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The Story of Kings County Distillery
In the second half of 2018 my wife and I booked a trip to New York City and I was determined that I would take the opportunity to visit a bourbon distillery for the first time. Sadly however a family emergency got in the way and our trip had to be postponed at the last minute. Then, finally, in mid September this year, almost exactly 12 months later, we at last found ourselves wandering the famous streets of Manhattan, heading for the East River Ferry and onward to Brooklyn and Kings County Distillery.
Despite being founded in just 2010, Kings County is the oldest distillery in New York, the first since prohibition wiped whiskey from the city map all those years ago. The distillery was the brainchild of Kentucky native Colin Spoelman who moved to New York in search of post-graduate job opportunies. Whilst living in Brooklyn, Spoelman made regular trips home to Kentucky where he befriended a bootlegger and bought some moonshine to share with his friends back in New York.
Seeking to make a living from his new found interest without inviting the attentions of the law, Spoelman joined with friend and associate David Haskell to open Kings County distillery in a 325 square foot room in East Williamsburg in 2010. By 2012 they had moved to the 119 year old Paymaster’s building in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Arriving at the distillery we found ourselves in the very cool surroundings of the Tasting Room and Cocktail Bar that inhabits the Navy Yard Gatehouse, sipping on a delicious Peated Bourbon Penicillin whilst waiting for our tour to commence. It wasn’t long though before Lia, our host and guide, arrived to greet us and soon we were on our way into the Navy Yard proper, heading towards the red brickwork of the distillery.
Once inside we were ushered upstairs to an hosting area where Lia began to take us through the history not just of the distillery, but of American Whiskey in general and the place Brooklyn, and now Kings County, holds within it.
Brooklyn it seems once held at least three distilleries but civil war era taxation forced them out of business. The local Irish population were soon engaging in some illicit distillation of their own however, which provoked the government into taking action. Running battles ensued, with the locals raining ‘Irish confetti’ (bricks) onto the government troops that came to dismantle their stills.
With the arrival of prohibition in 1920 however, any remaining hope for a thriving New York whiskey industry was quelled and thus it would remain until the foundation of Kings County some 90 years later. It seems appropriate however, in a sort of mischievous way, that New York’s oldest and largest distillery should now find itself at home a short distance from the scene of those infamous ‘Whiskey Wars’ all those years ago.
It must be said, beginning the tour with such an engaging and interactive talk, led by a passionate and knowledgeable host should be a lesson to many of the new distilleries that have popped up back home in Scotland where sadly, cliched and occasionally cringe-worthy videos are still the go-to means of introducing the business and getting the history across.
Downstairs in the distillery proper, we were greeted with a vision of organised chaos. In the far corner to our left stood a stainless steel mashtun. To our right was a row of fermenters, or as we call them in Scotland, washbacks, made by a company that normally manufactures that icon of the New York skyline, the water tower. In the centre of the room stood a pair of copper stills, designed and built by Forsyths of Scotland. Though originally designed as wash and spirit stills, there is now a third, submarine-style vessel in the corner of the room that distills wash into low wines, allowing each of the traditional pots to turn low wines into spirit. It is a bizarre system that acts as testimony to the craft nature of the place. Things have moved quickly for Kings County and solutions to the problems of expansion have had to be found one way or another.
Our visit to the distillery was a fascinating one, though it would surely have been somewhat tainted if the product itself was of substandard quality. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about in that respect. After a few tasters and some more cocktails back at the bar, we left carrying four bottles of spirit that we would enjoy at home. There were three rather exciting bourbons and one intriguingly bizarre moonshine…
Grapefruit & Jalapeno Moonshine
Smell: Lots of lime. Lemon and cereal. Grapefruit and watermelon. Pineapple. Jalapeño & pickled gherkins.
Taste: Lots of grain notes. Creamy. Then a wave of acidity with lime and grapefruit before the jalapeño spice comes through.
Thoughts: Kings County bottle their various spirits in 200ml or 375ml sizes. It helps them keep costs down, and more importantly allows indecisive consumers like me to buy a few expressions without breaking the bank. I confess that I don’t love this as a dram in its own right, but that isn’t really the point. As a long drink or more likely as a cocktail ingredient it has bags of potential. I haven’t found my favourite recipe just yet, but intend to have some fun looking for it. The distillery recommended trying a margarita, and I can see how that would work well.
Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Finished Wheated Bourbon
Smell: Vanilla, cinnamon & caramel. Toffee, corn and lovely cereal notes. The wine influence brings lots of fruit with raspberry and plum. Some charred oak.
Taste: Berries. Juicy raisins. Grape juice. Then more traditional bourbon notes… Caramel & corn and some warming wood spice.
Thoughts: $45 for 375ml of such a flavoursome dram doesn’t seem too much to ask. I must admit, I didn’t expect to find wine cask finishes in my first bourbon distillery but that’s the creativity that’s being demonstrated here. I appreciate the use of local vineyards too – the Macari vineyards are based on Long Island. The wine influence adds a little berry top note to an otherwise solid bourbon and elevates it to another level. A great wee drop.
Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon
Smell: Rich caramel notes with toffee and vanilla pods. Scottish oatcakes and dusty pencil shavings. Deep oaky wood notes.
Taste: Coffee with cinnamon. Caramel. Strong tea. High cocoa dark chocolate. Lots of wood and pepper.
Thoughts: Quite simply, this is a magnificent dram. I fully admit that I am a little inexperienced where bourbon is concerned but for my palate, this is really rather wonderful and at $30 for 200ml, it was more than affordable. It’s a huge dram with exceptional depth of flavour. Wonderfully woody and reassuringly strong without ever flooding the senses with heat. As a Scotch drinker, I can sometimes find bourbon a little bit samey but when it’s executed this well, who cares? It’s like a great, big comfort blanket of a whiskey.
Smell: Vanilla more prominent here. Corn. Salted caramel. Fresh apple and pear. Hard boiled sweets and lemon sherbet before the subtle yet unmistakable scent of peat smoke blows in.
Taste: Caramel, vanilla and biscuit. Toffee apples and sea salt. Some berry notes and of course, a splash of peppery smoke.
Thoughts: Another delicious creation here. It takes the spirit of New York and infuses it with the smoke of Scotland. The wood impacts less here than in other expressions but that is a blessing, as it allows the subtle influence of the peated barley to make its presence felt. For a Scotsman making a rare foray into the world of bourbon, that hint of smoke is a tow rope, pulling Scotland across the vast wilderness of the Atlantic towards the east coast of the United States. Like a reassuring hug from back home.
So that was my first taste of a bourbon distillery. Not only is the spirit wonderful but the tour itself is a great experience and the distillery seems somehow steeped in history and mythology despite being less than a decade in existence. The next time you are in the wonderful city of New York I heartily recommend that you get yourself over to Brooklyn and make for the Navy Yard. There’s some amazing things happening there.