Kings County Distillery feels very Brooklyn. Crammed into a 350 sq. ft. room, it’s as if someone decided to distill whiskey in their studio apartment. In the warehouse area of East Williamsburg, the distillery is in a non-descript building on a road where the sign is missing, prompting one man on a recent tour to motion toward his friend, saying, “She thought I brought her to Brooklyn to kill her.”
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.
The distillery runs from 9 a.m. to midnight daily, producing 5 gallons of bottle-proof whiskey every day. But a tour of the distillery is a rarity. On my recent visit, the halls were packed with curious whiskey-lovers who trekked out on the L train to see the distillery in action. Groups coming and going were squeezing past each other for a look at the distillery and a taste of the finished product.
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.
The company is young and so are its owners, who are in their early thirties. Colin and David started the company, and Nicole, a chemical engineer, joined shortly after. Five other guys work in two daily shifts.
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.
Nicole led our tour by pointing around the room. The first stage is heating the pots to make the mash. The heat breaks down the starches in the grain into simple sugars. After the mashing, the liquid is poured into big plastic tubs (“very fancy,” Nicole joked) to ferment for seven days. Then it heads to the distilling pots, a series of metal pots with columns on top and clear tubes running down for the run-off. As the pots warm up, the compounds separate and the distiller chooses what to keep in the whiskey and what to leave out.
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.
Once the product is created, the moonshine is diluted with water to bottling strength, and the bourbon it put in a new charred oak barrel. Nicole said the smaller barrels allow for a faster aging because more of the whiskey is coming into contact with the oak.
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.
Down the hall is the tasting room. We crowded in and passed around the little plastic tasting cups. Their moonshine won for best corn whiskey at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference this year. It has a slightly sweet taste to it. I get that basic whiskey taste from it, but it doesn’t have that nice roundness that comes from aging in the barrel.
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.
A long line formed for people wanting to buy either the moonshine or the bourbon - $23 for a 200 ml bottle.
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.