YOU GET A NICE DOSE OF HISTORY AND 3 SIPS OF WHISKY for your $8 on a typical Saturday afternoon between 2:30 and 5:30, in Building 121, the old Paymaster quarters at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Brooklyn Artisan took the tour on Sunday, a special opening for the distillery’s participation in Open House New York.
The Kings County Distillery bills itself as New York City’s oldest operating whisky distillery – founded in 2010 by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, on a porch in Bushwick, and relocated last year to the Navy Yard in Williamsburg. In their new-but-old building (built at the turn of the last century), space is given to a modest wall display of photos. It features readably-large repro’s of historic documents and a lively old-newspaper account of a local battle in the “Whisky Wars” fought not long after the Civil War ended.
Triggering the Vinegar Hill riots, troops from the Naval Yard were sent into the “Irishtown” neighborhood to close down 13 illicit stills. Vast quantities of distillery waste water poured out into the streets. Twenty people were killed. (When a rum-maker’s vat in Boston burst, molasses in an eight-foot wave made a micro-tsunami in the narrow street. Imagine the sticky aftermath. And the flies. No business for sissies.)
The federal action on distilleries was not about temperance, it was about taxes; excise taxes, not taxes on income, had funded the Civil War. After the war, the feds wanted to shut down any stills that weren’t paying up. Only after income-based taxation was legislated early in the 20th century could the country afford Prohibition and the loss of revenue from “sin taxes” on booze.
The history display is called the Boozeum, and I’m glad to report that the same sense of humor about themselves and their “evolving” whisky-hist’ry show pervades the whole operation and spares it any whiff of pretentiousness. They take themselves lightly, but as a native Kentuckian, Colin Spoelman has maintained from the beginning that they are serious about their bourbon. His home state’s Nelson County is widely considered the beating heart of bourbon country. Last year, with the move to the bigger distillery, Colin gave up his day job with an architecture firm to grow the business. Now, that is being serious.
A third partner, Nicole Austin (above), has joined the founders and now oversees operations. She studied chemical engineering in college, though not with this career in mind. “It was kind of like a lightbulb going off,” she says, “I thought, Hey, I bet I know how to make this.” In its early days in Bushwick, the distillery bottled up to 270 liters of corn and barley based whisky a month, less than one tenth of what they now can produce in the Paymaster building.
Nicole also conducted the Sunday tour we joined, discussing the progress of distilling from American corn and Scottish barley “mash,” through yeast-processing, batch-testing and tasting, and then aging in the proper new American-oak barrels that must be used if the spirits are to qualify as legitimate bourbon.
About two years ago New York State started defining “farm distillery “ or Class D licenses more broadly, Nicole explains, which means that small-batch producers legally can distill, bottle and wholesale spirits themselves. Apple producers and farmers lobbied heavily for the change in law. With no more required cut for separately licensed distributors, the economics as well as the legal climate have suddenly become much more attractive. The Kings County Distillery was fast out of the gate. Now, Austin says, there are a dozen licensed distillers in the city (not all of them up and going yet) and two dozen or more in the state.
Just days ago Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that allows licensed farm distillers to sell their liquor at state fairs and farm markets across the state, a big business-booster. But the state isn’t the only player in creating a favorable environment for distilleries as well as brewers and wineries.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was decommissioned as a military facility in 1966. A few private-sector initiatives (including a maker of Jewish funerary wraps) made starts and stops, but mostly the site was idle.
After it was turned over to the city, a nonprofit was created to make it productive. Particularly, the Bloomberg administration was looking for environmentally correct, sustainable businesses to anchor the site and open it up for new jobs and revenues.
Andrew Kimball, president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., the nonprofit that now manages the yard, invited the Kings County Distillery to come in. One attraction for the owners was the architecturally interesting Paymaster building with 7000 square feet of workable space; another was the adjacent small yard for farming.
Hyper-local corn for their mash was grown there last summer, along with a few squash vines still in evidence. True to the company style, a J. Crew-looking scarecrow stands guard over the remaining dried corn stalks.
At the end of tour comes the tasting. In the retail area, medicine-size cups are offered. The “white whisky,” also known as Moonshine or generically as white light’nin,’ comes first. Reactions were mixed in our group; some imagined it served heavily iced and with caviar like Russian vodka, others thought it should be mixed – with care – into a sweet punch.
The traditional bourbon was received with interest and more enthusiasm. The final tasting was the Chocolate Moonshine, sold only at the distillery. You knew you weren’t drinking a Yoohoo, but the chocolate had a pleasant mellowing effect on the whisky – probably on you, too, after a few more swallows.
More than half of our group left with little shopping bags of flat, flask shaped bottles of Moonshine or bourbon or both, which seemed to be a hearty vote of approval on the whole experience.