Podcast

Colin Spoelman From Kings County Distillery

Although Bourbon has a long tradition in the US, sometimes it takes a craft distiller to do things a little differently to change the game.

By: Tiff Christie|August 6,2020

When you think of American whiskey, you automatically think of bourbon.

And when you think of bourbon, you automatically think of States like Kentucky and Tennessee, but in this age of craft distilling not all the amazing bourbon that is being made in the US is restricted to those two states.

A relative newcomer to the bourbon game, Kings County Distillery, based in Brooklyn are showing that the future of American whiskey may be found in the stills of small batch distillers.

We talk to co-founder and head distiller, Colin Spoelman about pot stills, flavor, and bottled in bond.

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When you think of American whiskey, you automatically think of bourbon. And when you think of bourbon, you automatically think of states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but in this age of craft distilling not all the amazing bourbon that is being made in the US is restricted to those two states. A relative newcomer to the bourbon game, Kings County Distillery, based in Brooklyn are showing that the future of American whiskey may be found in the stills of small batch distillers. We talked to co-founder and head distiller, Colin Spoelman about pot stills, flavour, and bottled in bond.

Thank you for joining us Colin.

Thank you for having me Tiff.

Now this year is your 10th anniversary. How weird is it to be celebrating that in the midst of a pandemic?

Well, when you start a business, you end up... 10 years is a long time. So we've lived through hurricanes and various different, unusual events. So this is the most substantial, I guess I would say, but like everything in business, you just adapt and hope for the best. And that's what we've been doing

Now, you're based in the old Naval yard in Brooklyn. How'd that come about?

So, I can tell you the the origins of the business go back to my own growing up in Kentucky. So, even though we are a New York distillery we do have, you could sort of say, roots in Kentucky. When we first started going we were in this little one room studio way out in Williamsburg with these little tiny stills and very quickly outgrew that facility. So, contemplated where would be a good place to move. And the Navy yard kind of approached us as they were looking for food and beverage manufacturers to help create a diverse sort of environment of manufacturing in the Navy yard, which is owned by the city. So, the fact that the city is our landlord helps enormously in certain ways. And so, they kind of recruited us as a tenant for this space, which in New York City is a little bit unheard of, but there's so much history in the Navy yard and even whiskey history in the Navy yard that immediately after seeing the building, we sort of fell in love with the idea of making this our permanent home. So, we've been in the Navy yard for eight of our 10 years and have no regrets. It's a great place to have a business.

You just mentioned that there was whiskey history connected to the Naval yard. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Yeah. So, distilling has been, it is illegal in many countries, even for your own consumption, but was legal in the United States until the Civil War. And it was only during the American Civil War that they started to tax spirits and the idea of a moonshiner existed in other cultures in England, and Scotland, and Ireland. But it didn't really mean anything in the United States until this moment in Civil War. So, there were a lot of Irish immigrants who lived adjacent to the Navy yard, which was the Irish neighbourhood, who were busy making whiskey and not bothering to register their stills or pay tax. And the army sent raids from the military facility, the Navy yard, into the adjacent neighbourhoods to go destroy illegal stills.
And so, that episode happened in the 1870s and actually one of the revenue officers was shot and killed during one of these raids. So, more than a political episode, it was actually pretty genuinely violent, what was happening. And later Al Capone was actually born right across the street from us. And obviously, he is a big figure during American prohibition. He moved to Chicago and became a significant figure in bootlegging, in the resistance to prohibition. So, to have his birthplace right across the street from us is maybe coincidence. Maybe not, I don't know.

Right. Now you are actually the first distillery to open in New York state since prohibition.

Well, I should say New York City. So there were a few other distillers upstate, but we are the first of the New York City distillers.

Was it hard though, to sell people on the idea of a whiskey that was distilled outside the Bluegrass State?

I will say it continues to be hard to sell people on that idea. And it's a funny thing because I think people finally have come around to the idea that wine need not only be made in France and California wine has finally earned its reputation, but that's been... We're 60 years into the California wine boom. And, craft distilling, is only 10 years or maybe 15, if you count some of the very early pioneers. So, I think people still hold geography in a much higher position than it belongs as it relates to the quality and character for spirit.
And all of that is really inherited from European tradition, and laws, and restricting champagne to a particular region. People kind of bring that association to American made products, even when it probably doesn't even really belong all that much in the European products, because how much does geography really influence products? Sometimes it does. And tradition it certainly does. So, people have been a little slow to come around to the idea. And in particular, bourbon I think is a little complicated within American whiskey. And the fact that I grew up in Kentucky makes me a little less cautious about trying to make bourbon outside of Kentucky.
And I think it's important to say that the bourbon that we make is very different from the bourbon that's being made in Kentucky. And so, part of our agenda has not necessarily been just replicate what Kentucky is doing, but really expand the category of American whiskey into new territory. And I would argue that American whiskey had become very homogenous and singular. And so, craft distillers have brought creativity, and energy, and variety to a category that was pretty traditional for a long time.

