Kings County Distillery is New York City's oldest operating whiskey distillery, the first since before prohibition. Inspired by the moonshining traditions of his home state of Kentucky, master distiller and co-owner Colin Spoelman was intrigued by the challenge of creating a product that no one admits to making. After all, moonshine is, by definition, illegally distilled alcohol. (But don't worry—Colin has all of his paperwork in order, of course!)
After many distilling experimentation, and the passage of new NY state laws that made opening a distillery more profitable, KCD was born. Their moonshine came off the stills and to local distributors very quickly, and after the necessary incubation period of bourbon elapsed, they began bottling and selling their bourbon.
One Room, Many Roles
The tour starts in the combination tasting, aging, and store room. Surrounded by 110 5-gallon barrels of aging bourbon, we get down to spirits. KCD's class D distillery license (a.k.a. farm distillery license, here's the legalese if you're interested) allows them to conduct tastings and retail their tipples on the premises. And those yellow containers? Spent mash that is picked up every week to be fed to the lucky pigs at Arcadia Farm.
Great Grains = Superb Spirits
Moonshine is a simple spirit, recipe-wise. KCD uses corn, barley, yeast, and water, allowing the essence of the ingredients and the art form of distilling to shine. 50% of their grains are required to come from NY state, but the actual percentage is a bit higher. Their organic corn comes from the Finger Lakes region, and they go through about 3,000 pounds of it per month. The malted barley, which contains enzymes critical to fermentation, comes all the way from Scotland.
Where the Magic Happens
We moved on the mashing, fermenting, distilling, proofing, and bottling room (try saying that 3 times fast). Matthew Million, one of four full-time employees, stares down the stills. He's probably lost in thought about cuts or yields. Distilling is hard work—KCD runs the stills and the mash from 9am to midnight, 7 days a week.
Using conventional hot plates, corn and water is heated to make a thick porridge. When the mixture hits 155° they throw in the barley.
Cooling and Yeasting
After the mash has been cooked, it's cooled by a window fan. The secret process: a large ladle and lots of elbow grease. Once cooled, it's moved to large containers and yeast is introduced to begin the fermentation process.
The mash is then left to ferment for 7 days. At the end of the week, prest-o change-o, alcohol! The boozy sludge, having reached about 7% abv, is then strained to separate the mash from the wash (mash=water and grain mixture, wash=fermented barley water—the distiller's beer).
The wash is then twice-distilled in water-cooled 8-gallon stainless steel stills. They're run-of-the-mill stills ordered off the internet, but KCD lines them with copper to achieve the flavor profile they're looking for. The four stills on the left are "stripping" stills to separate the alcohol from the wash. The first round of distilling achieves a concentration of about 35-40% abv. This concentrated spirit from the 4 stills is then combined and run through the "spirit" still, producing 2 gallons of pure spirit at a final abv of around 73%. At this point, the new make is ready to be bottled and sold as moonshine, or barreled and aged to become bourbon.
Aging the Bourbon
To make their bourbon, KCD fills 5-gallon charred white oak barrels from Minnesota with new make proofed to about 58% abv. After numbering and dating, they take a rest for about 9 months until mature and ready for the bottle.
Say hello to the large stainless steel proofing vessel! KCD adds Poland Spring water to bring their spirits down to bottling proof. While it may give you your daily dose of fluoride, NYC tap water does not good whiskey make.
No, that's not a medieval torture device, it's the tool that KCD uses to hand-bottle all of its products. One at time. Interns are welcome!
Just watching all of the work that goes into their booze made us thirsty. The moonshine is impressively round and balanced for a new spirit: with a crisp grainy flavor, it's superior to other white dog whiskies we've tried. The bourbon is also remarkably mature for its 9-months, with huge notes of clove and cinnamon. A lip-smacking sipping bourbon.
We were also treated to a few secret sips of products that KCD is not yet ready to share with the public. Suffice it to say, these works in progress left me very excited about the future of distilling in Brooklyn.