Joe & Jill Gallagher are a husband-and-wife team of writers, publishing professionals, and bourbon enthusiasts who live in Brooklyn, NY with their puggle, Chief. Jill writes about books and fashion at her blog, Looks and Books.
The two-story brick building in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard that houses Kings County Distillery is still topped with a sign designating its original occupant, the base’s Paymaster. The structure’s historic feel is fitting, as it now houses the oldest distillery in New York. That claim is somewhat spurious, since prohibition-era laws preventing the establishment of distilleries in the city (and the various riots they used to incite) were only overturned in 2009. But Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, the owners of Kings County, wasted no time in moving Spoelman’s moonshine operation from his apartment into more legal environs as soon as they had the chance, and, having been in continuous operation since 2010, the title of oldest operating distillery is now officially theirs.
Our tour guide was Spoelman himself, and the tour began earlier than he intended, when he met us at the large locked gate that guards the government facility in which the distillery sits. After explaining that the gate was locked because it was Sunday, and the distillery doesn’t normally offer tours on Sundays, he did some quick thinking and passed his own ID card through the fence so that each of us could swipe through the turnstile. It all felt very clandestine and adventurous, like we were doing something illicit.
With blond disheveled curls, drowsy eyes, and a wrinkled, untucked shirt, Spoelman plays the part of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Kentucky whiskey distiller very well. He is charming, with a wide smile and the tinge of a drawl. He gave a brief history lesson on whiskey in New York (including the Moonshine Wars. Look it up. It’s fascinating.) before leading the group around the back of the distillery, to the room where the magic happens.
The distillery is spare and rustic, just the kind of aesthetic one would imagine a Brooklyn whiskey distillery to have, with exposed brick and unfinished wood. Inside, the smell is what you notice first—tangy and sour, it hits you at the back of your throat. Spoelman pointed out the various stills and explained their functions as we sidestepped barrels full of steaming “mash.” He went through each step of the process for us as we poked around. A pair of workers sat at a table to the side, listening to the radio and putting labels on the bottles.
Upstairs, the barrel room was flooded with sunlight from the tall windows. Blown up photographs from Hurricane Sandy hung from the ceiling, floating over the rows of barrels. A black and white cat sauntered up and down the rows, playing sentinel, as another of its feral kind darted out of the open door to the outdoor staircase. Each barrel had a date, alcohol percentage, and number scrawled in black marker, along with the name of the person who was responsible for loading the barrel. One barrel, dated 10.27.12, read “Don’t fear the hurricane!” Sandy hit two days later.
The tour concluded, Spoelman led us to the “tasting room,” a small bar surrounded by simple wooden shelves full of the distinctive Kings County bottles. Each bottle is small and clear, almost medicinal in appearance. The space is spartan, clean, nothing ornamental beyond a few black and white vintage photographs.
The distillery makes three varieties of whiskey—moonshine, chocolate, and a traditional bourbon. We got to try each one. The moonshine, which Spoelman learned how to make growing up in Kentucky, is sharp, stinging, like the blade of a knife. The more traditional variety is amber in color and straightforward in flavor—it’s uncomplicated, but solid. The chocolate variety is a surprise. Though it seems like a novelty item, cotton-candy flavored vodka this is not. It’s made by infusing the moonshine with cacao husks from the nearby Mast Brothers Chocolate factory, resulting in a cocoa flavor that’s malty and rich, not sweet or syrupy. We asked the woman behind the bar if she had any serving suggestions for the chocolate whiskey (we have a bottle at home that we’ve been a little stumped about), and she said her favorite way to drink it is in a milkshake—blended with almond milk and ice. We’re also looking forward to trying it in our hot chocolate (or coffee?) throughout the winter.