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.
So was there a moment when you thought I can actually make a business of this?
There were two breakthrough moments. You can kind of run the still in two different configurations. One is a labor intensive, you have to run it through the still twice to get something that’s decent. You can reconfigure the still so you only do one distillation, that’s how most people do it. It was the moment of deciding to go for the slower more labor intensive process, just kind of on a whim just saying, let’s do it the long laborious way and see if it actually made a difference. It made a huge difference! And we have always distilled our whiskey that way since.
I was going to ask you if you had a mentor but no, you’re were pretty DIY?
I actually think it was important that there was no mentor because I learned to do it in a way that is totally reflective of my own trial and error and tastebuds and judgements. If I had someone saying you have to do it this way, it would be a different more conventional thing.
Is distilling an art or science? A mix of the two?
There’s definitely a lot of science involved and a lot of science can guide you through the process, but I think the science isn’t that helpful. The end of the day it’s all sort of trial and error.
Tell us about this building we’re in and why you guys set up here.
We’re in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was shipbuilding for the US Navy from 1801-1966 and coincidentally was the site of this battle between Irish moonshiners at the end of the Civil War and federal troops who were all stationed here. So there’s kind of a cool surprising history.
The first distillery in the United States was in New York City so there is a long continuity, an older history of whiskey production, which is interesting to us because what we’re doing is different relative to commercial distilleries in Kentucky today, but not that different than what was happening in distilleries in the 1860s or the 1840s in New York City.
You wrote a book about moonshine distilling. Can you tell us a little about that?
Because so much of our business was based off this decision to say we’re going to abandon what the commercial distilling industry would tell us to do, and actually go out on our own and determine for ourselves what we like, it seemed an opportunity to share that information with people. And also to encourage home distillation as a mechanism of connoisseurship of whiskey
Is there sort of a legal issue with that?
Yeah there is a legal issue with that, in the sense that it’s illegal in most countries, but you know it’s civil disobedience. It’s a silly law. It’s a law that doesn’t really apply to the way the government operates. It was a law that was designed for an income structure before the income tax was passed. But the idea was to share this with people and to say it’s not dangerous, you’re not going to hurt yourself. You’re actually going to learn a lot. It’s really fun and you should do this.
When you guys started you were a very small operation. What does it take to grow a business like that?
It is incredibly dedicated repetitive work to make whiskey, that inevitably is going to be two years in the sitting or more, before you can try it. It’s a very risky business in that sense, you’re kind of gambling on an unknown future.
Our hope is just to be the premier distillery in New York City and to be one of the leading whiskey distillers in the country. Being a whiskey producer is being an inventory keeper of barrels, so you have a lot to choose from, and a lot of different recipes going into the barrel and a lot of experimentation and creativity.
Are there certain things you haven’t done that you want to do. Are there dream projects that you think about that you want to do?
Just the biggest thing is longer age whiskey. It’s coming. We have ten year barrells. We have twelve year barrels. They’re not that old yet though.
But you’re planting the seed now.
Planting the seeds. I think that’s the fun. You’re creating these time capsules that you get to go revisit. I’m not necessarily sure this is going to make better whiskey, but it will make whiskey that has more meaning to us. There’s an aspect of whiskey that’s not really about either the taste of the whiskey or the cost of the whiskey, there’s something further than that, that’s sort of, a kind of integrity that only comes through a commitment to process and not rushing it.
Who or what inspires your work and the culture here?
I guess I want the culture of this business to really reflect in a way this kind of culture that I came from. If New York City is about fast paced novelty driven intellectual sort of environment, I want the distillery to reflect rural values which are more about a relationship to the land, family, producing things slowly at a smaller scale. And to have a little but of Kentucky culture…
Red Wing boots in three words…
Classic. Reliable. American.
I had Red Wings more or less all my life. First of all you could get them in Kentucky, which you can’t get everything in Kentucky. They’ve always been around. A lot of products go through cycles, particular consumer things in that regard. I can’t think of many other things that have always been constantly reliable, quintessential American, that have managed to remain relevant for many years.