Whiskey Business: An Unlikely Path from Architect to Kings County Distiller

Gabrielle Golenda Gabrielle Golenda

The oldest operating whiskey distillery in New York City also happens to be the smallest commercial distillery in the country: Founded less than five years ago, Colin Spoelman and David Haskell spent their nights and weekends in a 325-square-foot room in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, making whiskey in five 24-liter stainless steel stills. Over the course of two years, the partners — an architect and editor, respectively, by day — outgrew the space and by 2012 Kings County Distillery moved to the 115-year-old Paymaster Building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they have since been distilling moonshine and bourbon.

© Valery Rizzo

© Valery Rizzo

Photo by Valery Rizzo, courtesy of Kings County Distillery

According to Spoelman, the era of the bootlegger has come and gone, though its taken rather longer for some states to overturn blue laws restricting the sale of alcohol. Most states now permit the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Until 2006, South Carolina mandated that spirits be served only in miniature airplane bottles. In Utah, it is no longer required to apply for a membership to drink in bars (however, alcohol in restaurants still must be hidden from view). Many states now allow grocery stores to sell alcohol. Around the country, alcohol is becoming easier not only to buy and drink but also to make.

The historic Paymaster Building. Photo via Kings County Distillery

In The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How To Make and Drink Whiskey, Spoelman explains why high-end bourbon and craft distilleries have emerged within the past 20 years: “A new generation of moonshiners is making whiskey not out of economic necessity or alcoholic scarcity, but out of affinity for the drink, or just curiosity.” In fact, that is how Kings Country Distillery began: out of affinity for the drink and curiosity.

The business partners developed an idea, which turned into a pastime, and grew into a business — all while still maintaining their day jobs. Haskell was and is still the deputy editor at New York magazine. Spoelman has cut back to part-time working for Bernard Tschumi — by his own account, “the [architecture] undergrad program that I went through wouldn’t let us use computers and only let us design by hand” — but, being from Kentucky, he feels that it is only natural that he moonlights in moonshine.

Photo by Johnny Knap, courtesyof Johnny Knap/Kings County Distillery

Nearly 90 years had passed before April 2010, when Spoelman and Haskell received the first license to distill in New York since prohibition had been repealed. Two copper stills, custom made in Northern Ireland, became the centerpieces of the 115-year-old Paymaster Building and the Kings County Distillery enterprise. The stills can produce up to 30 gallons of whiskey per day, and are bottled as moonshine, or aged in charred-oak barrels as bourbon in the cellar upstairs.

Although the pair managed to build a whiskey business in Brooklyn, they’ve had mixed results in an agricultural spinoff: Spoelman and Haskell’s initial attempt to grow corn in an adjacent lot had lackluster results, but they subsequently partnered with Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm, also based in the Navy Yard. Even with the boost of compost, the corn and barley they harvest on-site only yields about three gallons of whiskey a year.

© Valery Rizzo

© Valery Rizzo

Photo by Valery Rizzo, courtesy of Kings County Distillery

Being an architect, it should be no surprise that Spoelman designed the Kings County Distillery bottles, which are easily distinguishable from those of other whiskeys, especially mass-market brands. In fact, he reportedly designed the bottles with that in mind: “Consumers are sort of tired of the endless branding that comes out of spirits companies.” To that end, the flask-like bottles bear understated labels in keeping with the small-batch craft aesthetic, down to the typewriter font. The cap is small and silver, like the lids to the jars of preserves you might find at the farmer’s market. The overall effect truly captures the effort (or is that spirit?) behind the locally produced liquor — the first but certainly not the last licensed distillery here in NYC.

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