Whiskey culture is an integral part of Kentucky’s landscape. Though growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Colin Spoelman’s connection with the craft was more of a lingering fascination than a family rite; unlike other players in today’s whiskey world, he doesn’t come from a long line of distillers. Spoelman’s entry into whiskey making came years after he’d moved away, first to boarding school in Tennessee, then Yale, finally settling in New York City to pursue a career in architecture.
But Spoelman’s interest in bourbon would die hard, and he soon found himself attempting to distill whiskey in his NYC apartment. Market opportunities and timely legislation helped Spoelman transition from amateur moonshiner into full-time distiller, and in 2010 he co-founded Kings County Distillery. A decade into business, King’s County is Brooklyn’s oldest distillery, and their bourbon, rye, and limited releases can be found on shelves across the country.
Spoelman has also authored several books on the craft and history of whiskey (more info below)
I caught up with Colin to talk about his unlikely origins in whiskey, common bourbon myths, and how anyone can develop their bourbon hobby without breaking the bank.
Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for readability.
One thing I found interesting about your background in the whiskey business is that it started with a piece of legislation in New York State. Give us a little background about how you got started distilling whiskey professionally.
New York State has something called a farm distillery license. In 2003 it passed a craft license. And then again, in 2009 it passed this sort of further loosening of restrictions called the farm distillery license. And I had grown up in Eastern Kentucky in sort of the moonshine part of Kentucky and had always been interested in distilling as a Kentuckian. It's a big part of our culture, not just the bourbon, but really the distillation that goes on behind it.
And so I had been kind of experimenting with distillation, also known as making moonshine in my apartment, and realized that that was probably a bad idea if I wanted to even do it as a hobby, since it is illegal. I looked into it just out of pure curiosity, getting a license, and lo and behold discovered that New York was going through this kind of liberalization around distilling laws.
So really it was the reduction in fees from about $13,000 a year with a three-year commitment to what it is today. I think we pay $198 for our craft license, and that has built a craft industry in New York. But this is going on in many states. Craft beer and craft wine have sort of paved the way for craft spirits. And a lot of those antiquated laws that really go back to Prohibition have been falling away, not just in New York, but really all around the country.
I see people point to a lot of different factors as to why bourbon — and really American whiskey in general — has grown so much in the past 15 years. These days it's all over the place. What factors might you credit with the growth and popularity of American whiskey?
The easiest way to explain it is that our parents were in an age of sort of looking to European scotch whiskey, a different culture of drinking. Whiskey is a little cyclical. Every other generation sort of embraces whiskey, every odd generation goes for the lighter spirits. I was reading once about white bread and wheat bread. One is always upper-class and then the other isn't. Clear spirits and brown spirits, shall we say, are kind of on the same cycle. But I would also say that there has been a growing sort of cultural movement towards farm-to-table organic things that are made in a more traditional way.
And American whiskey really fills that, both from a commercial distillery, like Maker's Mark, it still has a lot of integrity. There's not a lot of additives in the commercial version of it. It has a lot of integrity already. Then you've also seen this movement of craft distillers opening up and kind of expanding the category beyond just bourbon and Tennessee whiskey — which is what has been the landscape for about 80 years — into include things like Northeastern rye, whiskey, and Texas desert whiskey and Pacific Northwest single malts.
So it really is this kind of revolution; it's a cultural moment with a lot of different pieces. That's been really cool to be a part of from the day when Kentucky bourbon was very easily found on shelves for very low dollar amounts.
It wasn't always the top shelf selection anywhere. Right. People would say, well, why would I drink New York four year old bourbon when I can get Weller 12 for $23? And, you know, I didn't have a very good answer for that question, but now Weller 12 is no longer $23. And I think there's been a little bit of craft whiskey, which is to say those outside of the sort of historical traditional distillers, that new landscape of distillers less than 15 years old have started to create four year old and seven year old and decently aged whiskeys.
And then you also have the commercial whiskey becoming so popular that they didn't have supply of a lot of the higher end stuff. As a consumer, there's so much great choice on shelves, you can't necessarily get that great whiskey that used to be $25, but there's so much that's out there. And if you go in the range of $50 to $75, there's so much there. And thank goodness American whiskey is still American whiskey, not Scotch whiskey, because can't say the same for Scotch. They were always dangling the "35 years old" over your head.
I grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, and I remember going on my first legitimate distillery tour when I was probably seven years old. And they'd let you dip your hand down in the mash. It was a bygone era, but I grew up around that. So I knew a lot about bourbon from a very young age. You're someone who has led a lot of distillery tours. What are some of the misconceptions that adults — who probably are the ones who SHOULD be on these tours — might have these days about bourbon and bourbon production?
For a long time, it was that bourbon could only be made in Kentucky and that bourbon can only be made in Bourbon County. That was one pretty persistent myth. And as a Kentuckian you know that there really were no distilleries in Bourbon County. That's a little bit closer to Eastern Kentucky where the sort of moonshine part of the state is.
There were stills, there might not have been distilleries.
Haha, exactly. Then maybe we got into how much difference the water makes, which is a thing that has been marketed by not just bourbon makers, but any whiskey maker has always sort of promoted their water the PERFECT water. How could you ever argue with that? I personally don't know that water makes even that much of a difference in terms of whiskey production. Most Kentucky bourbons made with municipal reverse osmosis filtered water, at that point it's not going to be so drastically different from just any distilled water.
I don't think there's a whole lot of misconceptions anymore, but I think anything that you can see on a tour, you tend to ascribe more weight to. So how are the barrels stored? Are they stored horizontally or vertically?
