But once inside and up a staircase, the atmosphere is warm and the people even warmer. At the ripe age of two years old – less time than most whiskeys mature in a barrel – Kings County Distillery is the oldest operating whiskey distillery in New York City. Laws changed over the past few years to make it easier to have a small distillery in New York, especially if locally-grown products are used. Kings County Distillery opened in 2010, had their first moonshine that August and their first bourbon that December, using smaller 5 gallon barrels to speed up the aging process that usually happens in a 53-gallon barrel.
After a brief intro, we were led down a hallway to a room that is the distillery, but looks more like a laboratory. A shelf of empty bottles and various tools stood along one wall with barrels stacked along the other under chalkboards filled with notes and schedules. Another wall has the pots for distilling while the other has plastic tubs full of bubbling yeast turning the grain mash into alcohol. The man on duty wove in and around the crowd to check on the product.
For the moment, Kings County Distillery has two products, both sold in plain bottles with a white label like old-time medicine bottles. The moonshine is a corn whiskey – 80 percent corn and 20 percent barley. It’s clear and ready in a week. The bourbon is 70 percent corn – an organic variety grown in the upstate New York farming town of Penn Yan – and 30 percent barley. No third grain in this bourbon. It ages from10 months to a year.
Nichole asked if anyone had heard the rumors of people going blind from moonshine during Prohibition? That would be from the first stuff that comes off, “paint thinner,” she described, which at Kings County Distillery goes into a bottle labeled XXX and is used to sanitize the equipment.
In about five minutes and looking around one room, we basically saw the entire whiskey process.
“Even coming from a chemical background, it still seems like magic,” Nicole said.
Next up was the bourbon, which was aged one year in the smaller barrels. It was lighter than other bourbons, not quite that bourbon kick, but it had a good, easy-to-drink taste to it. They are looking at using larger barrels, but not yet.
“We like the taste of the small barrels, so we won’t switch overnight,” said David.
The last product was chocolate moonshine, which they hope to have ready for distribution by Valentines Day. It is moonshine that was infused for five days with cocoa husks from the local chocolate maker Mast Brothers. It’s not super sweet, so it works well without being too much like a dessert drink. The chocolate taste hits first followed by the moonshine taste.
Claire Mahter, 27, was on her second tour of the distillery and lined up to buy some bourbon. She likes the “warm burn” of a whiskey, especially bourbon. Her friend, who is not a whiskey-drinker, liked the chocolate moonshine.
Nicole said Kings Co. Distillery used to be one of few craft distilleries in the country, but more and more are popping up as states enjoy the tax revenue and farmers find a new market for their crops.
This is one Williamsburg trend I can support.