When you pull into Brooklyn Navy Yard from Sands Street, a mechanical security arm is the only thing separating you from the Paymaster Building. Built in 1899, the building’s all brick façade and sturdy right angles stand 113 years later as a testament to architectural precision. The adherence to guidelines under which the building was constructed are mimicked inside, where Colin Spoelman leads a team of five distillers who make moonshine and bourbon whiskey.
Kings County Distillery was born out of Spoelman’s interest in new make, sometimes called hooch or white dog, but best known as moonshine. Creating it was a way for him to remember the culture that he came from. A native of Harlan, Kentucky, Spoelman has an affinity for moonshine and American whiskey, two products that have long been part of his Appalachian heritage. His philosophy, like the product, is unique. In his eyes, “It’s not so different than businesses that were started by Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican immigrants over the course of New York City’s history, which has always been defined by people bringing other cultures here. There happened to be a dearth of Appalachian culture in Brooklyn, so maybe by distilling, I was trying to fill that void.”
Spoelman’s efforts were originally confined to his Brooklyn apartment before he co-founded Kings County Distiller with David Haskell. In 2005, Spoelman was making moonshine at home in a single 8-gallon still. Moonshine is what you get after a fermented mash of corn and barley is distilled. The origin of the name is said to come from the glow of the moon under which Appalachian distillers used to illegally make it. Moonshine doesn’t have aging requirements before going to market. It’s essentially unaged whiskey that may be diluted (or not) and consumed right after distillation. In a fast-paced, impatient city, moonshine is the perfect prescription for instant gratification.
The potential to sell what was coming off the stills in Spoelman’s apartment quickly became a reality, but in order to do so, he needed a license. Fortunately, he says, “Laws that date from Prohibition are being repealed or reconfigured as people become more comfortable with hard alcohol not being a moral issue.” The 18th Amendment to the Constitution established prohibition in 1920. The 21st Amendment repealed it and ended prohibition in 1933, but the era gave rise to a stigma about booze. Thirteen years of prohibition created a hangover that is evident today in the application process. According to Spoelman, “You get fingerprinted. They want to make sure that you’ve never been arrested. There is still a lot of assumption that you’re involved in organized crime.”
Distilleries were commonplace before Prohibition dried up New York. Their contribution to the city’s culture and early economy are undeniable and Kings County Distillery is excited to help revitalize that. “In this city,” Spoelman says, “the urban geography encourages people to go out. Our homes are too small to entertain, so there’s a culture of bars and restaurants that is very sophisticated, and to be able to participate in that part of the city’s vitality is part of the reason we started Kings County Distillery.”
Kings County Distillery was established in 2010 shortly after they got their license. That same year, the distillery moved from Spoelman’s apartment to East Williamsburg. The extra space allowed for some of the moonshine to sit and age in American oak casks and then be legally sold as whiskey. “Whiskey,” Spoelman says, “is by nature a conservative product owing to the fact that many spirits are aged several years before they are marketed. But consumers have had little real choice in American whiskeys for a long time. Nearly every bourbon brand you can think of is made by one of four or five companies, and there’s very little innovation. So I think people are very welcoming of a genuine alternative, not a minor tweak on a behemoth brand.”