While researching the book that was published last year as A Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey, Kings County Distillery founder Colin Spoelman found himself delving into the colorful history of NYC distilling. Digging deeper, he found the bones of truth beneath embellished tales of dastardly Kentucky bootleggers, as well as the real bones of actual distillers: Greenwood cemetery, it turns out, was founded by the son of Hezekiah Pierrepont—a big man in 19th century Brooklyn’s thriving distillery scene who is buried in the cemetery—and many expired distillers lie beneath the manicured lawns.
“By excavating this to some extent forgotten history, I got interested in the broad history of whiskey making in the United States and realized that there were a lot of stories that were as yet untold,” Spoelman says. He and co-founder David Haskell (a New York magazine editor) promptly submitted a proposal for Dead Distillers, which promises to tell “the stories of the outlaws, entrepreneurs, and occasional U.S. presidents who together invented the quintessential American spirit.” The book has been picked up by Abrams, and has a tentative release date of Fall 2015 or Spring 2016.
One of Greenwood’s worn tombstones bears the name “Gilbert”—a victim of an episode in NYC history known as “The Whiskey Wars.” In the 1700s and 1800s, plenty of distilleries functioned within the city, enjoying a golden age of hooch production. After the civil war, a punishing alcohol tax drove distillers—many of them Irish immigrants—underground, precipitating a crackdown on illegal stills. These raids often became violent, and during one particular instance in 1872, Mr Gilbert—a revenue agent—was shot and killed by a group of Brooklyn distillers. Spoelman came across this story soon after he began operating his own illegal still out of his apartment in East Williamsburg, and was immediately hooked. “It just started to dawn on me that there were probably a lot of stories like that,” he says.
Such instances of violence are, Spoelman surmises, one of the reasons why craft distilling was so slow to return to the city. In the 19th century, real estate prices and shifts in modes of production edged out many industrial jobs. Then came the devastating effect of the Prohibition. “In New York City, [the distilling industry] never really returned,” says Spoelman, “and I would say that had a lot to do with the reputation distillers had. Distilleries back then were much more dangerous, and often violent. There was still that lingering feeling that distillers were sort of outlaws.”
So when Kings County opened in April 2010, it was the city’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. In 2002, a prospective distillery owner had lobbied Albany to reduce the exorbitant licensing fees (at that point sitting at a prohibitive $13,000 a year). The result was the creation of a much cheaper “craft distillery” license. In 2009, while Spoelman and Haskell were planning their business, these fees were reduced further with the introduction of the “farm distillery” license (just $128 a year). And so the foundations for an award-winning distillery fell into place.
Kings County introduced itself with a sleekly packaged moonshine (or “white whiskey”: un-aged corn whiskey distilled to a low proof from a fermented grain mash) along with a barrel-aged bourbon. The moonshine Spoelman attributes to his youth in coalmining Appalachian Kentucky, where this spirit was readily available. Once in New York, he began to concoct moonshine in his apartment. At that stage, almost unthinkably now, no craft spirits were being made in the city—most of the whiskeys on the market were produced using similar methods in just 13 stills in Kentucky and Tennessee. “There was a sense that people didn’t know what a micro-distiller was,” recalls Spoelman in wonder.
Since Kings County began production, the city’s distillery scene has progressed in leaps and bounds. Now, a dozen other distilleries operate in Brooklyn, and two in the Bronx. Kings County has grown with the industry: two years into production, they moved to their current location in the Navy Yards. Earlier this year they expanded again, installing bigger equipment. Despite that, the process, recipes and ingredients have remained essentially the same. “Among the distilleries, because we’re focused on whiskey, and because of my own personal interest in history, I think we have a slightly more traditional approach,” says Spoelman. The equipment and the scale on which they produce mean their business unintentionally mimics the conditions seen in distilleries pre-industry consolidation.
That doesn’t mean Kings County avoids innovation. As the distillery ages, so of course will its whiskeys—resulting in increased variety and often a greater depth of flavor. They’ve got a new scotch-style whiskey aging in barrels as we speak. And, perhaps most excitingly, they recently released a chocolate whiskey. “History has come up with all sorts of different ways to tame alcohol,” says Spoelman, citing barrel-aging and flavor-infusing. Moonshine is particularly difficult to tame, he says, because of its naturally strong flavor. While distilling in his apartment, Spoelman threw wood-chips into the mix to mimic the barrel-aging process. Now those wood-chips are replaced with cocoa bean husks (by-products of the Mast Brothers chocolate-making process).
“We’re able to extract different flavors than a chocolatier because a chocolatier is trying to find flavors that are water soluble or fat soluble, whereas we can get flavors that are alcohol soluble,” explains Spoelman. The result is a smooth, darkly chocolate-y whiskey, that Spoelman says can be enjoyed straight or in a cocktail.
This, Spoelman thinks, is where the city’s young craft distilleries can fill a niche in the market: making younger whiskeys in smaller quantities allows them to be “a little more irreverent because we’re adapting more quickly to what people are interested in.” This, in turn, allows them to expand what people think about when they think about whiskey, and to make the classic American spirit accessible to a broader range of people. After years of homogeneity, the burgeoning creative, small-batch scene means “there’s just a lot of options out there—including things that would have previously been perceived as heresy, like chocolate whiskey.”
And what of Brooklyn’s roguish dead distillers? Would they be rolling in their Greenwood graves at the thought of such newfangled tipples? “Maybe. But who knows?” says Spoelman hopefully. “Maybe they would’ve appreciated the creativity and the cheekiness of it.” Maybe so. After all, a chocolate mint julep seems a hard offer to turn down.
Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn Navy Yard, 63 Flushing Ave, Bldg 121, Brooklyn. Open for tours on Saturdays, 2:30pm-5:30pm ($8, no reservation required).
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct an error. Greenwood Cemetery was founded by the son of Hezekiah Pierrepont, not Hezekiah himself.