This New Book Resurrects the City’s Dead Distillers

Kings County Distillery’s new title includes small biographies, historical photos, infographics, walking-tour maps and old newspaper clippings.

Kings County Distillery has now been around for six years, making it New York City’s oldest operating distillery. That’s not a very long time, certainly in the realm of whiskey: Jim Beam was introduced in 1795. Four Roses in 1888. Pappy Van Winkle in 1893. But Kings County has resurrected a rich tradition of small-batch distillers in the city that Prohibition killed almost 100 years ago. “People think of distilling as this rural thing, but in fact, historically, before the Civil War and even before Prohibition, it was very much an urban phenomenon,” co-founder Colin Spoelman tells me on an afternoon tour. “Distilling was a really critical, important business in developing Brooklyn and developing New York City.”

Spoelman, along with co-founder David Haskell, are doing some further resurrection work in their latest book, Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits. It’s part series of small biographies, part philosophical take that dares us to look at drinking through a wider historical lens. It’s rich with historical photos, infographics, walking-tour maps and old newspaper clippings.

“We were one of the first craft distilleries to open in Brooklyn,” Spoelman says. “Now there are something like twenty.” It would seem like they started a trend, but they’ve really just brought the city back to those pre-Prohibition roots. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “In the 1840s, New York made as much as 25 percent of the distilled spirits consumed in the country.” That’s a huge portion of a craft popularly associated with those big manufacturers who are based in Kentucky.

Spoelman and Haskell became interested in these dead distillers of yore when they did a combination distiller grave tour and whiskey tasting in partnership with the Green-Wood Cemetery. It was through those tours, and the touring of other cemeteries in distiller-heavy areas, that a mythos began to emerge, one that shows these spirit-makers had often been marginalized people: “immigrants, slaves, Catholics, Jews, hillbillies, women, the poor,” Spoelman writes. Despite America’s continued puritanical attempts to make drinking out to be something devilish—partly inspired by its connection to outsiders—there’s nothing implicitly wrong with using ingenuity and craft to create something that can, as he writes, “commute the pains of everyday life.”

dead distillers

Spoelman and Haskell became interested in these dead distillers of yore when they did a combination distiller grave tour and whiskey tasting in partnership with the Green-Wood Cemetery.

At Kings County, that’s what they’re doing—sustainably and artfully. It opened up as a way for Spoelman to expand his home distilling project legally, and now their distinct but minimal bottles of moonshine, bourbon and whiskey are iconic of the resurgence of craft spirits and of how small, local makers can work together in general. They’ve partnered with Mast Brothers for their chocolate whiskey and Brooklyn Grange for the jalepeños in their grapefruit-jalepeño moonshine (a summer bar essential). On a small plot next to the distillery, they’re growing corn; it’s enough to provide for 1/10 of a day’s production. Jim Beam, this is not.

Spoelman admits, though, that there is good commercial whiskey out there, but what he’s hoping Kings County does is tell a fresh story by connecting back to the city’s rich history as well as being fully involved in its present. “Commercial whiskey, to me, feels like the same people telling the same story,” he says. “The time is ripe for not just a differentiation of product, but a differentiation of story.”

If you’d like to taste their urban moonshine (or buy the book), it’s worthwhile to take a trip to the source. They’ve recently opened a new bar in the gatehouse entrance to the Navy Yard, so you can go have a swig or taste their stuff in an Old-Fashioned, as well as have a bite to eat from Vinegar Hill House, all without passing through security.

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Alicia Kennedy is a Long Island–born, Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer.