Upon opening in East Williamsburg in 2010, Kings County Distillery (63 Flushing Avenue) became the city’s first post-Prohibition distillery. Although co-founder and master distiller Colin Spoelman could trace his roots back to the land of bourbon, he was clearly influenced by the single-malt tradition. Copper stills were imported from Scotland, and malted barley played heavily in the mash bill of his whiskey. After four years of steady growth — and a relocation to a larger facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard — Kings County readies itself for an added infusion of scotch-like flavors to its lineup. Spoelman discussed details with the Village Voice.
Tell us a little bit about the three newest additions to the Kings County lineup. Where will we be able to find them?
We have three new limited releases, all of which are so small we are only selling them out of the tasting room at the distillery. The first is peated bourbon, which is a bourbon that conforms legally to the requirements to be called bourbon, but uses a malted barley that has been exposed to peat in the malting process, which is more common to scotch whiskey. So it’s a hybrid between a bourbon and a scotch. We also have a brandy that we made from Cabernet Franc wine made by Brooklyn Winery, and a barrel-strength rye whiskey made with New York State-grown rye. We only have 100 to 300 bottles of each, so they are very limited runs. One of the best parts of being a craft distiller is getting to experiment, and so these are some that we are especially proud of.
Peated Bourbon, what was the inspiration behind this? What do you suppose single-malt enthusiasts will make of it?
The peated bourbon will be more familiar to bourbon drinkers than scotch drinkers. The peat is quite subtle, so I would describe it as a bourbon that tastes less sweet than most bourbons, with a little more of a bold, robust flavor. Rob Easter, of Workhorse Rye, was working in the distillery two summers ago, and I have to give credit to him for this invention. We had the peat lying around because we were making some single-malt scotch-style whiskey, and it was his idea to use it to make bourbon. I’ve never seen it done before, so I think we are likely the first distillery to have tried it. I wish we made more, but we are making more now that will be ready in two to three years.
Can you describe a bit of the process that goes into peating bourbon? How exactly do you infuse that smokiness into corn, for example?
Our bourbon is made from corn and malted barley. Most Kentucky bourbons also add wheat or rye, but ours is just the malted barley — it’s a great recipe (a high-malt bourbon) and creates a point of differentiation. Most European or international whiskeys (Scotch, Irish, and Japanese) use malted barley exclusively. So our regular bourbon is already more like an international whiskey than a traditional bourbon. The peat comes with the barley. We sourced a peated malt from Thomas Fawcett, based in the U.K., and used this in our regular bourbon recipe. Peat was historically used in the malting process at some distilleries in Scotland where there wasn’t access to wood. Malting means germinating grains and then drying them midway through the process of sprouting. To do this, distilleries would heat a stone floor with a fire, and those distilleries that used peat as fuel noticed that the smoke would infuse the whiskey at this stage, and so whiskey from those distilleries, especially on the island of Islay (Laphroaig, Ardbeg), tended to have this characteristic.
Is it an expression meant to be enjoyed neat, or do you see some potential cocktail applications?
I think it’s totally open to the individual. I would drink it neat, just because it’s so unusual on its own, but could be used however anyone would like.
What are some of the specific joys of operating a distillery in Brooklyn?
We’re so small that we can do limited runs as an experiment, even down to the five-gallon size. If we like it, great. If we don’t, we can just drink it ourselves. But also the great part of being an urban distillery is that we have such a great connection to our neighbors, as customers but also as friends and colleagues. We feel very engaged with New York City: bars, restaurants, stores, chefs, whiskey aficionados, locavores, history buffs, other distillers, other booze-makers, other manufacturers. It’s kind of an amazing time to be in manufacturing after so many years of decline in the city.
What are some of the drawbacks?
I think people still have a hard time with bourbon made outside of Kentucky, but they are coming around. Nobody knows what bourbon made in Brooklyn is supposed to taste like, so we get to expand what people think about when they think about American whiskey. Also, it’s expensive to do anything in New York, and so we’re an expensive whiskey. So people have to be comfortable with that.
Do all of your barrels mature in the city? If so, what are some of the elements that this specific climate brings to aging spirits here?
They do. We have a room in the distillery and two shipping containers where our spirits mature. The climate of the city is actually a lot like the climate of Kentucky, which is actually where I grew up. We’re further north, but on the coast, so it balances out. I’m not sure climate is a major differentiator in terms of what makes our product unique, but water, climate, ingredients, method of distillation, and aging style are all different for our bourbon versus a Kentucky one, so it’s a factor.
The Brooklyn distilling scene has really picked up over the past decade…Is it becoming overly competitive? Do you think there is a saturation point to this particular market?
Well, I would say we are there already, but on the other hand, we are all trying to keep up with demand, so it seems there is more interest. I think the spirits scene around the whole country is about to get shaken up, and it’s anyone’s guess where it will fall. I do think Brooklyn distilleries have a great audience at home, and as an international city, we have a global market for people who want to visit and see what makes the city so creative and productive.
Where are some of your favorite bars in and around the city to enjoy a dram or a cocktail?
I love the bars that have a great catalog of whiskeys: Char No. 4, Brandy Library, Flatiron Room, and Noorman’s Kil are my favorite spots to drink whiskey here in the city.
Any unique whiskey pairing suggestions that you could share?
People suggest our chocolate whiskey over ice cream as a very boozy dessert. It’s a little bit of an unusual way to use whiskey, so I recommend it.
Tell us about the tasting-room experience at Kings County. Any plans for expansion?
We are expanding, trying to make sure we have enough product to supply an increasingly larger audience. But we will never be even a mid-sized craft distillery like some of the ones that are popping up in Kentucky and on the West Coast. We’re growing, but we’ll always be small. One thing is that we have signed a lease on two small buildings in the Navy Yard that will expand our visitor experience and tasting offerings, but that’s probably all I can say right now.
Can we expect to see more experimental expressions in the near future? What are y’all working on next?
Well, I alluded to our single-malt, scotch-style whiskey already, but that’s coming next year. I’m not quite sure what it will be called, but it’s a single-malt scotch made in the U.S., which makes it, I think, a “whiskey from a malt mash” by U.S. law. But it conforms to the very high standards of single-malt scotch. We also have a four-year bourbon that should be out next year, a bottled-in-bond whiskey, which at one point was one of the ways that consumers could know for sure their whiskey was made at a particular distillery. With so many sourced and private-label bulk whiskeys on the market, consumers want to know where their spirit is actually made, and bottled-in-bond is a 1906 law to protect them, and it’s every bit as important today. We make all our whiskeys in house, every drop, so this will be our way to expressing that pride.
Kings County’s tasting room is located in building 121 of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Hours of operation fluctuate, so it’s best to contact them directly before planning a visit.