Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Tag: Kings County Distillery

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

Kings County Distillery: ADI's 2016 Distillery of the Year

Image by Gail Sands

Colin Spoelman grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister in Harlan County, one of Kentucky’s 39 dry counties. Despite growing up in a town with no liquor stores or bars, Spoelman, as recounted in the prologue of his book The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey (Harry N. Abrams, 2013), he and his friends obtained liquor from either a local bootlegger or a woman who sold booze out of her home with seeming impunity. While living in New York in 2005, Spoelman began to ponder the idea of making and selling distilled spirits. After a couple of years of experimenting, Spoelman and David Haskell founded the Kings County Distillery, and in April 2010 they began making whiskey out of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In six short years, Spoelman and Haskell have grown the reach of Kings County Distillery both in terms of distribution and influence within the industry. Today, their spirits can be found in seven U.S. states and five countries. Originally working with five 25-gallon stills, Spoelman and Haskell produced a corn whiskey “moonshine,” and laid down a portion into new small barrels for bourbon. Their award-winning spirits were received by an enthusiastic public and, in part because of favorable New York State laws for small distilleries, Kings County Distillery began to grow. In 2013, Kings County Distillery upgraded to two larger Scottish-made whiskey stills and open wood fermenters. Spoelman explained that by using corn grown in New York, open top fermenters and an aging room without temperature controls, they were attempting to create whiskey that embodies the character and terroir of New York and would be purposely different from the bourbon coming out of Kentucky. And, as their production for aged spirits has grown, they have also gradually increased the size of the barrels they are using.

In 2014, Kings County Distillery earned a Gold Medal: Excellence in Packaging award from ADI. To date, all of Kings County Distillery’s spirits have been bottled in a glass hip-flask bottle with a simple metal screw-top and a slim paper band as a label. This simple package has helped their product stand out on liquor store shelves and served as a testimony to both Spoelman’s upbringing in Kentucky and the distillery’s humble beginnings. This otherwise generic bottle, closure and label have become immediately recognizable and synonymous with Kings County Distillery without any of the irony or kitsch of the mason jar used by a number of small distilleries. Spoelman and Haskell have continued to use this simple packaging because the contents have come to speak for themselves.

Kings County Distillery Barrel Room. Photo by  Valery Rizzo

One of the reasons for the success of Kings County Distillery’s spirits is the talent they have been able to attract to their mission. Blender Nicole Austin oversees their barrel program and ensures that each new batch of whiskey they bottle is the best expression of what they make. Andrew Lohfeld, a former distiller at Kings County Distillery, believed an oat whiskey had potential and convinced Spoelman that they should try it as an experiment. As it turned out, Lohfeld was right and their Oat Whiskey earned a Gold Medal and Best of Category: Alt Whiskey at ADI’s 2016 Judging of Craft Spirits. Because of their collective efforts, Kings County Distillery has earned more than a dozen awards for their spirits. And despite their success—even in the face of their success—the team at Kings County Distillery have not been overly jealous of other people’s success or opportunities. With the blessing of Spoelman and Haskell, Lohfeld has gone on to leverage his experience and intuition as a distiller and co-founder of a new rum distillery in New Orleans.

Bill Owens, President of ADI, presents the 2016 Distillery of the Year award to Colin Spoelman of Kings County Distillery. Photo by Carl Murray.

This year ADI recognized Kings County Distillery with its Bubble Cap Award as the 2016 Distillery of the Year. Kings County Distillery joins a small group of distilleries that represent the highest standards in the craft spirits industry in terms of the quality of their spirits, their camaraderie in the industry, and their work as ambassadors to consumers for both their own company and the industry at large. ADI is proud to champion the ethic and commitment to quality embodied by Kings County Distillery, and looks forward to their continued growth and success.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine Summer 2016

Review: The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining

Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey, (New York: Abrams, 2013), 224 pages, $24.95.

Colin Spoelman is the Master Distiller of Kings County Distillery and co-author of The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey. Spoelman grew up in the dry Harlan County of eastern Kentucky. While the region had a long history of moonshining, Spoelman didn't try it for himself until he moved to New York.  While Spoelman worked in film, architecture and perfume, Kings County Distillery grew from an idea, to a hobby to a full time business that has earned a good deal of commercial and critical success.

Like other recent books on food and drinks, the cover art is printed directly on the binding which avoids the customary dust jacket.  But unlike other recent books, the art and text are  printed onto a cloth binding which gives it a wonderful texture.  The interior of the book is equally striking with bold red highlights, diagrams and chapter breaks. Spoelman and Haskell pack quite a bit of information in the book's slim 224 page frame.  It is organized very well and covers just about everything you would want from a book of this sort.  It includes the basics of what makes whiskey unique, its history, a survey of the large Kentucky distilleries and some notable Craft distillers, how to make on a small scale, as well as whiskey recipes. Despite this breadth, The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining is like a welterweight prizefighter – zero fat and packs a punch. 

My two favorite sections of the book are “A History of Whiskey,” and “How to Make Whiskey.” As a student of history I appreciated the fact that the book's history chapter didn't repeat the the same old tired stories about Kentucky.  Spoelman and Haskell included great stories about the history of distilling in New York and the mid-Atlantic states that have an equal claim on the history of whiskey in the US.  Spoelman's chapter on how to make whiskey is clear and easy to follow. For anyone who has home-brewed a batch of all grain beer will recognize many of the steps involved in mashing and fermenting the distiller's beer. The description of the distilling phase has through instructions that demystify the process. The one question that repeatedly came to mind while reading the book was, how can Spoelman tell his story and not get into legal trouble. Spoelman and Haskell are clear about the illegality of home distilling but its unclear why they or other moonshiners-turned-distillers can publicize their stories without legal consequence.  There are a number of possibilities that float around in my head but since I am not a legal scholar it is probably prudent not to speculate. 

The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining, would make a great addition for a wide variety of readers. Fans of Kings County Distillery, the homebrewer interested in adding a new hobby, or the whiskey enthusiasts who wants to better understand the process of distillation will likely find the book useful and educational. Spoelman and Haskell have produced a great book and I would be glad to see them collaborate on another.