Inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard's historic Paymaster Building, Colin Spoelman and David Haskell of Kings County Distillery -- the city's first distillers since prohibition -- craft impressive small batches of bourbon and un-aged moonshine. Now that the winter chill has us hankering for flasks full of the brown stuff, it's the ideal time to turn to The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey, which made its debut on Abrams Books this fall. Here, Spoelman gives us a glimpse inside the riveting tome.
Your book is a great primer on the country's longtime affinity for whiskey. What do you think sets it apart?
There is pleasure in going to a bookstore and looking at all the whiskey selections. A lot are of the Michael Jackson let-me-tell-you-about-whiskey-philosophy; a lot are terrible. Ours is fresh. There is the perception that distilling is a rural thing, but distilling's urban history is an untold story.
I love the illustrations and how extensive but succinct the information is.
Initially, it was going to be more of a glossy pretty recipe book than what we ended up delivering. We wanted it to have a design sensibility, but also be something serious. The emphasis is on content rather than being beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. We didn't want to include a whole lot of recipes because that is somewhat contrary to what the distillery aims to do: make good whiskey.
You grew up in Kentucky, in the Appalachian dry county of Harlan. I imagine there were plenty of illicit sips of moonshine, but what about the state's star export: bourbon?
I didn't have much experience with bourbon until I moved away and came back specifically looking for it. In high school, when people were finding illegally sourced alcohol -- there were these ridiculous bootleggers -- and then binge drinking, there weren't too many who knew about bourbon or had much to say about it. When I went to college everyone said, 'You are from Kentucky. You must know about bourbon.' But it was more like, 'Actually, I'm from Appalachia.'
What was the impetus behind launching Kings County Distillery?
In Kentucky, I got a whole gallon of moonshine that I brought back to New York and had available for consumption in my apartment. It was there for a while since no one drank more than a few sips at a time. That particular jug got me into urban moonshine. After a couple of years, my partner, David, stepped in. We realized there was a business here.
Was there a steep learning curve in making it?
Doing it for two years in my apartment, the trial and error led to key conclusions. For example, small-scale pot distilling was more advantageous, and determined the still we order from Scotland as an alternative to getting something less efficient but cheaper from Kentucky. Because I didn't have outside experience, and because I became invested and learned all the variables myself, it was a lonely project; there weren't other people I could talk to on the same level. There are more hobby distillers now, and people can speak more credibly to what makes whiskey good. Old guard critics can line up a bunch of bottles and pontificate, but I also think you need to dive in a little bit deeper to find out what makes a bottle distinctive.
Are there places in NYC you enjoy sipping whiskey?
I'm often trying other distillers' spirits at places like Char No. 4, the Flatiron Room, Noorman's Kil, Maysville and the Brandy Library. I think the only way to evaluate a whiskey is to drink it blind, sit down with friends and say, 'I like number 1 and number 6.' When I first had Maker's 46 I said disparaging things, but then I tried it in a lineup and I liked it without those preconceived notions.
What's Kings County Distillery's next goal?
At every point, it's how do we stay relevant? There are so many voices in craft distilling now that we don't make enough to service a sizeable constituency. A lot of people make gin while their whiskey is being aged. We just make whiskey. Our philosophy is that we do it in-house; we don't make it for anyone else. The only way to get our product is to buy it under our label. I think the challenge for us is to grow so people pay attention to the products we make while maintaining our values. I don't consider myself a business person--which may be what distinguishes us.