I was dumbstruck. I stared at the rich, coffee-colored whiskey in my glass, and back again at the unassuming flask bottle from which it was poured. Chocolate “flavored” whiskey, it stated in typewritten letters. I buried my nose into my whiskey glass, and took a deep breath in. Bitter caramel with hints of lemon. Against the light, liquid was burnt sienna. On the palate, it was dark, with a tart finish. I liked it.
I am not a whiskey expert by any measure. But I do appreciate food and drinks that surprise and delight me. From the moment I saw their bottles, I knew I had to see their distillery. There was something so wonderfully understated about the labeling, the simplicity of their delivery. I felt that I discovered something quite special that day, and fortunately for me, the distillery was in located a mere 100 miles away, in Brooklyn.
Kings County Distillery is the brainchild of David Haskell, a magazine editor, and Colin Spoelman, a former architect. It holds the curious title of being the oldest distillery in New York City since the prohibition even though the company just started in 2010. In a somewhat poetic twist, the building that now houses their distillery looks out onto the streets where the 1869 whiskey riots took place. What started as a rooftop project became a small business, eventually became a burgeoning enterprise as they eventually moved to Brooklyn Navy Yard, and into Building 121, the Paymaster Building. In this simple 117-year old Richardsonian Romanesque building, Kings County Distillery found its home. Growing from producing a gallon and half every day to fifty three gallons of scotch-style whiskey a day. “We could grow 100 times over and not be anywhere near what Maker’s Mark does,” Colin said. “We want to grow, but we will never be confused for a commercial distillery, and there’s some comfort in knowing that. There’s no ambiguity.”
Colin grew up in the eastern Appalachian coal-mining region of Kentucky, in a dry town where moonshine was common. “Moonshine just really means, or at least as far as I’m concerned means, unaged whiskey. It’s bourbon before it hits the barrel. It can also mean any illegally made spirit,“ Colin explains. “People would say, ‘You’re from Kentucky. You must know about whiskey,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know anything about whiskey. I grew up there; I grew up around the culture, but all I have is the back of the bottle, same as you.’”
It was curiosity that drove Colin into exploring whiskey as a possible business venture. His work as an architect and his previous position at Estée Lauder’s fragrance department has a strange yet fitting corollary to his whiskey company. Through the encouragement and support of his friend, David Haskell, they decided to move forward in growing, (and legalizing) their operation.
It was also this curiosity that led Colin and David into devouring every information they can gather around whiskey, so much so that they’ve authored two books, “Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey,” and “Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws who made American Spirits,” as well as designed a tasting guide “Whiskey Notes: Tasting and Distilling Logbook.”
Kings County Distillery have since won multiple awards since they opened in 2010, which includes their Moonshine, Bourbon, and their infamous Chocolate Whiskey, which was born through their partnership with another Brooklyn Navy Yard resident, Mast Brothers. “We went on a little field trip to Mast Brothers … As we were walking out, they had a big bag of chocolate husks,” Colin said. “We took it, and I was sure we were going to distil it, but it’s the fibrous woody part of the chocolate, so there’s no starch or sugar which you would need to ferment. Instead, we infused it, and because it’s the fibrous part of the chocolate, the woody part of the chocolate, it has a lot in common with the oak of the barrel.” Colin continues, “You can get these unusual flavors from chocolate that are not unlike cocoa or rich, dark baker’s chocolate, but also have a bit of a sour note to it and a sweet note that comes from the chocolate itself.”
There’s a culture of snobbery associated with whiskey that makes it inaccessible or intimidating. There’s something about the culture of whiskey – People want to pay a lot for the best, and the rarity of some of the older whiskeys that are out there maybe skews the discussion away from what it should be,” Colin said. For Colin and David, it’s all about enjoying the flavor, and having fun with it. In the back lot of the Paymaster Building, they have cultivated the small yard by creating a small-scale farm of tomatoes, herbs, and even corn that they use for their bourbon. Festival lights are strung across the yard, where they would have the occasional barbecue for the neighborhood, with whiskey pairings. Colin laughs, “Once everybody’s had a good time, then they’re more likely to like your food.”