People tend to invest a lot of meaning in that. What's fun about whiskey is both sides. I want to kind of know everything and geek out and nerd out on it is one side. But then there's also that kind of blind tasting where you throw all that stuff away and say, I really want to just trust my palate and understand what I'm capable of discerning and what I'm not capable of discerning as a means to understand what really is important. And as a thing that on the flip side is NOT a myth is the whole single barrel thing.
As a consumer, it's at one point you must be like, "Wow, how different can two barrels distilled on the same day be?" They can always be very different. So I have approached distilling as a person who is kind of along with the visitor, to the distillery, as an outsider, somebody who really wants to know the answers to these questions. Then as a sort of professional distiller, trying to answer for myself, which ones I think make a difference and which ones don't. And I've kind of hinted at some things that I think make a difference, but some other distillers would probably disagree completely. And that's sort of where you get into the fun of it.
Growing up in Kentucky, I heard that New York City water is what made New York City bagels so good. Kentucky has the reverse of that with Kentucky water for bourbon.
When you think of New York, it's a pretty sort of filthy environment to try to produce anything in a barn. And when we first moved to the Navy Yard, where Kings County Distillery is, I was always like, "Are people gonna have a negative association with this industrial facility that's on the waterfront?" New York City water does come from way up in the Catskills through aqueducts. And in fact, the reservoirs are off limits to development. They're off limits to activities like hiking and camping. So there really is a very pristine watershed that the water is coming from. Where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, the water was full of sulfur and coal and pretty gnarly mineral content!
I appreciate the New York city water, but ultimately, geologically, hydrologically, I don't know that New York City is that different from Kentucky. It's sort of the same climate, you have the same kind of mountains in the Appalachian range. Culturally, they're very different places, but I don't know if the water is ultimately that different and even further, I don't even know that the water makes as much of a difference as popularly understood. Because if you think about distillation, you're separating the alcohol from the water. So by science, the water shouldn't make a difference because anything that comes out of a still will be distilled. Now, the water that you use to proof the whiskey after the fact DOES make some difference.
Science is the enemy of marketing! You became an uber nerd of bourbon by doing it yourself and learning through experience. For people who are interested in getting into American whiskey or whiskey in general, what would you recommend as some starting points?
As much as there are great whiskeys that have become extraordinarily expensive, there are equally great whiskeys that still remain in the $35 to $40 range. And that tends to be a lot of the flagship bourbons, like Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Four Roses Small Batch is great whiskey. Just finding those $40 kind of classic bourbons, and then starting to do some blind tasting with it.
And certainly having somebody orchestrate a blind flight for you, you'll start to pick up on preferences and biases. For instance, Maker's 46 is just, conceptually, I could not be less enthusiastic about it, but in a blind flight, it's actually really good juice. And you teach yourself to understand what appreciation is, which has to do with trusting your palate. A lot of people think they don't have the palate to be able to understand American whiskey, but they understand what's different about two different beers. Whiskey has been homogenous for a long time, and therefore there hasn't been a lot of differentiation, a lot of variety.
So in addition to picking up those kind of classic flagship whiskeys, go try a craft whiskey that's really pushing the envelope, and you can kind of see the classic versus the avant-garde or the frontier of American whiskey, which in many cases is really interesting.
This is one I have to ask, because we both grew up in Kentucky. Are you, are you anti-Tennessee whiskey or is that something that you can also enjoy these days?
I've really gotten into Tennessee whiskey. And in fact, one of our former employees at Kings County is now the head distiller at George Dickel, which is the sort of number two Tennessee whiskey.
I've always loved the distillate there. It's the smallest of the traditional commercial distilleries. Now you have Corsair and you have Nelson's Greenbrier. There's a lot more coming out of Tennessee whiskey. Even as somebody who's making whiskey in New York, our history in New York was rye whiskey. And so we invented something amongst New York distillers, which is called Empire Rye, which is just rye whiskey from New York. But that's not that different from what Jack Daniel was doing. He didn't want to call it bourbon because he wanted something to differentiate it.
So calling it Tennessee whiskey was a way to use a little bit of geography to make it more marketable, and it was wildly successful. And I hope that as New York distillers we are equally as successful with Empire Rye and, you know, good signs so far. But my heart is always going to be with bourbon.
You approach that incredibly diplomatically. Where is the best place for folks to keep up to date with Kings County Distillery? And for people who want to try some Kings County whiskey, where's the best place for them to find that?
We are distributed in a lot of States, most of the Northeast and a lot of the South; Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas. With the pandemic has come wonderful relaxations around shipping. So you can go to KingsCountyDistillery.com from pretty much any state, and either order it direct, or work with an online partner that will direct you to some legal entity that can ship to you. It is a great time to be exploring the world of whiskey right now because of this relaxation and shipping laws that is going on.
And then for me personally, the best way to know me is I've written a couple of books. One is called The Guide to Urban Moonshining
I wrote another book called Dead Distillers: The History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits. It's a history book of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel. And the Samuels family, which started Maker's Mark. Three U.S. Presidents were distillers, a lot of political figures, outlaws, Al Capone. The history of alcohol production is a very rich one within American history. And so it's one topic that's very close to my heart.
And then, hopefully soon people will be able to come and visit the distillery in Brooklyn. We are open for cocktails outside for anybody who wants to brave the elements, but once the weather turns nicer and hoping we can reopen for tours and host people back at the distillery.
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Maggie Kimberl is one of the most respected and prolific writers in American whiskey, and her journey into the bourbon industry is one-of-a-kind.