My fourth and final Open House New York site for the weekend was the Kings County Distillery. I’m not sure why I chose to go there. I don’t like whiskey so the tasting would be lost on me. I guess seeing a distillery in NYC was the draw.
From Maple Grove Cemetery it was a few blocks to the subway and a ride through Queens and Manhattan to Brooklyn and a walk to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Under the BQE are two murals. One says, “Yes,” and a positive is always a good start, and the other is large octopus.
I was early and passed their Tasting Room and Whiskey in the Garden located at the ‘castle’ right at the gate. Since all they had was whiskey, I didn’t hang out there. I walked around the Navy Yard a little but I didn’t want to wander too far off and get lost.
You could smell the whiskey as soon as you approached the building. Next to the building was a small cornfield. Looking inside the door on the first floor I could see the large stills. The tour started upstairs, so I went up, checked in, and looked around while I waited for my tour to start. They had tours about every 20 minutes.
I checked out the Boozeum and the rows of whiskey flasks that separated the Boozeum from the store.
The steel still was the first Kings County Distillery still.
I think our guide’s name was Rosie. She liked whiskey but didn’t care for bourbon and thought she should learn more about it. She didn’t say how she ended up at Kings County Distillery. We started outside. The distillery is housed in what used to be the Paymaster Building of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the late 1800s, the surrounding area had a rich history of whiskey making. It used to be called Irishtown, now Vinegar Hill, and many of the immigrants brought their tradition of home distilling to the US. It was a problem for the military because after getting paid many of the personnel would go out to the neighborhood and spend their pay at the saloons and brothels. Also, the moonshiners did not pay taxes and the military would come in and bust up their stills. In retaliation the residents threw “Irish confetti” – rocks and whatever else they could find – from their rooftops at the troops below. (Moonshine is any alcohol that is not taxed or regulated.) Another problem was distillers feeding their cows spent grains and the cows became sick and gave bad milk, which was mixed with glue and other things to give it the appearance of milk. Children of the neighborhood drank the milk and became sick and died. So both the deaths from the ‘swill milk’ (associated with alcohol) and the military gunfights with moonshiners eventually helped lead to Prohibition.
Colin Spoelman and David Haskell met in college. Colin was familiar with moonshiners because he grew up in a dry county in Kentucky. Colin and David became roommates in Brooklyn after college and Colin would bring Kentucky moonshine to parties. When that ran out, they decided that it couldn’t be that difficult to make moonshine so they started making it in their 325-square-foot Williamsburg apartment. People liked it and friends of friends would request some of their moonshine for their parties. Then they got a call from the Village Voice who wanted to interview them about their operation. They realized that if the Village Voice could find them then so could the FBI and they decided they needed go legal. In 2002 Governor Pataki signed a law lowering the craft distillery permit from $30,000 to $250. One of the requirements was that 80% of your grains/product had to come from NYS. Kings County Distillery became the first legal distillery in NYC after Prohibition. Located in Bushwick with five 24-liter stainless steel stills, they were in business in 2010. They moved into the 117-year-old Paymaster Building in 2012. They use 80% NYS organic corn and 20% UK malt barley for their whiskey.
First stop was the room with the stills, fermentation barrels, and other machinery. The copper stills were made in Scotland and the fermentation barrels were made locally. The new stainless steel still is not in operation yet. You could smell what is called Angel’s Share – the evaporated whiskey. From the still there are three parts of the distilled whiskey. The first part is almost pure alcohol, does not taste good, and is thrown out. Then you get the heart, which is what you want. The part at the bottom is redistilled.
Back upstairs, Rosie opened the door to the barrel room. She explained that whiskey is an umbrella term – all bourbon and all Scotch is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon or Scotch. Bourbon is whiskey made in the US. Kentucky might argue that bourbon can only be made in their state. There are several stories about why whiskey is brown. When whiskey comes out of the still it is clear. Her favorite story is that when the whiskey was shipped in barrels to New Orleans it would roll around the barrel and get its characteristic color. People began to request their whiskey to be that caramelized color, so they started storing whiskey in barrels.
By law, nothing can be added to bourbon to create its color or flavor. All the color must come from the charred oak barrel. Sixty percent of the flavor comes from the barrel. They use American oak. European oak or Japanese oak will give you a different flavor. Another bourbon law is that it must be at least 51% corn.
Unlike Scotch, a bourbon barrel can only be used once. Kentucky has tons of used barrels that are put to use for tequila or maple syrup and other things. Kings County Distillery sends their used barrels to Scotland where they can be reused. Their whiskey is aged for 18 months in small barrels. The barrel room is not temperature controlled for a reason. You need a hot summer for the barrel to expand and for the bourbon to push into the wood. Then you need a cold winter for the barrel to contract and for the bourbon to be forced out. In a bigger barrel the bourbon would have to be aged longer. In Scotland, the Scotch has to age longer because it’s colder and they don’t have the very hot summers. Rosie said that when she gives tours in the summer and everyone is in the barrel room she can see people’s eyes glaze over because it is so hot in the room.
Single barrel whiskeys are sold but that is not how most whiskey is made. Single barrel isn’t consistent because every barrel is different. So you have to blend to make a consistent whiskey. There is a blender, whose job is to taste and smell the whiskey from every barrel. The blender will mix different amounts from the barrels to create a whiskey that is consistent in every bottle.
Some distilleries have gimmicks. One sends their barrels around the world on a ship so that it gets a brininess. An upstate NY distillery blasts heavy metal in the barrel room so that the barrels vibrate.
Infusion whiskeys never see a barrel. All their flavor and color comes from the spices or chocolate or grapefruit and jalapeño.
Finally, it was time for the tasting. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was really not a fan of any type of whiskey. First they passed out their moonshine, which is just their unaged whiskey. It was surprisingly smooth and very easy to drink. Nothing like the real moonshine I’ve tried through the years. Next was their seasonal whiskey, a spice whiskey. Rosie said it tastes like Christmas. You could immediately smell the cinnamon. You could taste that and the nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, and anise. All the color came from the spices. The chocolate bourbon (I guess it’s really a chocolate whiskey) was delicious. You could smell the chocolate and it wasn’t sweet. It tastes like a good dark chocolate. Then there was their 18-month barrel aged bourbon, which was incredibly smooth. You could also smell the corn. Maybe I’m not a whiskey drinker because I’ve never had the right whiskey. I’ve certainly never had any whiskey this good.
The tastings were very small so I wasn’t buzzed. I considered buying some whiskey but I don’t like to drink alone in the house. I do think I’ll be stopping by their retail shop at some point to buy gifts.
Open House New York was fun but exhausting. I’d like to check out other sites next year.
By Carene Lydia Lopez