Rocket Science: Colin Spoelman
“We’re pulling from a world tradition and synthesizing everything. There’s a New York idea of taking a lot of ambition and intelligence and assembling it into something that fits the great culinary culture of our city.”
Kings County Distillery is New York City’s oldest, largest, and premier whiskey distillery, the first since prohibition. Co-founded in 2010 by David Haskell and Colin Spoelman, Kings County makes handmade bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys out of the 123-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Colin is a distiller, Kentucky native, recovering architect, filmmaker, speaker, and author of the book Dead Distillers.
You can’t walk around a corner in Brooklyn without seeing an ad of a famous guy and his best friend on motorcycles drinking whiskey. Why do you think the whiskey market has grown so much over the last 15 years?
Part of it has to do with a pretty recent regulatory opening for small distillers. Beer went through a craft revolution in the ’80s. Small wineries have been steadily growing around the country since the ‘90s.
But spirits had a different history. In the 1980s, there were a dozen distilleries. Five global corporations owned everything. American whiskey really did kill off small, medium, and even giant-sized businesses in favor, exclusively, of super enormous global corporations.
But the advertising around American whiskey was all, “Oh, this is small batch. This is the way my grandpappy used to do it, it’s made the old way.” And there was just a pretty deep disconnect, even though a farm-to-table audience was primed for that kind of storytelling, if not very truthful.
Most alcohol laws are at the state level, and there’s been a lot of liberalization of alcohol laws across the board. In 2011, New York allowed distilleries. A law passed that reduced the barrier to entry from $13,000 a year to $128 a year.
That opened the door for a new kind of small-scale farm distiller and jump-started a whole economic sector. The ability to be a distributor, to be a manufacturer, to be a retailer, and ultimately even serve cocktails in our tasting rooms … it was just a way to push back on that “small batch” image with something genuine.
Small businesses in our industry confront so many challenges. The removal of that barrier gave us a fighting chance. The paring away of these weird laws that don’t really relate to the modern view of alcohol anymore was very helpful for small distillers. It changed the way people drink, for the better.
More than maybe any other beverage, alcoholic or otherwise, the projection of authenticity seems critical to the sales strategy. Big distillers often trade on callbacks to the frontier or prohibition or similar tropes.
Right. There was a disconnect with the advertising, promoting bourbon as this small, handmade thing. But how handmade can something really be if it’s on a billboard?
I’m from Kentucky, so I tracked this closely. I wanted to believe in this narrative that there was still one American product that was not really industrialized. And it was just a total myth. American whiskey has been, in my perspective, cutting corners and eroding its own integrity for a long time.
Whiskey is something where transparency and authenticity are very important, going back to the 1900s when the first laws around pharmaceutical products were created.
American laws to protect consumers began with whiskey, even before drugs were recognized as something the government should protect … the first drug was whiskey. Straight Kentucky bourbon was enshrined by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. So whiskey has always been at the leading edge in terms of people perceiving it as an honest product.
Distilleries have long traded on their place of origin as selling points (Kentucky, Ireland, Japan, et. al). What do you think makes whiskey from the New York region distinctive?
10 years ago, people would’ve said, “Well, if it’s not from Kentucky, it’s not worth drinking.”
But even as they repeated this trope, many did not realize that a lot of whiskeys were actually coming from Indiana. Kentucky bottlers did a lot of horse-trading behind the scenes with big industrial distilleries in Indiana and Tennessee. The marketing got ahead of the truth.
What we’ve seen recently is a regionalization in whiskey that’s a lot more pronounced than even in beer. It mimics what was happening in the ’80s when breweries helped to define a city or a region, whether it was Boston or the Sierra Nevada mountains. And craft brewers came up with regional styles, such as the New England IPA. We’re figuring out what that regionalization means in terms of flavor for whiskey.
One thing that really defines the New York distilling landscape is a sort of geeky approach to spirits. A commitment to a very small scale and a very determined, uncompromising style of production that you find in a lot of New York City’s restaurant culture.
And it’s a great opportunity to define what New York whiskey could be. I think some distillers are trying to replicate Kentucky bourbon. What we’re trying to do is push American whiskey into a more international-facing realm.
Many of our whiskeys use peated malt, which is common to a lot of scotch whiskeys. We use pot distillation. We have these beautiful copper pot stills built in Scotland. So we are using Scotch production equipment and techniques to make American-style whiskey, which opens up a lot of opportunity to be creative within a very staid industry.
We’re pulling from a world tradition and synthesizing everything. There’s a New York idea of taking a lot of ambition and intelligence and assembling it into something that fits the great culinary culture of our city.
Kings County has such a distinctive, stripped-down look to the brand. You see it a mile away on the shelf. How did you choose that?
My prior career was working in architecture. The architect I worked for was very anti-façade. To design a façade is like failing because you’re creating an image that you want the building to look like versus designing a smart building. That stuck with me.
Whiskey brands are so overcooked, and the packaging is so maximalist. When we started I was distilling in my apartment. Mason jars, neon tape, typewritten labels – we wanted to signal we were a small company and that we were putting a lot of attention on what was in the bottle. To this day, we’ve never hired a graphic designer. I think the marketing of Kings County benefits from putting function over form.
The bottle and packaging look a little like moonshine.
Right. Only the government-required information is on there and so the bottles become a little mysterious, by forcing people to pick it up to look closer and be curious. And when they open the bottle, hopefully, they understand what makes it different.
