Words Dean Praetorius
Photos Julie G. Koch

Time, Scale, and the Odd Explosion: How This Backyard Moonshiner Turned Pro

Nov 29, 2016

Home to over 200 companies and over five thousand employees in commercial and manufacturing jobs, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a bustling center of industry and business. There are event spaces, film and television studios, even a small farm. Little remains of the housing and ship-building structures that once occupied the territory. Most of what’s left is getting ready to come down.

But enter through the South Gate and you’ll immediately encounter a building that looks out of place. A red brick box that could have been snatched straight out of a Kentucky town sits amongst modern commercial buildings, almost cowering in their shadows. But inside, there’s sweet spicy moonshine and complex bourbon. The outside world couldn’t be further removed.

Welcome to Kings County Distillery.

Here, you’ll find two copper stills working in succession, slowly dripping out crystal clear liquor, either to be bottled for moonshine immediately, or casked for aging. You’ll see large wooden vats of fermenting corn and grain, bubbling with life as yeast turns sugar into alcohol, as well as stacks of corn and barley, yet to be processed, and large casks of bourbon, ready to be shipped to the warehouse where they’ll age for years. Upstairs, a small cask and aging room is stocked with experiments that founder and master distiller Colin Spoelman is patiently waiting to open.

Spoelman wasn’t looking to start a business when he got into moonshine. It was never his intention to mass-produce his distillations. You get the feeling that this is all still a bit surreal to him.

Like many who come to New York, Colin brought his own piece of home with him when he moved north in 2000—his moonshine. At the time, it wasn’t his own creation, but the sort of bootleg liquor he came into maturity with growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Spoelman bottled that tradition, and brought it to New York, where he quickly discovered that out of a desire for either nostalgia, curiosity, or minor rebellion, there was a market for moonshine.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 may have happened at the national level, but many states (like Kentucky) gave local governments the option not to go wet. “A lot of people don’t realize, but a lot of places stayed dry,” says Spoelman. Harlan was one of those places.

When Spoelman was growing up the county was fully dry. To this day, there are no liquor stores, though now certain large restaurants in certain cities can serve alcohol. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and in this case, there’s moonshiners.

The history of Appalachian bootlegging and moonshining is its own story, but when it comes to Harlan, a county that sits directly on the border with Virginia, the area’s own backstory and traditions are deeply intertwined with the movement and production of not-quite-above-board liquor. Moonshining traditions endured in Harlan following the end of prohibition as high taxes on newly legal liquor plus limited supply created a market for the home-grown product, fostered by long-developed Kentucky distilling practices. Today, moonshining isn’t quite the profitable business or high-stakes act you might see on Discovery, but more of a grassroots tradition.

Spoelman bottled that tradition, and brought it to New York, where he quickly discovered that out of a desire for either nostalgia, curiosity, or minor rebellion, there was a market for moonshine. “In New York you can get food from any culture in the world, but moonshine, because it’s illegal, because it just doesn’t get beyond Appalachia, got people really excited,” says Spoelman.

Friends asked him so often to bring the stuff back north that eventually he decided to take up distilling himself, purchasing his first stovetop still online. He read up on the process, but for the most part, he was starting from scratch in his Williamsburg apartment.

For most people, the idea of distilling at home seems not only daunting, but downright dangerous. When you distill liquor, what you’re really doing is evaporating out alcohol (ethanol, to be exact) from fermented grain (beer, pretty much) and condensing it in a separate chamber to separate it out. The main danger here is explosion, as escaped evaporated alcohol is extremely flammable, and especially dangerous in a confined space. Spoelman was lucky enough to have a Williamsburg backyard where he could experiment with slightly less risk of blowing himself up.

Despite the immediate danger, this homemade method actually has a tremendous benefit to the consumer in terms of both safety and taste.

Despite the immediate danger, this homemade method actually has a tremendous benefit to the consumer in terms of both safety and taste. As Spoelman points out, it’s hard to hurt anyone using grain, sugar, and fruit—the most damage you might do with the all-natural process is give someone a bad hangover.

This hands-on process is what makes Kings County’s product so award-worthy. “In fact, you’re more likely to create a better product than commercial whiskey,” says Spoelman. “Home distillers are more cautious and they don’t have the advantage of chemical spectrum analysis and they tend to go by taste, which is actually a good indicator of not having bad stuff in your whiskey.”

As for safety, it turns out that old myth about moonshine making you go blind is just that: a myth. By this master distiller’s account, that comes from some prohibition-era bootleggers who distilled commercial ethanol (used for a number of industrial purposes) that was full of other, more harmful chemicals. It wasn’t the all-natural process you’ll see at the Navy Yard today.

Eventually, after enough MySpace messages asking to buy the stuff, Spoelman and business partner David Haskell decided to get serious, raising $30,000 to get the business off the ground. The money went a few different ways: some to purchasing stills, some to renting space, some to bottling and other production expenses. About a third went to a lawyer to actually get them through state and federal licensing and distribution hurdles.

With the paperwork in order, actually being able to begin producing wasn’t too hard on a daily basis. Most of the licensing obstacles have more to do with compliance and taxation than actual product specifications. There’s no governing body for distillers. It’s not food, though their grain gets inspected by the department of agriculture. But beyond that they’re pretty free to make and experiment with their product. The only expertise check before they got off the ground was a simple phone interview. “We just told them we read a lot of books and that seemed to satisfy their criteria,” says Spoelman.

They applied for their license in 2009, took the waiting period to plan their business, and were off the ground 11 months later in 2010. After a brief stop in Greenpoint, the outfit landed at its Navy Yard location in 2012.

Now, the challenges they face are matters of time and scale. Time, for one, is one of the biggest issues in whiskey production. While moonshine, made solely from corn (Kings gets theirs from an organic farm in upstate New York) can go straight to market, whiskey—80% corn, 20% malted barley imported from England—requires time to properly age. It makes for a tricky numbers game for an upstart distiller. But it also helps their reputation and bottom line. “We try to sell as much unaged product as we can,” says Spoelman, “but try not to upset the balance where we’re not considered a serious whiskey distillery.”

Spoelman expects to see growth in the industry in the next few years—he believes people are willing to pay for a premium product, and a movement towards a desire for handmade products will only take that further.

Spoelman expects to see growth in the industry in the next few years—he believes people are willing to pay for a premium product, and a movement towards a desire for handmade products will only take that further.

They must be doing something right. At the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year, Kings county took home an impressive array of awards, including a Double-Gold for their peated bourbon, a somewhat spicy but still notably peaty and complex bourbon, considering its young age. Each of their products, from the moonshine to the peated bourbon to their standard flagship bourbon, have been met with praise.

Spoelman’s explanation of how they maintain such high quality goes back to his roots—based in tradition over mass production. Essentially, by shying away from commercial distilling practices, Kings County is forced to take things a bit more cautiously, and be extra careful with crucial steps of the distilling process to ensure unwanted chemicals aren’t present. The result creates a chemical profile remarkably cleaner than commercial whiskey. It’s a natural process you can actually taste.

Craft distilling, especially in New York (which has just 25 distilleries) is a hard business to get into. Unlike craft beer, home experimentation is still illegal, making it hard for would-be entrepreneurs to get into the business. But people are trying. Spoelman expects to see growth in the industry in the next few years—he believes people are willing to pay for a premium product, and a movement towards a desire for handmade products will only take that further.

In the meantime, he’s just excited to open a few casks.