The Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey_11It’s Sunday morning in Williamsburg and Colin Spoelman is making whiskey. On the second floor of a warehouse, in a room crowded with induction burners, sacks of organic grain and whiskey barrels awaiting destiny, Spoelman takes the lid off of a 5-gallon bucket, reaches into the brown liquid within and pulls out a netted sack of wet grain the size of a basketball. When he squeezes it, the smell is something between bread dough and kibble.

I’m in the way no matter where I stand, so I sit in the corner, at a coffee table that serves as the budding business’s main office, and ask Spoelman if this is the smallest legal distillery in the world. He laughs. “Could be!”

Spoelman hails from the hills of eastern Kentucky—”more moonshine country than bourbon country,” he says, as he fills one of his stainless-steel stills with the murky wort. “But I’ve never really spent time around distilleries. Most of what I know about distilling I learned on the Internet.”

Welcome to Brooklyn’s second generation of craft distillers. In the 19th century, Kings County was awash in rum and gin makers tending copper kettles. Prohibition destroyed that custom, and with no tradition to call on, today’s ginsmiths turn to websites, books and one other to learn the distiller’s art. And unlike many of their forefathers, they’re going legit.

This small room—about 325 square feet—is Kings County Distillery, the city’s first licensed whiskey distillery since Prohibition, and its super-boutique-y, tiny-batch production stands at the forefront of a micro-distilling boom that’s poised to do for spirits what the microbrew mania of the 1980s did for beer—spawning a handful of groundbreaking start-ups and convincing the public that basement-made booze can compete with the best brand-name stuff.

Tom Potter knows well how upstart brew can stage a coup. In 1987, he cofounded the Brooklyn Brewery back when North Williamsburg was a sleepy industrial neighborhood; today it’s one of the most successful artisan breweries in the United States. Now he’s looking to replicate that success: Last year he cofounded the Williamsburg-based New York Distilling Company and expects to be selling whiskey and gin by the end of this year.

“The last 20 years have been very good for local breweries, in a way that no one predicted,” Potter says. “At New York City restaurants and bars today, it sometimes seems like half the taps are controlled by local breweries—it’s far out of proportion with the national average. And that’s spilling over into distilled spirits. Today, local spirits account for far less than 1 percent of sales in the city. But 20 years from now, it won’t be 1 percent—it’ll be a very meaningful number.”

Brooklyn’s booze boom applies the eat-local ethos to drinking.  Take the growing distaste for assembly-line output, add laws friendly to spirits start-ups, and you’ve got a whopping 12 licensed craft distillers in New York State—the highest concentration of any state east of the Mississippi. Micro-booze has blossomed from Lake Placid to the Finger Lakes to the Hudson Valley, but by this time next year, if all goes as planned, at least four new distilleries are set to open in Brooklyn, making Kings County the undisputed center of distilling in the Empire State—and the third largest concentration of distillers in the country, just behind West Coast drink meccas Napa and Portland.

“Despite all the marketing from major liquor brands that suggests otherwise, there’s no reason whiskey needs to be made in the woods in Kentucky,” says David Haskell, cofounder of Kings County Distillery. “There’s already a very strong culture of DIY everything about Brooklyn. So it seems a natural place for the first East Coast urban distilleries to appear.”

And they’re appearing everywhere you turn. One evening at Fort Defiance, my café-bar in Red Hook, Daric Schlesselman pulled two flasks out of his pocket, each containing test runs of the small batches of rum he makes from demarara sugar. Schlesselman, a video editor and avid homebrewer, is the proprietor of Van Brunt Stillhouse, a distillery that exists, for now, only on paper; while he searches for a site, he hones his craft through trial and error.

“For this one, I used Champagne yeast,” he said, pouring a clear liquid into a waiting wine glass. “I think you can taste a little of that Champagne flavor.” The second is the color of light straw — a white rum aged briefly with charred oak chips. “It’s surprising how much the vanilla flavor comes out of the oak,” he says, but what I taste is fresh-baked cookies, the browned edges of my grandmother’s Tollhouse chocolate chips. It’s delicious and clean—a surprisingly well-made and light-bodied spirit.

A few days later, I visit the basement (the legality of what he’s doing is unclear so Schlesselman asks me not to disclose our location) where he makes his “wash”—a low-alcohol sugar-beer that he’ll distill into rum. Two 50-gallon drums of fermenting sugar and molasses are already bubbling as he sets up a third, whipping a slurry with a paint-mixer bit mounted on a hand drill.  Occasionally he checks the sugar content with a pocket refractometer; he’s trying to create ideal conditions for yeast to thrive, which will convert the sugar to alcohol.

Low ceilings and the harsh light of bare bulbs give the scene a clandestine, illicit feel. After the barrels ferment a few days, he’ll pump their contents into barrels on the back of his vintage Ford F-250 and head to a distillery somewhere out of town to make his first batches of rum on a commercial still. I ask what distillery is letting him use its still. “I’d rather not say,” he answers.