I suppose being a small distillery, you've got much more room to be able to experiment and adapt.

Well, I think we have the freedom because we're not bound by any particular tradition. But there's also just... I'll give an example. We make a single malt whiskey, which involves peated barley, and we make a bourbon. And we happened to run out of the barley that we used to make our regular bourbon. And we happened to have the peated malt sitting on the floor for the single malt. And so, the distiller on duty said, "Well, I can go home because we don't have the ingredients that I need or I can use the peated malt to make a peated bourbon." And so, it was really just the fortuitous nature of being in the facility with this kind of grain that you wouldn't have necessarily put into a bourbon. Those kind of happy accidents happen a lot when you're small and you're sort of trying a lot of new things.
And I think that's now our second most popular whiskey, our peated bourbon. And really does kind of help articulate what we're doing, which is we're between we're a melting pot in New York City of all these different cultures. Why shouldn't our whiskey also be a melting pot of distilling culture. So, taking the style of distillation from single malt scotch, the type of smoked grain of the peat, and then using that to make an American style bourbon. That I think is our opportunity within craft spirits. And so we've kind of moved a little heavier into the creativity and the experimentation, knowing that that's our opportunity that some of the bigger distillers may not necessarily have that flexibility or freedom to do.

How tied is the flavour of whiskey to the people that make it?

I think very much so. And I think people kind of understand that because so many whiskeys are named... Certainly American whiskeys, but international whiskeys are named after people and rarely are vodkas and rums. Sometimes you see it. Sometimes you see tequilas named after people, but whiskey does really show the hand of the maker because the recipe is pretty much given by law. So it comes down to how you interpreting this thing that has an infinite number of variables, but is yet also very constrained. And so, the person who's deciding which of those variables to engage with, I think, absolutely has an impact.
And even, we talk in America, we're very focused on the distiller as the most important person in the process. But in fact, it's also the blender or the person who's in charge of assembling the whiskeys after they've aged, that sort of sensory analysis is arguably even more important than the person who's producing the whiskey, because that's the person who creates consistency and differentiates the different barrels into product lines. So, I think there's this mythology that the water and the landscape are what make whiskey great, but it's absolutely the human beings that make choices about how to ferment, and at what temperature to ferment, and how to make the cuts on the stills, and what style and size barrel are you ageing in. All of these things have a much bigger impact on the whiskey than geography. Maybe that's well understood, I suppose, but never quite gets enough emphasis in the storytelling.

Now, speaking of geography, you've mentioned that your roots are based in Appalachian moonshine. How many of those techniques have you used in small distilling?

Well... Hmm, that's an interesting question. Starting with moonshine, I think was less about a process and more about an irreverence for the official way of doing things and many people in the whiskey world... First of all, unaged whiskey, which is legal in the United States as corn whiskey or moonshine, is sort of frowned on. It's illegal in the EU to call something whiskey, if it's under three years aged in a barrel. So, that already bakes in a little bit of a perception against it. But you look at other categories of spirit where you have silver tequila or white rum or grappa as a kind of unaged Brandy, Eau-de-vie, it's very common for other types of spirit where the unaged version is sold alongside maybe it's perceived as a little hotter, a little bit more fiery, but for me, discovering the flavour and legitimacy of moonshine really was the starting point for the distillery as a whole.
And that is because if the white spirit off the stills, if the distillate is good, then everything that you age into conventional age whiskey from that, it's not going to get worse by ageing. It's arguably going to improve through ageing.
So, to become obsessed about the white spirit, which again, you call it moonshine and it has this mythological reputation, but it is really the fundamental of whiskey. And so, to be sort of obsessed with moonshine and why that's important. In Kentucky the moonshine comes from the Appalachian coal mining part of the state, whereas the bourbon comes from the bluegrass part of the state but they're really just two sides of the same coin. And so, to really get into whiskey, for me, was about embracing both the highbrow bourbon culture, and then this sort of arguably low brow, folk, moonshine culture

Now, your bottled in bond bourbon has won quite a few awards. What do you think it is that makes it so special?

