CHRISTOPHE JAMMET (this article was published February 20, 2013)
At the behest of my friend Mike at @IceandNeat, we braved the nightmare that is getting to Brooklyn on a weekend and visited the Kings County Distillery for a tour of their whiskey-making operation and a taste of their output.
Eight dollars gets you a 20 dollar tour of the distillery, where you get educated on not only how whiskey is made, but on the history of NY State distilleries as well. The prevalence and notoriety of the Kentucky Bourbon producers might have you think that NY-based distilleries are an outlier, a fad folly assimilated into the hipster construct. You would be wrong.
As Kings County’s Master Distiller Nicole Austin told us, NY state has quite a bit of history hidden within. At its peak prior to prohibition, NY state contained over 1,000 distilleries- ranking 7th in the country, far outnumbering its Kentucky brethren.
As luck would have it, Kings County Distillery has the honor of being NYC’s first operating whiskey distillery since prohibition went the way of the dodo.
The tour was an intimate showing of the intimate craft that is small-batch distilling. The distillery, whose aged walls reside in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, bears a connection to the past both in setting and history. Getting an up-close view of the process highlights the balance of chemistry and art that makes whiskey production so fascinating.
On the ground floor, a spacious room with tall ceilings contained vats of fermenting locally-grown grains, four modestly size stills used in current production, and larger equipment such as two massive bulbous copper pot stills, capable of producing 30 gallons of whiskey a day.
The second floor was the aging room, containing over 400 five-gallon American Oak barrels. these small barrels, while being more practical for smaller producers, also bring with them the advantage of needing considerably less aging time. A smaller barrel makes for a higher ratio of surface area exposure to wood by volume, and means that their whiskey only needs to age between 12 and 18 months to get to a good place.
We poked around in the aging room as Master Distiller Nicole Austin answered booze-related questions and shared her process and thoughts on Whiskey distilling in general. Afterwards we meandered into the next room where we tasted their three whiskeys and toured the “Boozeum,” which expanded on the drunken history of Whiskey production in the State.
Their lineup includes a Bourbon, Moonshine made from corn, and a chocolate “flavored” whiskey, infused with spent Mast Brothers cocoa husks. The goods, contained in minimal and unpretentious 200ml bottles, can be purchased as a boxed set, which is a pretty satisfying purchase.
Of the three, my favorite has been the chocolate whiskey. It’s about as far as you can get from what normally passes for chocolate-flavored alcohol these days. It’s a sipping whiskey, full of chocolate character without the sweetness. Think cocoa nibs instead of milk chocolate.
Our Kings County Distillery excursion will be the first of many, as we set on a quest to tackle the Brooklyn Spirits trail and beyond. So far, I think it rings true that consuming food and drink is a more encompassing experience when you learn about how it’s made, who it’s made by, and why it’s made the way it was. These whiskeys are no exception, and I’ll be sipping them more thoughtfully than I would have been without visiting their birthplace.