrial neighborhood near the English Kills where Williamsburg meets Bushwick. Since the distillery is really only one room, we’re in a building with recording studios, graphic designers, a cooking magazine, photographers, a bookbindery, and a small jerky company. It’s the perfect location for us right now, although starting a distillery on the second floor wasn’t the smartest decision we ever made. The neighborhood is great,
Do you homebrew?
I’ve never tried making my own beer, which is similar in process to making whiskey (our moonshine is essentially a distilled corn beer). In a lot of ways, whiskey is more forgiving, since it’s purified through distillation and the fermentation isn’t nearly as temperamental.
Anyone in particular influence your interest in distilling?
Growing up in Kentucky, we used to occasionally buy liquor from bootleggers. They weren’t necessarily moonshiners, just people who bought beer and whiskey and Virginia and resold it at a high markup. They didn’t card!
What’s the best part about your job?
There’s a spirit of creativity that changes the way I look at the process. Since home distilling is illegal, there are few resources, and we’ve had to learn everything through books and trial and error. I like the challenge of that, but it also allows us to take all the common assumptions and question them: why and how does whiskey get better with age? Why is copper the best metal for a still? The science that’s available is either sketchy or difficult to parse. I like that there’s no guidebooks.
What is moonshine exactly and is bourbon “bourbon” even when it’s made in NYC?
Moonshine can mean any number of things, but generally it refers to an unaged corn whiskey, which is what we are making. There are some purists who say that it has to come from an unlicensed still, but it’s not like legality removes flavor or characteristics. What we are making and selling is essentially the same as a high-quality homemade clear corn whiskey.
Incidentally, moonshine is bourbon before it’s been put into barrels, and so our bourbon is more or less the same recipe, just instead of putting it into bottles, we put it into barrels for six months. There are no geographical requirements for bourbon as there are for Scotch or Champagne, aside from being made in the U.S. Ours is legally bourbon, although we can’t call it “straight bourbon” which requires two years of aging.
Are there any special products or introductions we can look forward to in 2011?
Our bourbon will be available in stores in March. Aside from that, we have a few things planned, but it’s too early to elaborate on any specifics.
We wanted to mention that some lucky Union Square pigs receive your leftovers.
This is the pig farm that gets our spent mash (here).
It’s just the solids that are left over when we squeeze out the liquid wort. It’s leftover corn and barley that’s high in fiber. I guess the pigs like it, because they keep picking it up.
Finally, (after admiring KC’s) where do you find a proof thermometer?
You can get them at the Brooklyn Kitchen or online at any homebrew store. Brewhaus.com has a good selection or you can go for a laboratory grade option from HB Instruments.
Be sure to check out the Kings County Distillery website for more info. You can also grab a flask of your very own moonshine at one of these joints:
Williamsburg: UVA Wines and Spirits
Williamsburg: Trojanowski Wine and Spirits
Williamsburg: Pier Wines
Williamsburg: BQE Wine & Liquors
Williamsburg: The Natural Wine Company
South Williamsburg: DOC Wine Shop
Bushwick: Big Tree Bottles
Fort Greene: Thirst Wine Merchants
Fort Greene: The Greene Grape
Red Hook: Dry Dock Wine + Spirits
Carroll Gardens: Smith & Vine
Brooklyn Heights: Heights Chateau
Boerum Hill: Donna Da Vine
Boerum Hill: Sterling Wine & Liquor
Cobble Hill: Scotto’s Wine Cellar
Dumbo: Blanc & Rouge
Windsor Terrace: Juice Box Wine & Spirits
Park Slope: Borisal Liquor & Wine / DrinkUpNY
Park Slope: Red, White, and Bubbly
Park Slope: Prospect Wine Shop
Prospect Heights: Fermented Grapes
Atlantic Avenue: Atlantic Cellars
Downtown: Astor Wines & Spirits
Midtown: Park Avenue Liquor Shop
Financial District: Pasanella & Son Vintners
Financial District: The Greene Grape
Gramercy: Vino Fine Wine & Spirits
Murray Hill: Winfield Flynn
Bowery: Bowery & Vine