Well, I would say what first differentiates the majority of our whiskeys from commercial whiskeys is that we do pot distillation on American whiskeys. So, pot distillation is familiar to people who are single malt scotch drinkers or pot still Irish whiskey drinkers but it really does carve a divide in the spirits world, whereas pot still whiskey's tend to be more flavourful. They have more oils and esters and they can contribute to a lot more mouthfeel of the whiskey. And so, even as a hobby distillery, as an apartment moonshiner, I had discovered that the pot still gives you a lot better flavour profile. And so, as we scaled up we really committed to pot still distillation for all of our whiskeys.
But one thing that's great about the bottled in bond law, and bottled in bond is an American law that goes back to 1897. That is really meant to sort of... It's a sort of craft certification in the modern sense that tells you who made the whiskey, where the whiskey was made, and when the whiskey was made. It's a distilling season, a distillery, and a master distiller that that have to be the same for a bottled in bond whiskey. So, bottled in bond is ultimately a distiller's product, as opposed to a brand or a marketer's product.
And in the United States we have a lot of... And this is true, certainly many different types of spirits, but there's these commercial producers that produce a generic product, and then companies will come along and bottle it and just sort of appropriate it and say that they create a story around it. But distillers are the only people that can make bottled in bond. And it really does express the singularity of what a single distillery can do. It's like the American version of a single malt scotch. And so, that's what excited me about bottled in bond is it is our highest category of American whiskey. And one that had been looked down on for a long time as sort of a cocktail whiskey, because it's higher proof and the bigger companies hadn't really invested in making good bottled in bond whiskey. So, that was the opportunity for us, which was just that commercial whiskey had sort of abandoned the idea of bottled in bond, but in its history it really was this great measure of transparency and authenticity that really squared with what we were trying to do as a distillery.

Quite a few distilleries are winning awards for their bottled in bond. Would you say that that classification is now taking on a bit more of a mythology in itself?

Well, I'll say that in the most particular instance of it, which is George Dickel in Tennessee was named by Whisky Advocate Whisky of the Year last year and their head blender, Nicole Austin, or their head distiller, Nicole Austin, started at Kings County Distillery as our head blender. So, I think the influence of our approach to whiskey which is one of, again, a focus on process, a focus on transparency and authenticity. That is as meaningful to a large distillery like George Dickel, which is owned by the Diageo and is one of the sort of historical legacy distilleries in the United States. It's as meaningful for them to do a bottled in bond as it is for a little tiny distillery in Brooklyn to do it. And so, I think both the commercial distillers and the small distillers some times feel you want to explain to the consumer that this actually there's something very different from our product as we make it and we make it a particular way, but you're up against all of these whiskeys that are sourced from a generic kind of wholesale brokered whiskey that anybody could get their hands on. And to be able to articulate that this is special because we make it and we make all the decisions around it, as opposed to something else that you might have, which they may say they make decisions about it but they're not really.
That, I think, plays both for the big distillers and the small distillers and is why it's come across. The other thing to say about it is it's always at least four years old, and it's always a hundred proof, which in the world that whiskey, even American whiskey, that's a pretty robust proof. And people like the value of getting a little bit higher proof and knowing specifically, at least, how old their whiskey is.

You spoke earlier about the pot stills adding a little bit of differentiation from traditional bourbons. I believe your mash bill also does so. Can you talk us through a little bit about how that's put together?

So, most American whiskey, most bourbon, there's only three real recipes for bourbon. There's one where you have, let's say, 70% corn, 20% rye, 10% barley. And there's maybe another recipe where you have a little bit more rye and that's a high rye bourbon or you substitute wheat for the rye and you have a wheated bourbon. And it was really those... Those were the only three recipes that existed in American bourbon. Our recipe is 80% corn, 20% malted barley. So, we sort of skipped that other grain, the wheat or the rye, and instead have a high malt content bourbon, which is unusual for American whiskey but if you think of international whiskey, malted barley, malt whiskey, single malt whiskey, it's the prevailing style of whiskey. So, it's to lean more heavily into malted barley, I think, is just yet another way in which we're getting a little bit outside of the American tradition and going towards that international tradition that you would recognise from scotch whiskey or Japanese whiskey.

Talk us a little bit through the fermentation.

Okay. So, we ferment for about four days. Shorter in the summer, longer in the winter. And we do some open fermentation in wooden fermenters. And then, we now have steel fermenters that are still open to the atmosphere, but also they're slightly more modern and they have temperature control in them. But the open fermentation allows wild yeast and wild bacteria to come in and influence the fermentation. So, a lot of times brewers will come on our tours and say, "How can you have a fermentor that's open. It's going to get contaminated. It's going to get wild yeast from the air." But for us, it's actually something that we encourage because it tends to create a funkier, more flavourful fermentation that then we're going to tame through distillation. And so, distillation will kill any bacteria or anything unwanted that might contaminate a beer you can remove and neutralise through distillation. So, we kind of want it to get a little funkier and a little more like a sour ale process from brewing. We kind of want it to be that leave it up to the environmental conditions of the distillery.

