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.
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.
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.
Bill Owens, President of ADI, presents the 2016 Distillery of the Year award to Colin Spoelman of Kings County Distillery. Photo by Carl Murray.
Originally published in Distiller Magazine Summer 2016