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Whiskey Stills Humming Again in New York City

Whiskey-making stills in action at the Kings County Distillery, New York City
© AFP/Emmanuel Dunand | Whiskey-making stills in action at the Kings County Distillery, New York City
Bourbon and moonshine are being made in Brooklyn.

A strong smell of alcohol permeates this aging building in Brooklyn, a New York City borough more famous for its hot dogs and handcrafted bagels than Kentucky-style whiskey.

But it's here, in this up-and-coming section of New York City, across the East River from Manhattan, that Kings County Distillery produces the amber-colored elixir said to put hair on the chest and a burn in the throat.

Although scarcely two years old, Kings County Distillery has the distinction of being the city's oldest operating whiskey distillery. It is the first such facility to open since the strict Prohibition laws that outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol were repealed across most of the United States in 1933.

The distillery's award-winning, hand-crafted bourbon is produced in a 113-year-old renovated brick building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The modest whiskey factory is the brainchild of old college buddies Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, who took on the project as something of a lark. They now see it a part-time passion – and possibly future full-time vocation – as their New York brand of bourbon gains popularity in bars, liquor stores and restaurants around the region.

Spoelman and Haskell, who are in their 30s, were classmates at Yale University in Connecticut and shared an apartment in New York City after college.

They were surprised that there was no established tradition of distilling one's own bourbon in a city where young professionals are known to enjoy bar-hopping. "We thought, 'New York loves the drink but no one makes one. That's weird!'" Haskell said.

Spoelman, meanwhile, confessed that he was no stranger to home-distilled whiskey. "I grew up in Kentucky, a state known for its bourbon, but where Prohibition was never repealed," he said, referring to the strict U.S. temperance laws that were struck down elsewhere in the United States in 1933.

The bootleg alcohol trade in Kentucky spawned a tradition of home-made spirits – popularly known as "moonshine" because they often were produced secretly in the woods at night.

Head distiller and chemist Nicole Austin shows visitors around the distillery
© AFP/Emmanuel Dunand | Head distiller and chemist Nicole Austin shows visitors around the distillery

Haskell and Spoelman, after deciding to produce their own whiskey, spent six months doing research and testing the results. The entrepreneurial duo eventually developed a satisfactory product, concocted from a recipe with a distinctive pedigree.

"It's a recipe similar to the one used in George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon," Haskell boasted.

They undertook their project just as New York was trying to relax its old laws on spirits and encourage the creation of distilleries. The two friends seized the opportunity and in April 2010 obtained a license to operate their business.

Haskell and Spoelman started out by installing a few small stills in their New York studio apartment. A year later, the Brooklyn Navy Yard offered them a lease in the aging brick building that once housed the pay office for shipyard workers and later became a garment factory run by Hasidic Jews.

Today, four large silver stills hum away inside the facility, releasing a steady drip – about six gallons (23 liters) each day – of whiskey. The owners said they have begun to experiment with their recipe, and have even started to produce chocolate-flavored whiskey.

The distillery operates seven days a week, from 9 a.m. until midnight, and employs a part-time staff of about a dozen workers. It also doubles as a museum dedicated to the art of distilling.

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