Whiskey has been having a moment lately. From recent reports of record sales to the proliferation of whiskey-themed bars across the country, it seems like people just can’t get enough.
When I first noticed that some of my friends, including quite a few women, were huge fans of the spirit, I kind of rolled my eyes and wondered if this was the newest fad, like pumpkin spice lattes or avocado on everything.
I just didn’t get what the fuss was about. For years, I thought of whiskey as an old man’s drink. I could tolerate shots of vodka or tequila or rum, but whiskey was the one thing I couldn’t stomach. To me, the taste was like a cross between furniture polish and burnt rubber, and I hated how it overwhelmed any cocktail.
But if everyone was so crazy about whiskey, I figured I had to be missing something. So I decided to find out more about the spirit, and what better way to do that than to stop by Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn for a tour of the facility and tasting of their products? The distillery, which specializes in bourbon, moonshine and a special chocolate whiskey blend, was founded five years ago by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell. And while it wasn’t quite in my backyard, the short train ride to Dumbo was perfect for a weekend excursion.
Housed in the worn but airy Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the small distillery pays homage to the fascinating history of American whiskey through a modest museum of sorts on the building’s second floor. They handle all the distilling, aging and bottling on site (which is rarer than you think for even well-known whiskey brands!)
The visit was a pleasant surprise – not only did I prefer their bourbon to the Maker’s Mark I’d tried for comparison earlier at home that day, but my favorites were their moonshine (gasp!) and their limited-run peated bourbon.
While our tour guide Patrick was extremely informative, I caught up with their master blender Nicole Austin separately via email for some more insight into the distillery’s work. Keep reading for the Q&A.
Name: Nicole Austin
Title: Master Blender
Brief description of your role: Craft the final flavor and character of the whiskey by selecting and blending different barrels
Your go-to whiskey order (and why): Right now I’m ordering a lot of Garrison Brothers. For so long they were only available in Texas; it’s exciting to be able to get in the NY.
Favorite NYC bar for whiskey: Noormans Kil, 609 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY
Tell us about the Kings County Distillery story.
Kings County started with five gallons stills in a glorified closet back in April 2010, and has grown to be a highly regarded craft spirits producer with a capacity more than 10 times the size of that original distillery. We’re passionate about bringing thoughtful, quality whiskey production back to New York City and growing NYC’s whiskey community.
Kings County is the oldest still-operating distillery in New York, having started in 2010. Why aren’t there older operations given that prohibition ended more than 80 years ago?
The lack of distilleries is directly related to the laws that were crafted immediately after prohibition, which made it difficult and expensive to start a distillery. Those antiquated laws sat on the books until two seminal acts were passed in 2007 and 2009 that allowed small producers to obtain a license to produce and sell their spirits.
Does being a fairly new distillery with younger whiskeys affect the company’s ability to be taken seriously and compete with more established brands?
It certainly did at first, but it seems now that most people understand that a whiskey’s age does not in any way correlate with it’s quality.
There has been a lot written about women more recently embracing whiskey as their drink of choice. Is it that women are suddenly discovering whiskey or is this just a result of whiskey gaining more popularity in general over the last few years?
The recent spat of writing about women and whiskey can be traced back to a poorly crafted “survey” conducted on a dating site that supposedly “proved” that women had suddenly started drinking whiskey. The whole thing is complete nonsense. Women have been drinking whiskey for as long as there has been whiskey to drink. The whole category is currently growing in leaps and bounds, and both women and men are embracing whiskey as their drink of choice.
What do you think is behind the renewed attention to the spirit?
I think it’s a combination of cultural trends that all happen to lead to the discovery that whiskey is awesome. To reference an over-used but illustrative trope, Sex and the City Appletini culture is giving way to Mad Men Manhattans. Simultaneously, the high value placed on perfectly tasteless product filtered a zillion times through Queen Elizabeth’s diamonds and diluted with unicorn tears is now being replaced by a desire to have a genuine connection with authentic products whose story is at least plausible. Food is moving away from a celebration of giant plates and towards a celebration of flavor and complexity. Local products have a recognized value. All these roads lead to a love of whiskey, so of course people are coming to the category in droves.
Chocolate whiskey. How did the idea for this come about?
It was an experiment inspired by a visit to Mast Brothers, which Colin returned from with a bag of cocoa husks. Honestly, we were shocked when it turned out as well as it did.
I have to admit that I’ve been personally intimidated by whiskey for a long time. Do you have any advice for whiskey novices who want to give this spirit a try?
That is completely understandable. It was not so long ago that my ordering choices were dictated by the ones I was confident that I could pronounce without embarrassing myself. The best way to get past that is to make friends with a knowledgable and passionate bartender, visit distilleries, and attend whiskey events. Thanks to the growth in the craft spirits industry there is a good chance that there is a whiskey producer near you, no matter where you are. Go visit, learn how whiskey is made, and be armed with the knowledge you need to confidently explore the world of whiskey. Also, there are excellent youtube videos out there to teach you how to pronounce “Laphroaig”.
The distillery recently published a book on how to make your own whiskey at home and you offer weekly tastings and tours. Why is it important to your company to educate the general public about the history and process of making whiskey?
It’s hard to really appreciate the craft of a spirit without an understanding of how that craft is practiced. The experience of whiskey drinking is greatly enriched by placing it in context, and we want everyone to enjoy their whiskey as much as possible!
What are some interesting things on the horizon for Kings County Distillery?
Without going to deeply into specifics, I would say keep your eye on our tasting room for some exciting experimental whiskey releases.
Photo of Nicole by Gary He. All others by Jhaneel Lockhart.
Kings County Distillery offers tours of their facility at the Brooklyn Navy Yard every Friday at 3pm and on Saturdays from 1-4pm. Tickets cost $8. (Details here.) I highly recommend it if you like whiskey or want to learn more!