Colin Spoelman, founder of Kings County Distillery remembers going out to the woods to imbibe as a teenager.
Often, a middleman would pick up spirits from Virginia, Spoelman recalled —this required an “in” with someone from an older class in high school, who would have to explain the detailed protocol involved with driving to the nearby state to pick up booze.
“Prohibition never ended in my hometown,” said Spoelman, a New York transplant who grew up in one of Kentucky’s 38 dry counties.
Not surprising then that when he moved to Brooklyn in his 20’s, he took up illegally home brewing distilled spirits. Having moved to New York to find a career, he turned his hobby into a business in 2009, securing an official license to start producing whiskey in New York City.
“April 15, 2010 is when we started producing whiskey in New York City for the first time since Prohibition,” Spoelman said.
In an airy room lined with barrels and barrels of aging whiskey with dates scribbled on the base—700, to be exact—Spoelman talked about his distillery, the winding path to get to its current size, and his vision for the operation.
Outside the storage area is a mini-museum that the Kings County Distillery team has curated, featuring a clunky jug of the very first whiskey produced. Scratched across a piece of masking tape on the jug are the words: “the first whiskey distilled in NYC since prohibition.”
“There’s a part of my personality that really likes to collect,” Spoelman said, going so far as to call it “hoarding.”
Downstairs, Charlie Horwich, distiller, mans an expansive room, pouring batches of corn into a giant tank, or “mash cooker,” which simmers with boiling water until it turns to a “super starchy soup,” as the distiller calls it. A row of large whiskey tanks bubble in the industrial-looking room, with an American flag hanging on the wall above.
Horwich then adds malted barley and yeast to the formula, which is pumped into a fermenter where it sits for five days before several rounds of distillations and, finally, barreling. The distillery runs from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week, Spoelman said.
The distillers complete this process in batches throughout the day, Horwich said, who also stumbled across whiskey-making as a hobby in college. He too has been there since the beginning of the operation.
Whiskey Flows, Jobs Follow
The team started with $30,000 and an $800-a-month rental space to kick start the brand and generate some buzz, Spoelman said. Then, the entrepreneur raised $750,000 of equity.
“There is a sort of romance and appeal to whiskey that brings in investors that wouldn’t necessarily be in it for the money,” Spoelman said.
He also landed a $400,000 loan from the Partnership Fund of New York City, an organization that prides itself on promoting economic growth.
“The Partnership Fund’s mission is to mobilize our investors’ resources to create jobs and build a stronger, more diversified economy. Kings County Distillery is contributing to the growth of the city’s food and drink manufacturing sector, it is bringing tourism to the Navy Yard, and we hope that it will be a major job creator over the long-term,” said Maria Gotsch, President and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City.
While the number of private and public sector jobs increased in New York over the past year, manufacturing jobs took a hit in the state, falling by 1,000, according to the New York State Department of Labor. The Partnership Fund has sought to fill the gap in this sector in particular, according to Spoelman. Since inception, the Fund has invested over $144 million in over 175 companies and projects.
Nationwide, manufacturing jobs have dwindled by 14 percent to 12,291,900 in 2016 from 14,214,000 a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In order to land a loan from them, Spoelman needed to prove that the distillery would create jobs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The team promised the Fund that it would create 25 jobs, a number it has already met.
Raising capital allowed Spoelman to take his passion for distilling from his home with just a few pieces of equipment, to a towering brick building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, eyeing a national presence. Kings County Distillery already supplies to bars in New York, and plans to serve cocktails and small bites in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“We are at max production right now,” Spoelman said, adding that the team is hoping to grow even further.
The team is now running out of space, prompting expansion to another facility for more storage space alongside a new whiskey still and some fermentation equipment to grow, he said.
An American Affair
For the entrepreneur, whiskey-making has been a bridge between his Kentucky-roots and his current New York home.
In New York, most people’s homes are too small to entertain in, he explains. Kentucky culture emphasizes family tradition, agriculture, farms and community. It’s also been a chance, in his view, to get others to share his love of the brew.
“Whiskey has its own way of bringing Americans of all different cultural backgrounds and proclivities together,” said Spoelman.
This story was updated to include a quote from the Partnership Fund.