Colin Spoelman runs the oldest distillery in New York City, Kings County Distillery. While that description may sound a bit grand for a five-year-old distillery, Spoelman is very much steeped in old whiskey culture. He grew up in Kentucky, America’s whiskey heartland, and with a healthy DIY attitude launched his Brooklyn-based whiskey brand right as the thirst for craft distilling began to take hold in the U.S., putting him, and his distillery, at the forefront of the craft spirit movement. Spoelman spends most of his time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in a 115-year-old brick building that serves as the headquarters for King County Distillery. On a recent muggy August day the distillery was filled with the sweet smell of whiskey-soaked barrels, and it was there we caught up with Spoelman to discuss his passion for distilling and craft whiskey.
Tell us about your path into distilling, growing up in Kentucky and what that meant.
Interestingly enough my parents didn’t drink. it was a dry county, so there were no bars or liquor stores. Very different culture of alcohol. It’s very redneck and I say that in a very loving way. I grew up going to a bootlegger who was just a guy, not necessarily making moonshine, but he would go into Virginia and buy commercial alcohol and sell it to high school kids and alcoholics.
I moved to New York and would periodically go back and visit the bootleggers, and some of them did sell moonshine. And knowing that people in New York were kind of curious about that, I’d bring it back and share it with people. And that got me interested in this culture I had left, which is really a culture of a lot of homemade stuff.
Did you learn from anyone?
No, because there’s really nobody who really knows how to do it anymore. There are some old-timers in Kentucky but they don’t really like to talk about it.
Yeah, but that being said, there are books that are out there. It’s basically home-brewing and then going one step further. The science is pretty straightforward. My experience as a startup hobby distiller was: Wow this is surprisingly easy, and surprisingly easy to make stuff that is comparable or better than commercial whiskeys that are out there.
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