Aside from the funkiness of your fermentation, the other thing that would highly affect the overall taste would be your ageing. Now, what difference... You age in American Oak. What difference does the size of the barrel make to the aging process?

Well, this is a thorny subject because ultimately we are a new distillery. And so all of our whiskeys are somewhat younger than what comes from commercial distilleries. And I've always said that small barrels you can get a better tasting, more flavourful, more robust whiskey in a shorter amount of time. That doesn't necessarily mean that all aspects of the whiskey mature faster, but many of the changes that happen in the barrel are expedited because there's more surface area in a smaller barrel.
So for us, we find that a 10 gallon barrel could go.. It’s usually a two year barrel, a 15 gallon barrel can go three to five years. And then just now we're pulling our first full sized barrel, 53 gallon barrel that's been ageing for seven years. So, the size of the barrel usually determines how long the whiskey will ultimately take to get to of the apex of its curve during the ageing cycle.
That's not to say you can't pull barrels before that moment or after that moment, but there's usually a little bit of a maturity curve and there is that sweet spot where everything is best. The difficulty of small barrels is that that window is much smaller on a small barrel than a big barrel.
So, you have to be very attentive to small barrels so that you don't get something that's over wooded and you have to be attentive so that you maintain consistency because there could be... Obviously if you're making a hundred gallon batch from two barrels it's a different proposition than making a 100 gallon batch from say 10- five gallon barrels or 25 gallon barrels. So, there's a different math calculation to get to the same results, and one that involves a lot more input from the blender or the person who's assembling the whiskey from those constituent barrels.

Do you judge the whiskey or the age of the whiskey by an exact age statement. Or are you more inclined to go, ‘when it's right, it’s right.’

Well, I will say we have sort of broad parameters. For instance, our flagship straight bourbon. That's always at least two years old, but it's not really designed to go much beyond, say, three years. So, usually you'll find barrels anywhere from two to three and a half, sometimes more than that. Whereas bottled in bond, everything has to be from the same season. So, it all has to be the same age. And in that case, you're pulling barrels from, in our instance it's four and a half to five years. Other distillers can go all the way up to 11 years, or 13 years, or more.
So, I tend to say I know that age statements sell whiskey and people perceive that a four year is twice as good as a two year. That is definitely not a practical fact of whiskey production, but people presume arithmetic is whiskey connoisseurship. And that is a thing that you fight against all the time. So, I guess I would say to answer the question, we try to release whiskeys only by the integrity of and their best quality, but sometimes we have to shape the kinds of whiskeys that we put out so that we have older whiskeys to satisfy the audience that needs to have older whiskeys.
If that makes sense.
Well, I should also add to that. I am somewhat in that audience myself. So, the fun of having an old whiskey, it's not always about the character of the whiskey itself. It's just about consuming something that is genuinely rare and that is unusual and that may not be like other things that are around it. And those are the things that I like too. So even though I say, ‘We're always trying this. We want to make the best whiskey possible.’ I also get very excited about some of the outlier stuff, or we're just about to release an eight year old whiskey that came out of a five gallon barrel. It's very unusual, very high proof. It's like 159 proof that's 70-
Yeah. It's a weird one. But that is a really fun whiskey to have. And it's fun because it's old. It would be just as fun if it were young, but it's especially fun because it's old.
So I do think I'm a little bit on both sides of that coin at the same time.

Getting back to your bottled in bond, if someone were to get their hands on a bottle how would you suggest that they first experience it?

Well, I would say in our case, it's designed to be sipped neat. It's a very flavourful whiskey for what it is, which is a four or five year old whiskey, which isn't necessarily flavourful from Kentucky. But for our distillery, you get these rich sort of chocolate molasses, vanilla, but it's a very deep vanilla flavour. So, it's a very rich whiskey. And so, I kind of encourage people to try it neat first. And then if you want to add water and bring it down to proof, I have no issue with telling people how they should drink something. I mean, I think you should drink it how you're used to drinking whiskey. It's maybe less of a cocktail whiskey for us than it would be for other distillers that make a bottled in bond. That's really aimed at cocktails. This I think is really aimed, not necessarily to be a cocktail whiskey but people do it all the time. And it's a very delicious whiskey to include in any sort of context.