Learning to make spirits is like learning to drive—it helps to know someone with a car. The cofounders of New York Distilling, Tom Potter and Allen Katz, own a beautiful car, so to speak: the 1,000-liter alembic pot still built by German firm Christian Carl could make enough gin and whiskey to supply bars nationwide. But that still will stay in Germany until construction is finished on their 5,000-square-foot Williamsburg distillery.

Katz, the chair of Slow Food USA and director of mixology and spirits education for liquor-distribution giant Southern Wine and Spirits of New York, has been running test batches, looking for the combination of botanicals that will make his gin irresistible to mixologists. I press him to name some of the ingredients he’s been playing with, but he keeps mostly mum. “Hibiscus flowers,” he says, finally. “They didn’t work.”

It also helps to have already made a fortune. Dan Preston is an inventor with over 100 patents to his name; he essentially retired in his 20s after selling the company he started at age 19, which produced industrial glass assembly lines. He recently sold controlling interest in his second business, a parachute factory; in that now-vacant space on Red Hook’s Conover Street, he’s building a distillery. Like Potter and Katz, Preston is working with Christian Carl. He’s hired them to produce a new type of still, one that combines old-world copper construction with state-of-the-art distilling technology called “wiped-film evaporation.” Most pot stills produce alcohol by using heat to boil the liquid inside; Preston’s will use low atmospheric pressure to lower a liquid’s boiling point, thus producing vapor at much lower temperatures. Because the ingredients aren’t “cooked,” low-pressure distillation can produce spirits with a range of flavors that get lost using traditional methods, like delicate floral notes and the bright flavors of fresh herbs.

Preston’s distillery, if or when it begins operation, will be one of the first in the nation to use a low-pressure or vacuum still to produce beverage alcohol. He’ll use it to make rum, and to refine cacao eau de vies from cacao grown on his family’s plantation in the Dominican Republic. On a recent afternoon at his bar, Botanica, Preston poured samples; they were remarkably vivid, loaded with the deep, profound flavors of dark chocolate, with soft, tropical notes of banana and passion fruit.

Brad Eastabrooke, 31, also came to distilling as a second-and livelier-lifelihood. Two years ago, when he was laid off from his Wall Street job, he felt compelled to start a new life. “I want to make something from scratch, something I can really call my own,” Estabrooke says. “Brooklyn already has a movement of small-scale, raw-ingredient food producers, like Mast Brothers, Gorilla Coffee and McClure’s Pickles. The idea of having a distillery join the ranks seems like a natural progression.”

In what used to be the boiler room for much of his industrial Sunset Park block, Estabrooke’s 16-foot-tall polished copper still, made by German firm Ulrich Kothe, stands cold; as soon as he gets his distiller’s license, he’ll fire it up. Shelves hold sacks of organic New York State-grown wheat, rye and corn; Estabrooke will grind it, ferment it and distill it onsite to make his farm-to-bar gins and whiskies.

But creating new traditions is slow work and, for now, Brooklynites will have to be patient. Back at Kings County Distillery, Colin Spoelman sits cross-legged on the floor, watching white lightning drip from his still into a hydrometer jar—the first trickles of a stream that will soon be a swift river, a welcome flood of licit local liquor. I sit back and sip his homemade hooch. I’m surprised—it doesn’t burn. It’s downright pleasant, and tastes of nothing but grain, like toasted bread, a fresh box of corn flakes or steamed basmati rice.

“I tell people it tastes like sake,” Spoelman says, and he’s right—it’s refined, restrained and dignified.

“I believe that with whiskey, the less industrial the process, the better the taste,” he says. If it’s that simple—and Brooklyn will find out soon if it is—then this little glass of white whiskey is a harbinger of good things to come.

Hipster Hooch: Colin Spoelman and David Haskell co-founded Kings County Distillery, the city’s first licensed whiskey distillery since Prohibition. “Despite all the marketing that suggests otherwise,” says Haskell, “there’s no reason whiskey needs to be made in the woods in Kentucky.”

Take the growing distaste for assembly-line output, add liquor-loving laws, and you’ve got four craft distilleries set to open, making Brooklyn the the third largest concentration of distillers in the country.

Boiler Room: When Brad Eastabrooke’s license comes through, his 16-foot-tall copper still will transform organic local wheat, rye and corn into Breuckelen Distilling gins and whiskies.

Big Plans: Dan Preston is opening Brooklyn Cacao in a former Red Hook parachute factory, yielding cacao eau de vies with flavors redolent of dark chocolate. When Tom Potter and Allen Katz, cofounders of New York Distilling, complete construction in Williamsburg, their 1,000-liter still could make enough gin and whiskey to supply bars nationwide.


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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.