“People are often expecting something more intense from the moonshine,” said Kings County Distillery co-owner Colin Spoelman as he passed out samples of the signature clear, unaged white corn whiskey made at his Brooklyn-based micro-distillery. The tasting took place at the end of a recent tour of the distillery’s new space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Indeed, the visitors found the 80-proof liquor to be sweeter and more drinkable than what they expected from moonshine, a spirit whose name harkens back to illegal backwoods concoctions.
Kings County Distillery is the New York City’s oldest continuously running distillery—an odd claim to fame since it has only been around since 2010. It was founded by Spoelman and David Haskell, friends and former college roommates who became the city’s first distillers to take advantage of recent state laws that lifted Prohibition-era regulations, making it easier for small distilleries to obtain licenses. In July, the distillery, which moved into its new space three months earlier, began hosting informal Saturday afternoon tours of its facilities and tastings of its organic corn-based moonshine and bourbon.
A recent tour led by Spoelman began at the steps of the Paymaster Building, which was once where naval officers picked up their paychecks. Spoelman provided some history about New York City’s turbulent spirit-making past such as the Brooklyn Whiskey Wars, and talked about the roots of his own love of liquor. Spoelman became acquainted with real moonshine, the illegally produced corn whiskey made primarily in Appalachia and the Southern part of the country, while growing up in Kentucky in one of the country’s remaining dry counties.
He began experimenting with making his own moonshine after realizing how few New Yorkers had ever tried it, using crude systems on his porch and kitchen countertop. In 2009, after a few years refining the recipe, Spoelman and Haskell decided to turn distilling into a business. For about two years, they distilled in a small studio space in East Williamsburg. In 2011, the city, seeking new tenants for the Navy Yard, invited the Kings County Distillery to take over the Paymaster Building, which had recently been renovated.
Inside the distilling room, which takes up most of the ground floor, Spoelman demonstrated how corn sourced from upstate New York is combined with boiling water, a Scottish strain of barley and yeast in large 100-gallon tanks. It is left to sit for four and a half days, during which it emits a distinctive bread-like smell. When the mixture—called “the mash”—is about 6% alcohol, the liquid is then poured into stills (large kettles that warm to isolate the alcohol). The mash is distilled twice, yielding a clear product that is 67-80% alcohol, which is later diluted to about 40%.
Upstairs, around 300 five-gallon charred oak barrels of whiskey are in the process of aging, which takes about 14 months. For practical reasons, Kings County Distillery is switching to larger barrels in the near future—but Spoelman took a moment to defend small-barrel distilling to critics who deem it inferior to the large-barrel method because of its shorter aging time. “Age should not be the only metric,” he said. “You should think about what kind of ingredients they’re using and how it’s being distilled. I think we make the best white spirit in the country, so the fact that our moonshine is very good lessens the burden on aging.”
In addition to standard moonshine and bourbon, patrons sampled Kings County’s chocolate “flavored” whiskey, which was released in February 2012. The popular product is flavored with ground-up cacoa husks from Mast Brothers Chocolate. The result is an intense dark and not-at-all-sweet cocoa-infused spirit.
Spoelman recommends drinking the moonshine straight or with some ice. “I don’t really drink a whole lot of cocktails,” he admitted, “so I’ll leave it to other people to kind of figure that out on their own.”
Kings County Distillery employs eight people at the moment, and the owners both have full time jobs—Spoelman at an architecture firm and Haskell at New York Magazine—though they hope to create full-time positions for themselves in the future. Their bourbon and moonshine can be purchased from their headquarters or at dozens of liquor stores and bars in NYC and New York state listed on their website.
Images by Maggie Roush Mead