Tracking Down The City's Moonshiners

Not to bust them, but to drink with them

Tracking Down The City's Moonshiners

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in early July, a yeasty, sour aroma fills Lance's kitchen in the ground-floor apartment of a Carroll Gardens brownstone. It's improv time in Brooklyn. A large aluminum pot, lidded with a Crock-Pot top and sealed shut with a sticky paste made from flour and water, sits on the stove's front burner, a bright blue flame underneath. Coiled copper tubing emerges from a small hole in the lid's rubber gasket and is held in place by a modified water bottle filled with ice to cool the tubing. During the next four hours, clear liquid slowly travels, a little at a time, through the copper coil and plinks into a glass Pyrex measuring cup resting on a stool. Occasionally, steam bursts through the hardened paste, emitting a steady stream of pungent vapor into the air, and more dough is added to cover the leak.

When Lance has a half liter of liquid (after throwing out the first quarter-cup), he decants some into a beaker and inserts a hydrometer. He and his friend Wallace scrutinize the reading and pour the spirit into shot glasses.


Liz Barclay
James’s cozy little setup in Brooklyn
Liz Barclay
James’s cozy little setup in Brooklyn

And now for the verdict: Glasses are lifted to lips, and we inhale the fresh, grassy aromas.

"Peppery," pronounces Lance, sipping slowly. "It's different from last time, though. But I like it."

I take a swig. Strong but not scorching. A complexity not normally found in clear spirits like vodka. But then again, this isn't vodka.

This is one fine-tasting Brooklyn moonshine.

Yes, it really is the definition of moonshine, which can be either unaged corn whiskey (sometimes called "white whiskey" or "white dog") or any high-proof spirit distilled in an unregistered still. Technically, this hooch qualifies as both.

Though the result may blast your socks off, this isn't rocket science. You combine cracked corn and (if you want to make it more than just corn likker) malted barley, rye, or wheat with boiling water, cooking it into a "mash." You add yeast, which converts the sugars into alcohol. You run the alcohol through a still to purify it into something drinkable. Assuming you're smart enough to have drained off that first little quarter-cup, which may contain toxic methanol, you're good to go.

Moonshine is usually a clandestine activity. The word has been around since at least the 18th century. The reason for producing it is simple. It's always been a good way—unless you get caught—to either not pay for your hooch or, if you sell it, avoid splitting your profits with the government. During Prohibition, moonshine production flourished, becoming a major source of bootleg spirits distilled in remote and mountainous areas and difficult for the government to control. Even after Prohibition, moonshining endured. It still continues in the rural South.

Lance is not a hillbilly. He's a quiet-natured young professor at a local college. Rousseau, Diderot, Hume, and Kant inhabit his bookshelves. Predictably, he's erudite on even the topic of moonshine, explaining that Brooklyn hooch differs from that produced in, say, Tennessee because the mineral content of the water used for distilling alters the spirit's flavor.

Lance isn't the only local expert. New York City moonshiners are giving the spirit a new identity. Today's urban moonshiners are sophisticated. But some of their palaver still has that country flavor. Take Tim. He describes his moonshine as "slightly sweet" with a "vanilla nose" and "a light taste of corn." His final verdict is as country as cornpone: "It's pretty smooth going down, but then you get a sunburn from the inside out."

Some of our local moonshiners are making the classic stuff. Others are even manufacturing their own absinthe, a tricky process. The crop of local moonshiners is growing and diverse.

And some of these moonshiners are not only legal but also ... respectable.

Kings County Distillery, located in a desolate, industrial part of Bushwick, is the city's primary moonshine distillery, not to mention the first legal whiskey distillery in New York City since Prohibition. It also may be the only collection of moonshine stills run by Yale graduates. Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, both 32 and friends since they were students in New Haven, founded the distillery in April 2010. Spoelman isn't really an outsider. A native Kentuckian who says he "grew up around bootleggers," he returned home to work on a film shoot a few years ago, drank moonshine at the wrap party, and was inspired to make a better-tasting version. "Corn whiskey is interesting enough of a drink for there to be a good one," he says.

Yale or not, Spoelman and Haskell are true to their calling, for just the same reasons you'd expect from hillbilly moonshiners. "I firmly believe in doing things yourself, especially when it comes to food and drink," says Spoelman. And Haskell adds, "When you make something yourself, it tastes better, and for the most part, people have only been exposed to corporate whiskey."

Their timing has been fortuitous, because federal laws governing small distilleries were amended in 2009, making it much easier for craft distilleries to set up shop. Kings County Distillery still has the feel of a start-up. The entire operation—cooking, distilling, bottling, and labeling—takes place in a 325-square-foot room in a warehouse. Five stainless-steel pot stills sit on induction burners and filter the moonshine through plastic tubes into an array of large glass jugs sitting on the floor. Huge tubs of organic corn mash dwarf the remaining floor space. And three mismatched chairs and a scuffed coffee table make up the "office," which sits in a corner. But even after hiring four regular distillers (plus two as reserve), two interns, and a science consultant, Haskell and Spoelman only moonlight as moonshiners. They've had to keep their day jobs as features editor at New York magazine and communications director at Bernard Tschumi Architects, respectively.

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