<p>Talking hooch with Kings County Distillery. <br></p>
New York’s Kings County Distillery, founded in 2010, makes handmade moonshine and bourbon out of the 113-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The distillery is the first of its kind in New York since the roaring 1920s. Using New York grain and old school distilling equipment, Colin Spoelman, a former rooftop moonshiner, and David Haskell, the great-grandson of a Prohibition-era bootlegger (and Deputy Editor at New York Magazine), have created their own distinctive brand of whiskey.
On the cusp of the recent moonshining boom, the distilling duo published a book earlier this year entitled a Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey. Bookstores can’t keep it on the shelves. And with good reason!
The Guide to Urban Moonshining covers whiskey’s history and culture dating back to the 1640s, a list of common day microdistillers and advice on how to build a worthy whiskey collection. The book also provides an easy-to-follow guide for safe home distilling. (Read: You won’t be making it in your bathtub and it won’t rot your guts.)
We were lucky enough to chat with Colin Spoelman about his book and what he’s learned turning the passion project he shared with his friend Haskell into a successful venture.
Playboy.com: How long did it take you to compile all of the history surrounding moonshine and whiskey?
Spoelman: I had been working on the history for a couple of years. Just being a distiller in New York City, I got naturally curious about the history of what was here before, and, in contrast to rural places, it’s a well-documented history, albeit forgotten and ignored. Since part of what we do at the distillery is give tours, I wanted to be able to tell the urban story of moonshine, which sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact it’s not at all. The moonshiners of Brooklyn were as active as those in Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia. The stories are incredible: they had a reputation for trophy wives, lavish jewelry and fast horses back in the 1870s.
Playboy.com: If you’re not familiar with whiskey, what should you start with? Are there particular factors that are more important than others? How long it’s aged, the type of barrel and so on?
Spoelman: It’s kind of a wild time for whiskey in the sense that price and quality aren’t very well correlated. Some of the best whiskey being made in Kentucky is around $20 a bottle and you can spend upwards of $100 on what will be pretty average whiskey. The big mistake is to put too much faith in what is on the bottle, like age, proof and brand names, and commit to liking what you like. People have better palates than they give themselves credit for. Best is to try four to six whiskeys in a blind tasting, which is not only fun, but it gets you where you want to go pretty fast. If people tried everything blind, it would be a very different landscape of whiskey. And cast a wide net: smaller distilleries often offer something different, so if you don’t like Kentucky bourbon, or had a bad experience with it in your younger days, it doesn’t mean you won’t like other whiskey. A lot of commercial brands taste the same and craft spirits offer variety.
Playboy.com: Why do you think it’s important for every “gentleman” to know the importance of a good whiskey?
Spoelman: I’m paraphrasing, but the most credible definition I ever heard of a gentleman was from Teddy Roosevelt: a gentleman is as much courteous as he is courageous. Humility is not a trait often associated with whiskey drinkers, but it should be. And I don’t know how many times I’ve had to endure people saying completely false things about whiskey (have you known anyone who insisted that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky?) to give the illusion of being knowledgeable. Whiskey is inherently unpretentious; it was an extension of farming for most of its history, at least in America. It doesn’t need to be a show. And to like one whiskey isn’t to deride all others. Partisanship isn’t intrinsic to whiskey drinking. The best whiskey is the one in front of you, and the gentleman is wise enough to say so.
Playboy.com: While working on the book, what was the most surprising bit of information you came across?
Spoelman: There’s a distillery in Indiana that makes about half of the rye brands sold on liquor store shelves. Not that this distillery makes a lot of different whiskies; it makes one whiskey that is bottled as many different brands, or did until only very recently. Templeton, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, some of High West, some of Willett, Redemption, Smooth Ambler and several others are all made from one generic mash bill on the same stills at the same distillery and then differentiated by subtle differences in aging and dilution. Templeton, for instance, touts a “Prohibition era recipe” and its package suggests that it comes from Iowa, but it is made in bulk in Indiana and is the same liquid as Bulleit Rye, diluted a little more, aged a little less and $15 more per bottle. That people could feel strongly about what was arbitrary at best, and fabricated at worst, made me step back and appreciate when a distiller does everything right. What counts is in the bottle, sure, but integrity is important too.
For more information on the guide and the distillery, go to kingscountydistillery.com.