Meet the Kentucky native who’s introducing locally distilled bourbon and moonshine to Brooklyn and beyond.
Growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, Colin Spoelman fondly recalls his few early encounters with real-deal, mountain-made moonshine.
It was mostly a dry county in those days, so folks would either drive to Virginia to purchase alcohol or else buy it from their local bootlegger. But, contrary to popular perception, moonshine was a relatively scarce commodity. Even the bootleggers did most of their business selling packaged liquor procured across the county line.
However Spoelman recalls a time he and the guitar player from his high school band paid a visit to Mag Bailey, an old-time Harlan County bootlegger since the 1940s who passed away about a decade ago, to procure some shine.
Spoelman acquired a taste for well-made moonshine, when he could get his hands on it. After moving to New York City, however, he soon realized that he was among a small number of people who had ever seen, let alone tasted, real moonshine.
“There was something unique about the culture I came from that I didn’t fully appreciate, but I soon realized that a lot of people did not have those same kind of experiences,” Spoelman says. “In New York you can get everything in the world, but you couldn’t get real moonshine.”
Spoelman and his roommate, David Haskell, purchased a small copper still off the Internet – back in the days when you could still do such things – and started distilling white dog in their Brooklyn apartment.
“The first stuff I made was pretty disgusting, but I liked the challenge of it,” Spoelman says. “I kept tweaking the recipe to figure out what would make it good.”
After New York State changed its laws around distilling, he and Haskell bandied about the idea of opening a legit distillery. They got a license and set up shop as Kings County Distillery in 2010, operating from a 325-square-foot room in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the first distillery to open in the city since prohibition.
Even though most Kentuckians might be very familiar, New Yorkers don’t necessarily know what makes bourbon special and unique.
In 2012, Kings County Distillery moved operations to the 115-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and began producing bourbon in addition to moonshine.
“As a hobby distiller, you can’t ever distill enough to really properly barrel age anything, although I’d been playing around with wood chips in my apartment for years,” Spoelman says. “With the new distillery, we now had the opportunity to play with barrels.”
Today Kings County Distillery uses traditional equipment and methods, as well as New York grains, to produce award-winning whiskies and shine. They bottled a one-year-old bourbon in 2011 that was aged in a five-gallon barrel, and expect to release a four-year-old Bottled-in-Bond bourbon aged in a 15-gallon barrel this summer.
Kings County Distillery produces a different kind of bourbon than most Kentucky distilleries – they don’t use wheat or rye as flavoring grains, for example, and they use two pot stills rather than a pot and a column still, or just a continuous column still.
Although many New Yorkers are now at least passingly familiar with bourbon these days, thanks to its growing popularity around the globe, Spoelman still skews heavily toward education when giving tours and talks.
“While I might say a sentence or two explaining how we’re different than traditional Kentucky-made bourbon, I spend about 20 minutes just explaining what bourbon is,” he says. “Even though most Kentuckians might be very familiar, New Yorkers don’t necessarily know what makes bourbon special and unique.
“I’ve always been a bourbon drinker, and I love bourbon culture and Kentucky culture – it celebrates a relationship with the land and a slower-paced lifestyle,” he says. “I think part of the fun of making bourbon in New York is introducing people to bourbon and to the distillation process. There’s a lot of interest in whiskey, but also a lot misinformation out there. I feel most of my role is dispelling some of those myths and sharing with people what is meaningful about bourbon, and moonshine, too.”