istilling used to be very common in New York back in the 1700s, but it all ended with the notorious Prohibition Act in 1919, which made it illegal to produce, transport, buy or sell alcohol in the United States.
It took almost a century to restore the city’s distilling culture, but today it is on the rise again, especially after the New York State law enabled the operation of small batch distilleries through a simple and inexpensive licensing procedure in 2002.
If you are looking for local distilleries in New York City, then Brooklyn is the place to go
. And the very first one you should explore is Kings County, the oldest post-Prohibition whisky distillery, Kings County, originally founded in Williamsburg in 2010
and currently housed inside the 118-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Kings County specializes in moonshine (unaged whiskey) and bourbons, all made with locally sourced organic ingredients.
We spoke to Colin Spoelman, Master Distiller and co-founder (with David Haskell) of the distillery.
Can you tell us about the historical meaning of the word "moonshine" and how it connects with what you do?
CS: Moonshine emerged from countries that charged distillers a steep excise tax. If you could distill without being noticed by the government, you could avoid paying this tax, and therefore sell your product cheaper and make more money. So many distilled by the light of the moon, to avoid revenue officers. The word can mean any illegally made whiskey, but most often refers to unaged whiskey, which has been a little unfairly culturally maligned. So our distillery was, to some degree, founded on the idea that if you make good unaged whiskey, anything aged from it will be just as good or better.
Which aspects of your production process contribute to making your business a sustainable one?
: We use organic corn and heirloom rye grown in New York state
. We compost our waste. But maybe the most important thing is being near our customers, cutting down on transportation costs. 15% of what we manufacture gets sold onsite, and another 65% is sold in New York City
. All that beings said, whiskey being a very old manufacturing process, is actually already a reasonably sustainable one. We don't use many ingredients—in most cases just corn, barley, yeast, water, barrels. We even use NYC tap water
, which is some of the best drinking water in the world.
Is there a secret ingredient that makes your whiskey and bourbon unique?
CS: The "secret ingredient" is both our stills and the way we run them. I have long believed, a position shared by most international distillers, that pot stills make better, smoother whiskey.
Beyond that, we aren't bound to a distilling tradition in the same way that Kentucky, Tennessee, Ireland, or Scotland distillers are. So we can make unusual whiskeys: oatmeal whiskey, peated bourbon, chocolate whiskey, and American single malt are just a few examples of the whiskeys that we make that are crossing boundaries or expanding the scope of what people think about when they think American whiskey.
What's the best way to taste whiskey?
CS: I don't get too fussy about how tasting whiskey, but I do think blind tasting, where you have a few whiskeys and you taste them without context, can be a good way to train your palate. But most occasions call for a whiskey neat, or with an ice cube in summer. As for cocktails, we do a lot of seasonal moonshines that are most suited to making cocktails. Unaged whiskey is more like silver tequila or white rum than aged whiskey, so we do margaritas with strawberry ginger moonshine, bloody marys with grapefruit jalapeño moonshine, and daiquiris with our regular moonshine. But we make great mint juleps, manhattans, and old fashioneds too.