If you were going to make it into a cocktail, what cocktail would you recommend?

Well, I would go for very spirit forward, an old fashioned, something that doesn't necessarily aim to dilute the spirit very much or to add that much other flavours. So, an old fashion just adds a little sweetness and a little bitterness, but that's what we tend to do here at the distillery when people want to do that.
It's maybe less suited to like a high ball, or a mint julep, or something that's meant to be more refreshing.
We have other whiskeys that belong in those types of cocktails.

Now, talk to us a little bit about the appearance of the bottles. You've got a very unique way of labelling, which is more so it's almost like it's typed on a typewriter. Can you explain how that came about?

Well, it is typed on a typewriter and I would argue it's not even like done on a computer to look like it's typed on a typewriter it's actually typed on a typewriter and then scanned into a file that then the label company can use. A part of it was, we started as a very small distillery and didn't want to over position ourselves and pretend that we were bigger than we were. We wanted to have something that looked very low-fi and very handmade. And that's certainly the way that we have done it throughout. But it's also had a secondary effect as we've grown, which is that we have many, many different whiskeys now. We have like 15 or 16 different whiskeys available at a given time from the distillery itself. And so you have this great sort of rainbow of different colours and intensities.
And the only thing that really differentiates them is the label. And so, it puts a lot of focus on what's inside the bottle, as opposed to the colour of the label or what the picture on the label. It very much de-emphasises the marketing and the branding because going back to something like bottled in bond, we want the emphasis to be on the spirit itself and, by extension, on the process and the people that make it and not necessarily on the graphic design firm that we hired to orchestrate the packaging.
So, it was also a little bit of a thing that was not very well thought out in the beginning, but has managed to survive, even as other aspects of the business might have changed. The packaging has really helped keep us situated on that premise, which is just that, in our case, the bottle is way less important than the spirit inside it.
And I mean, people may pick it up because it's mysterious and I encourage that.
So, I'm not saying that it's not designed... That the packaging isn't thought about and designed to help sell the product, but it was always very different. And I should also say we started with smaller formats. So, 200 millilitres and then 375 millilitres. Only last year did we come out with a 750 millilitre, which is the standard size. So, it's really taken us a long time to build up the inventory to service a large format.
But having the smaller format, I think allowed us to get more people more variety of whiskey and help get our name out there when we didn't have that much capacity as a distillery.

Now, what are the plans for the distillery moving forward? What projects do you have in mind?

Well, it's a funny thing. We do find sometimes that we're... If you were the master distiller of Macallan your plans moving forward are to not change anything and keep it exactly the same forever more. And we have some advantage in that that isn't what we've set up for ourselves. And we can continue to play with the mash bills that we set up and the styles that we embrace. But one of the best things about being a distillery with the ambition that we have, which I would say is very high, is that ultimately you are always setting aside whiskey for not just the seven year, but the 12 year and maybe the 18 year if we ever get to that point, not necessarily, again, that that's going to be better whiskey but it's going to help situate us and give us legitimacy... And it will be fun because as a human being 18 years is a lot of life to live through.
And so, just to have the opportunity to make a whiskey and then at some point in the future, when I'm a very different person, get to revisit it, that is really the fun of it. And I don't anticipate that changing very much. And if you're a Macallan you have all of this inventory, that's aged and you almost forget about it because it's so old, but in our case, we didn't inherit anything and we've had to build all of our inventory from scratch. And so, for that reason it feels much more hard won. And therefore, when it comes time to have some of those older whiskeys it will feel really special. I think.

Now, obviously you're available throughout the US. Where else is Kings County available?

So, we're in the UK, Canada, Japan, Australia. So, whiskey territories, English speaking, and whiskey focused territories around the world. But really that's always very small distribution. So, the easiest way to get our whiskeys to come to New York City, which I realize ... Is not always available to everybody.
Well, I do think, hopefully, if we do learn anything from this episode, it's that borders are fairly useless in e-commerce and alcohol might benefit from being regulated slightly less than it historically has been. And so, we're in the midst of a big push for e-commerce in the United States. I'm hoping that could at some point cross borders and make it easier for people. As you see in the EU, it's a little easier to get whiskies from other countries shipped to you. That would be a great thing if that expanded more globally.

Now, if people want more information on the bourbon or any of your other expressions they can go to your website, which is kingscountydistillery.com?

Thank you so much for joining us Colin.

Thank you for having me. It was a great pleasure talking to you.

Excellent. Thanks very much then.

For more information on Kings County Distillery, go to kingscountydistilery.com

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