This Valentine’s Day, indulge your passion for chocolate….whiskey. If you aren’t far from Brooklyn, New York, you really have to make a stop and tour Kings County Distillery, where traditional American whiskey is handcrafted. The tour is fascinating, and the tasting is even better. If you want to find something new and exciting to do with your significant other, why not spend some time visiting this local distillery? If you love whiskey or are curious about whiskey, this would be a great way to spend your time.
The Back Story
When Colin Spoelman was in high school, he lived in Harlan County, a dry county in eastern Kentucky. Like many of his peers, he and his friends wanted to find a way to buy alcohol, but Harlan Country had strict laws (dating back to prohibition) against selling alcoholic beverages. In true Kentucky fashion, he and his friends bought spirits from a bootlegger, grabbed some provisions and headed out to go “camping” around an abandoned strip mine. The bootlegger, a local lady named Mag Bailey, was a legend in Harlan and sold moonshine from a shed just outside her door.
A Hobby Becomes A Business
By the time Mag died in 2005, moonshine was gaining in popularity and, home distillers started creating the spirit. Colin, who had graduated from Yale and relocated to Brooklyn, returned to Harlan to visit family. He bought a gallon of moonshine and brought it back to Williamsburg to share with friends. The white whiskey was a hit and when the gallon ran out, he and his college roommate David Haskell decided to make their own. The Yale grads created moonshine as hobbyists and sold their spirits to friends. Their cottage industry became so successful that they decided to make it a legitimate business and secure a farm distillery license where 75% of the product must come from New York Grain. In April of 2010, a modest space (325 square feet) and one, eight-gallon stainless steel still, became known as The Kings County Distillery. It had been ninety years since a distillery operated in New York City and it was the smallest one in the country.
A Location Steeped in History
The Kings County distillery outgrew their original space in 2012, and the pair moved the business to the former Paymaster Building of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The area around the Navy Yard had a rich history of whiskey distilling going back to the time of the “Whiskey Wars” in the United States. The wars started in 1869 over a tax on alcohol to help the government pay the debts of the civil war. So many distillers went underground that it became difficult to collect the tax. The government sent soldiers to Brooklyn to break-up the distiller’s businesses, and afterward, the streets were flowing with the whiskey from the destroyed barrels. The corruption and the payoffs kept the underground distillers in business until 1871 when fires, industrial accidents from distilling spirits, and the tainted milk scandal, completely shut down operations in the area. The Kings County Distillery revived the whiskey production tradition in New York and paved the way for several new distilleries to open in the borough.
Whiskey and Moonshine
Whiskey begins its process much like beer, created by fermenting a mixed mash of grain. Next, it is distilled and then aged in barrels. The pulp could be any number of grains including corn, barley, rye or wheat, yeast, and some sugar. Whiskey must go through the distillation process to remove impurities but not the flavor. Stills separate the alcohol from the mash and have to be distilled again to get rid of the contaminants. Each time a spirit is distilled the alcohol percentage increases, but the flavor decreases. Most whiskey needs to be aged in a barrel to finish the process. The barrel imparts flavor and color. The longer it stays in the barrel, the deeper the character of the spirit inside. American corn whiskey remains unaged and clear. It is known widely as “moonshine,” or white whiskey, and it is the only American whiskey sold legally
that is unaged.
Award Winning Craft Whiskey
Kings County Distillery crafts award-winning, handmade, moonshine, bourbon, and whiskey using grain and corn sourced from farms in New York State. Malted barley and peated malt are sourced from the United Kingdom. The spirits have won awards from the American Distilling Institute, who also named Kings County the Distillery of the year in 2016. Kings County has also received awards from The American Craft Spirits Association and the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Using traditional copper stills imported from Scotland, the distillery crafts: moonshine, straight bourbon, chocolate whiskey, peated bourbon
(a scotch-like bourbon), barrel strength bourbon, winter spice whiskey, Bottle-in-Bond bourbon, single malt whiskey, and straight rye whiskey. “Bottled-in-Bond” was the purity seal that ensured the whiskey was made to the highest standard, being four years old and 100 proof. Kings County Bottle-in-Bond won a double gold from SFWSC in 2017.
The Proof is in the Taste
Kings County Distillery offers daily tastings in the Gatehouses which served as the ceremonial entrance to the Navy Yard at 299 Sands Street. The Gatehouses is one of the only bars in the world that creates unique cocktails, pours and flights using the whiskey made in the distillery just beyond the tasting room. The Gatehouses is open seven days a week and reservations are recommended. The Distillery offers tours and tastings from Tuesday – Saturday from 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm. On Saturdays, tours run every hour from 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm and cost $14.00.
Visiting Kings County Distillery is like going back to a time when spirits were handmade on small stills. The antique brick Paymasters building, and the tour, which combine the science of distilling and the history of the area, adds to the nostalgia. The tour and the tastings of the whiskey created at Kings County is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Kings County Distillery
299 Sands Street
Brooklyn, NY 11205