Tucked away behind the bricked gates of the Brooklyn Navy yard, at the corner of Sands Street and Navy Street, you’ll find an old Paymaster’s building—where the sailors once queued up to collect their paychecks. Inside that old brick building is a collection of copper stills, handmade wooden fermenters, a black cat named Jeffy, and hip young distillers including the one master-distiller and historian, Colin Spoelman, who co-founded the distillery with his partner David Haskell. Kings County Distillery is the oldest operating whiskey distillery in New York City… and it’s only five years old.
Your tour will begin in the garden outside, where Colin, a Kentucky native who grew up around moonshine and bootleggers, (or whoever your tour guide may be when you arrive at Kings County Distillery) will fill you in on a thorough history of liquor distilling in New York. Before Prohibition, New York State was home to hundreds of whiskey distilleries. It wasn’t until the passing of the Craft Distillers License in 2002 and then the Farm Distillers License in 2009 that the state saw the rebirth of the small-still liquor. The laws provides licenses to small distilleries with two caveats: they must not produce more than 35,000 gallons of liquor each year, and they must produce their liquor primarily using New York farm products. New York State actually now has more distilleries than any other state except Washington!
So that’s why the five-year-old Kings County Distillery can claim they are the oldest whiskey distillery in NYC (those sneaky bastards). Founded in 2010 in East Williamsburg, Kings County started as the smallest commercial distillery in the US. They continued to grow and in 2012 moved into their current location: an 1899 Paymaster Building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. The distillery is named for Kings County, which shares the same boundaries as Brooklyn.
The building has since been the home to an officer’s club and, when the Navy Yard was decommissioned in 1966, it became an Orthodox Jewish shroud factory. The Navy Yard is just steps from the legendary site of the Brooklyn Whiskey Wars of 1860 and the former distillery district of Brooklyn (which your tour guide will tell you more about on your tour!)
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was active from 1806 until 1966. Today, it is home to 200 private businesses including Steiner Studios, one of the largest production studios outside of California and Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, a museum which tells the story of the Navy Yard.
Once we learned the full history of whiskey in Brooklyn and beyond, our guide lead us inside where we marveled at the copper stills and swallowed the scent of malting barley. Kings county creates handmade moonshine and bourbon using cracked organic corn from upstate New York. They use traditional distilling equipment including copper stills from Scotland, and only corn and malted barley (no rye)—making their whiskey more like scotch and European whiskeys than bourbon. “The flavor comes from the process, not the recipe,” says Colin.
Kings produces 100 gallons of whiskey per day, including moonshine, bourbon, and spiced whiskeys. Their whiskeys age anywhere from 18 months to 10 years. They’re currently working on a 10-year-old whiskey that they won’t be able to taste for five more years. Colin says that the oldest whiskeys are indeed the most rare, but not necessarily the best. “There’s a sweet spot for every whiskey,” he says.
Colin and his team of distillers are known for playing around with unusual, creative whiskeys in small, experimental barrels, adding flavors like chocolate and spices. “That’s the fun of being a small distillery,” says Colin. “You get to be creative.”
Stop by Kings County Distillery on a Saturday for a tasting. We tried the moonshine, bourbon, chocolate whiskey, and pumpkin spiced whiskey. The latter was by far my favorite, and I bought a bottle which I’ve since used to make some of the best hot toddies I’ve ever tasted.
A visit to King’s is a truly unique, neighborhood experience for local New Yorkers or those who have “been there, done that” when it comes to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Stop in, sip some whiskey, hear some history, and enjoy the #hipstorical all around you.
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