They’ve only been brewing for three years, but Colin Spoelman and David Haskell have the distinction of operating New York City’s oldest whiskey distillery, and the city’s first since prohibition.
Located in the 113-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kings County Distillery was founded shortly after New York state created a Farm Distillery License in 2010, allowing the duo to (legally) produce their signature bourbon and moonshine whiskeys on a large scale.
They may not be mountain outlaws, but Spoelman, from Kentucky, and Haskell, from North Carolina—are dedicated to keeping the spirit true to their roots.
“I always kind of think that the more we can keep it like what a person could have been doing in the hills of Kentucky, then we’re probably doing it right,” says Spoelman. “The minute you rely on too much machinery and too many people you start to get away from that.”
Here, we go inside the Kings County Distillery and learn about the craft of whiskey production.
Photography by Robert Bredvad
They've only been brewing for three years, but Colin Spoelman (pictured) and David Haskell have the distinction of operating New York's oldest distillery, and the first to open since prohibition. Located in the 113-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, their shared undertaking, Kings County Distillery, was founded shortly after the state created a Farm Distillery License in 2010, allowing the duo to (legally) produce their signature bourbon and moonshine whiskeys on a large scale.
Spoelman, a Harlan, Kentucky native, and Haskell, who hails from North Carolina, began tinkering with small-batch brews out of their shared New York apartment before deciding their spirits were ready for a bigger audience. "It was around the Christmas season and we were tasting some lightly-aged stuff," Spoelman explains. "When people whose palettes I trusted thought it beat out the commercial whiskeys, that's when we decided to pursue a license."
"We realized that New York state law had just changed to allow for small
distilleries, and nobody had yet opened a distillery in New York City...It seemed like the perfect opportunity," says Spoelman. Here, a view of the smaller barrels the distillery uses for production.
For two years, Spoelman and Haskell worked out of a 325-square-foot space on Meadow Street in East Williamsburg. "When we realized this [business] was going to be successful, it was obvious we needed way more space," Spoelman explains.
Serendipitously, the city was courting new tenants for a 7,000 square foot building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. "We thought, 'OK, maybe it's a little remote, kind of far from transit.' But they were really persistent, and eventually I thought, 'If I don't go check this out I may miss my one reason to ever be in the Navy Yards.' By April of 2011—intent on planting a grain garden next door—they moved in.
Kings County's continued success can be attributed, in
large part, to a commitment to making top-notch spirits from high
quality ingredients. "The thing that really distinguishes us from
commercial whiskey is that we're using organic ingredients, and we spend
a lot of time thinking about ingredients," Spoelman explains. "As far
as the distillation goes, we're using much smaller stills and a much
more traditional type of still than what's used in commercial
distilleries—a pot still, not a column still."
Unlike large-scale distillers, Spoelman and Haskell work with low-yield stills. "From 100 gallons of mash we only get about five gallons of whiskey—which is a very inefficient low yield," says Spoelman. "But that's part of the process. It's the same thing as anything else—you're always making a decision between quantity and quality. And we always choose quality."
Happily, what low-yield stills lose in efficiency, the product makes up for in quality. "The only thing you're doing when you're aging whiskey is mellowing it out, and removing some of its volatility," says Spoelman. "Because we're putting really good whiskey in the
barrel, it eliminates the need to age it for a very long time. In our case, we're also using smaller barrels... It's a bit like using a smaller teacup with the same size bag—it's going to diffuse faster."
Recently, Spoelman and Haskell began experimenting with longer aging times for their signature moonshine and bourbon. "We're designing some of our barrels so that certain spirits can be aged a little longer, and we'll compare," says Spoelman. He does admit to being a little skeptical. "I think the culture right now assumes the older the whiskey, the better it is...It's pretty established where the sweet spots are—for scotch
whiskey, 16 to 18 years, for Kentucky bourbon, probably six to eight. But so many different factors affect where that sweet spot will be for us...we'll have to see."
Whatever the future holds for the Kings County fellas, you can count on them to stay true to their Kentucky roots. "I always kind of think that the more we can keep it like what a person could have been doing in the hills of Kentucky, then we're probably doing it right," laughs Spoelman. "The minute you rely on too much machinery and too many people you start to get away from that."
Kings County Distillery offers tours to the public on Saturday afternoons. For more information—or to find out where to score a bottle of their hand-made spirits—visit kingscountydistillery.com.