Review: Dead Distillers
Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits, (New York: Abrams Image, 2016), 224 pages, $24.95. ISBN: 9781419720215
Colin Spoelman and David Haskell are cofounders of Kings County Distillery and co-authors of now two books. Spoelman, the head distiller of Kings County Distillery, grew up in the dry Harlan County of eastern Kentucky and only began experimenting with distilling after moving to New York. When Spoelman met Haskell, an editor of New York magazine and the great-grandson of a former New York bootlegger, the idea for Kings County Distillery was born. Since 2010, Kings County Distillery has won a number of medals for its spirits, and most recently it was named 2016 Distillery of the Year by ADI.
An employee of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery inspired Spoelman and Haskell to write their newest book after organizing a tour of the graves of distillers interred there. As they looked at cemeteries around the country, they realized that the buried distillers all had intriguing stories to tell that were uniquely American. The book retells shortened biographies of 76 distillers who ranged the gamut from slaves and outlaws to successful businessmen and U.S. presidents. The stories are arranged by the distillers’ death dates, and are interspersed with newspaper clippings of distillery accidents that have lamentably taken the lives of workers, neighbors and rescue personnel for the past 400 years.
Dead Distillers is an excellent book that pays tribute to and humanizes those whose stories are included. For the average consumer, spirits named after dead distillers are seen as marketing depicting them as whiskey gods in an American pantheon. However, Dead Distillers succeeds at honoring real people who led fascinating and complicated lives with their biographies and two fantastic infographics. While most infographics try to simplify data to the point that it is immediately digestible in a single glance, the two included in the book are more akin to topographical maps that only reveal the depth of their content through close inspection. And finally, while Spoelman and Haskell wrote the book for anyone interested in distilling, it offers living distillers a memorial as real as any graveyard headstone that they can visit and remember both the successes and failures of those who came before them.
Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016): 145