The thing about walking into the Navy Yard building that houses small-batch whiskey producer Kings County Distillery is that it looks exactly like what you’d imagine: old brick walls and a marker over the front door that commemorates the date when the building was completed, set amid a cluster of other ancient, nondescript brick buildings. It didn’t hurt that I walked to this little corner of Brooklyn on an overcast day that seemed to mark the true beginning of autumn, a full month late.
When you actually get into the distillery itself, if you can concentrate on anything besides the heavenly smell, you notice that much like the bottles that the whiskey is sold in, the layout of the place is sparse, clean, and classic. There’s old wood shelving that displays collections of glass bottles, a Graham Greene book wedged against some of the empty ones, and photos accompanied by short histories propped up on the shelves that tell the fascinating tales of Brooklyn’s distillation history.
Colin Spoelman, the company’s master distiller, is also hard to miss when you walk in. His messy blonde hair and sleepy blue eyes make him look like exactly the kind of Brooklynite whose life’s work might be to create something that would get you drunk, or at least a guy who would have a good time sharing an alcoholic beverage with you. (I hate to stereotype, as I myself live a few minutes down the road from where Spoelman creates his concoctions, but since there is this national fascination with young people living and creating everything from T-shirts to salsa and slapping “Brooklyn” on it, I figure it should be mentioned that Spoelman fits the image.)
But the difference between Spoelman and the dozens of small businesses that hitch their product to the trendy “artisan” label is that Spoelman, who grew up in the American capitol of whiskey, Kentucky, started the distillery as a way to combat the homesickness brought on by moving to New York. He also admits that “moonshining, by definition, is a business.” He knows some people distill as a hobby, but says that “profit was, not in a cynical way, always in the back of my mind.” This isn’t some “my friends and I were messing around in our small Bushwick kitchen and decided to start a small-batch pasta sauce company even though none of us are Italian”-type stories. Instead, Kings County Distillery espouses pragmatic ambitions that are as genuine (and sometimes illegal at the outset) as you can find.
Kings County Distillery now lays claim to being the oldest distillery in the area, even though it hasn’t been around for a very long time at all. Since no licenses had been handed out in New York between Prohibition and 2010, Spoelman’s venture counts as the senior to the other small-batch distilleries popping up.
Now Spoelman has teamed with New York magazine’s David Haskell to put together The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining. Out this week, the book is not only the easiest guide to making hooch out of your own house, but also, more interestingly, tells the long and fascinating history of whiskey production in Brooklyn, juxtaposes it with a concise explanation of the different types of whiskey, and also breaks down the handful of American distilleries that produce most of the whiskeys you see on your local liquor store shelves. The book is a must-have for both novices and the kind of fans whose home bars are lined with everything from expensive Blanton’s to those elusive bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle that people literally pull off big-time heists to get.
Spoelman doesn’t come off as some whiskey guru or cheerleader for what he sees as an upcoming American fascination with craft liquor, not unlike the craft beer mania that has been sweeping the country for some time now. He still works part-time at an architecture firm, but it’s obvious as he explains the process to me that being a Kentucky boy making whiskey in Brooklyn is all he wants to do. Spoelman tells me about his terrible early batches, that he used malt liquor and jugs of Carlo Rossi wine at first, instead of spending more time and money getting used to the process. He explains that, in time, no matter who you are, you can end up making whiskey that is good enough to charge $40 for; all you need is patience to turn those jugs of moonshine into something great.