01.03.2012
By Terry Flanagan

City Slicker Moonshine at Kings County Distillery

Found on the second story of an industrial building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Kings County Distillery is, much like its home city and home state, the story of the little engine that could. As it happens, New York State and New York City didn’t start off as the biggest kids on the block. They weren’t even the second-biggest, or third: port cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and even Charleston were larger and more important. Had it not been for the enterprising spirit of three men who willed the Erie Canal into being (learning, as they went, how to build a canal through the low-lying, unyielding and  unwelcoming Appalachians), New York and the obscure little piece of land known as “Mannahatta” may have, over time, languished into obscurity. Instead, the much-ridiculed canal project succeeded, bringing massive amounts of commerce into New York and bringing to life its suddenly rather important little island city.

No, we haven’t digressed. This has plenty to do with a couple of Brooklyn moonshiners, for they, too, have willed a love for whiskey distilling into a lucrative boutique business. Their flask-size bottles of bourbon and corn booze, simply adorned with a plain label with typewritten characters, dares you to be impressed not by flashy marketing or gimmicky stories, but by its quality, its flavor, and its local authenticity. As New York City was to the Philadelphias and the Bostons of the early 19th century, so too are Kings County Distillery and other micro-distillers to the Diageos and the Pernods of the world. Lest we sound overly dramatic, heed the facts: as the first and only distillery in the city (and one of the few in New York State) since Prohibition–thankfully repealed in 1933–Kings County quite definitely brings home the locavore movement, sourcing over half of its corn for spirit-making from local farms upstate. There’s beer and wine being made in this state…why not whiskey, too?

“We knew that there would be a market for a distillery here–there was and is a strong local movement, which was encouraging,” partner Colin Spoelman says, and is he ever right: in a city rife with restaurants whose menus go into painstaking details so that diners know which farm their steaks came from, why shouldn’t there be locally-sourced and made whiskey, too? Yes, the existence of Kings County brings the story of New York somewhat full circle–given the city’s upstart beginning, there is a sweet irony in its having only one, tiny distillery while now being one of the country’s largest modern economies.

Having founded the distillery in the spring of 2010, partners Colin Spoelman and David Haskell started as hobbyist moonshiners–Spoelman from a dry county in Kentucky and Haskell from a family with a history of moonshining in Prohibition-era New York. The two eventually started Kings County Distillery the way most avid hobbyists tend to do–little by little. Currently, the entire operation is housed in a less-than-500 square foot room, though they’ve recently signed on to move to a much larger space to accommodate their burgeoning staff and distillery as it goes into its third year. Spoelman and Haskell prefer to keep their offerings tightly controlled in quality and number: at present, they are sticking to making batches of bourbon and moonshine, with maybe–just maybe–some infused chocolate whiskey down the road (Spoelman coyly laughed off our inquiries about other potential spirits in production, so we’ll have to gamely wait).

Their simplicity and quality seems to be earning quite a following: big-shot spirits bar Brandy Library in Tribeca carries Kings County Distillery’s bourbon, as do many other venues in New York (check out their website for a list of bars where you can have their goodies). Dozens of stores throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan have picked up the line, and so have a couple of online liquor stores. Eager to see this micro-distiller in action? Take a tour and participate in a tasting: one of the two owners will usually be there, and you might even get a chance to try out the unreleased chocolate-infused whiskey.

Visit Kings County Distillery’s website for more information on where to find this locally sourced, locally made bourbon and moonshine.

Photo source: Kings County Distillery

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