When I started learning about the distilling process, I had an apartment that had a sort of secluded rooftop I could experiment on, so it felt a little like making moonshine. I had no real intention of starting a craft distillery because there wasn’t an avenue to do it.
In the early days of our business, before we were even a business, there was a little bit of an irreverent kind of streak that carries through in the way we present ourselves. The business is still deeply independent. We have investors, but we’re not beholden to a corporate owner, or a board of directors, or the trade organizations that govern our industry … entities that would like everybody to play by certain rules. I feel we don’t have to fool with that, and hopefully it shows in our products.
What’s something a first-time founder should do as they’re building their distillery?
One thing that everybody should do is go work on the bottling line at another distillery. Really get a feel for the day-to-day of it, because when you think about it in the abstract, it sounds like you’re constantly sitting in a room full of beautiful old-aged whiskey barrels and sampling the oldest, finest ones.
Often you’re in the kitchen making the same recipe every single day. It’s actually less exciting than a kitchen because you’re making a 3-ingredient beverage that takes 10 hours and just basically drips in front of you. It’s like watching a kettle boil for 10 hours.
There is a lot of repetitive labor if you’re doing it right. I won’t say it’s boring, but you have to have a certain personality to do it. I’ll say that as a word of caution to anybody who’s considering it.
What’s something a first-time founder should NOT do as they’re building their distillery?
Everybody has a different path, so I wouldn’t rule out anything. But when I look back at what we did, you know, my ambitions were too small at every stage.
First, we raised $30,000, which, at the time, seemed like a lot of money to go get a commercial distilling space and get little hobby stills. Then we raised a million dollars. Too small. And then we raised more money, and it was too small again.
I’ve seen distilleries in Kentucky that have popped up over the last 6 or 7 years producing 10,000 barrels a day. I never wanted to be that kind of a distillery. So much of our identity, and the way that we make whiskey, really depended on that slow ramp up.
So, I’m not going to say I did the wrong thing because it has shaped us in definitive ways. But could I have raised more money and been less cheap? Spent less time worrying about what we can spend money on and more time focused on other things? Yes. The simple takeaway is just if your idea is good, you can raise money off of it and you should dream big.
Kings County occupies the historic Paymaster Building and South Gatehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. What’s your favorite architectural feature from those buildings?
Architecture is so function-focused, which is funny when you think about whiskey, because there is no practical function to whiskey. But our space has to be a production floor, an education facility, a bar, a culinary lab … the architecture of a distillery is fascinating.
For the Paymaster, I love the repetition of the windows. There’s something like 68 windows in the building. They’re on all sides and it just is a really beautiful space. That building dates back to 1899 and used to function as the financial administration building and then an Officer’s Club, among other things.
It’s rare to be in a building from the 1800s in New York that really has never been renovated. I mean, it’s been renovated in the sense that sort of original details were long gone by the time we moved in. But there’s a lot of stuff that remains in that building that is original. The building retains the feel of what it was designed to be.
The South Gatehouse, where we have our tasting room, is from 1896, and a lot of that detail is preserved. We didn’t even repaint it, so it feels very much like going back in time.
It’s obviously a choice to preserve those layers of history. Whiskey is a commodity that builds its appeal on history. There’s a great distilling tradition in New York, and there’s a great history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard that we can participate in as a new company.
Is there a spirit that you’d like to make but haven’t made yet?
One thing that I’m always kind of hoping to revisit is apple brandy. We’ve done some from time to time, but we don’t really have the equipment to crush apples and make the kind of apple mash that one would need to do to make apple brandy as a regular thing.
I’ve played around with distilling agave nectar, which was pretty cool, but I never found a way to like turn it into something useful for the business.
One of the good and bad things about running a somewhat successful distillery is people expect certain products from you, and you have to spend your time making those. Peated bourbon is sort of where the future of the business is. And there’s only so much agave nectar you can fool with before you’re getting too far from your fan base and what’s really exciting to people.
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
My dad was a minister, and he saved this sign that said “Pastor’s Study,” which was on his bathroom for a long time. I now have that in my office.
I also have a barrel head stencil. In Scotland, they’ll ink the name of the distillery onto their barrel heads. That’s the old way but in most commercial distilleries, they staple a barcode to the barrel and call it a day.
We were playing around with that idea for Kings County, but it’s actually a lot of work and impractical to do on a bigger scale. But I got to keep that barrel head stencil, which to me is a reminder of the labor-intensive way of doing things.
What’s your favorite outdoor space?
In a generic sense, where I grew up, people had porches. That’s not really a common feature in New York City.
I have this fantasy that at some point in my life I’ll end up with a porch because I do think whiskey is something that is somehow better consumed outside. It’s good in all weather. Good in winter, warms you up. Good in summer, makes you forget about the heat.
Maybe we can find a way to bring back porches to New York City, but those are long odds.
What’s a nonprofit we should donate to?
Right now, that’s an easy answer. My hometown, Harlan, Kentucky, did not see a lot of flooding, but our adjacent towns really did.
There’s a media institute in Kentucky called Appalshop, which documents the folk traditions and old way of doing things in the hills of Appalachia. Things that are in danger of being lost or forgotten. They have a record label, a radio station, a theater, a film program, archives, and a priceless collection of handmade musical instruments.
Their building flooded a week ago and the archives were on the ground floor and now there is a race against time to salvage what can be saved. Go to appalshop.org.
There are a lot of ways you can give to Appalachia right now. A lot of people need help. But if you’re into the art and culture of Appalachia, restoring anything that’s salvageable is an important project.