Growing up in eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County, or “moonshine country,” people expect you to know a thing or two about whiskey. But Colin Spoelman doesn’t hail from a long line of whiskey makers, and his drink of choice had always been beer.
“I only learned about my cultural inheritance once I moved to New York City, after college,” says Spoelman, who 10 years ago founded Brooklyn-based Kings County Distillery, the city’s first (and largest) distillery since Prohibition.
To answer his city friends’ questions about bourbon, and because he had a legit interest in the honey-hued liquid of home, Spoelman started making moonshine, which is simply unaged whiskey, in his Brooklyn apartment. “I was having fun,” he says. “I had no plan to start a business, but I got hooked.”
And since federal law makes it illegal to distill spirits at home, Spoelman opened a 325 sq. ft. commercial distillery in Williamsburg in 2010 with his former roommate from Yale. They became pioneers in the craft-alcohol world, and their technique was just as groundbreaking. “We borrowed from different distilling cultures, resulting in a hybrid of distilling flavors and traditions,” explains Spoelman. For instance, they use a Scottish pot still, which yields an intensely flavorful whiskey.
Kings County Distillery, which ages its whiskey the standard two to four years, quickly became known for its inventive product, and the operation expanded to its current, larger, space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “We’ll never have the oldest or cheapest whiskey, so to stay competitive, we play around, get creative, and make whiskey nobody’s ever had.” Like the first-ever peated bourbon, with a medicinal, briny, smoky essence common to some Scotch whiskeys, and moonshine infused with chocolate or honey.
As a New York State Farm Distillery, 75% of ingredients are homegrown. “Our organic corn and rye are from the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley [respectively],” while barley is sourced from England and Scotland. All of it, though, is non-GMO.
With bottles for sale in 20 states and seven countries, along with a growing number of Westchester liquor stores (as well as a lofty spot on the bar menu at Harvest on Hudson), Spoelman is most excited about the recent debut of a seven-year whiskey series, which he believes is the oldest bourbon made outside of Kentucky and Tennessee.
As for how he’ll taste-test it all while remaining upright: “Small sips.”
King’s County Distillery