American Craft Distilling and Whiskey Diversity

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_DSC3537 American whiskey is going through an interesting moment.  Until about ten years ago, all of the whiskey made in the United States came from one of a small group of very large commercial distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee.  All of that is changing very rapidly.  New laws around the country have paved the way for smaller startup distilleries, which are taking advantage of the interest around the world in artisanal and handmade products. During Prohibition, a lot of the spirits made in the US were either very bad or sometimes poisonous, people gravitated to whiskey made from very established, reputable companies.  Only now that is starting to erode as people begin to explore whiskies that are made at a smaller scale, and often with more creative recipes and processes, expanding what people think about when they think of American whiskey.

There are two types of American whiskey that are most popular:  bourbon and rye.  Bourbon is made from corn and rye is made from rye, and like all whiskies, they are distilled to a low proof and aged in wooden barrels, and American law dictates that the barrels have to be charred and previously unused.  This gives American whiskey a more spicy, robust, sweet character than its European counterparts.  And aside from being aged to different degrees, American whiskey is produced in a very homogenous way: on column stills, with very similar recipes brand to brand.  Many consumers are surprised to find that many brands are made at the same distillery with the same recipe.  We made this chart to help us navigate the landscape of commercial American whiskeys:


Craft distillers are often rightly criticized for being young and expensive, but their advantage can often be organic or local ingredients, better distillation, and creative processes.  Different types of whiskey are growing in popularity as a result of the craft movement, most notably, white or unaged whiskies and American malt whiskeys. While only one type of American whiskey can be sold here unaged (corn whiskey), the law only requires that whiskey be aged for a period of unspecified time, so some producers “age” their whiskey for a day or less, creating a new category of spirit.  As much as there are unaged versions of brandy (eaux-de-vie, grappa), tequila, and rum; unaged whiskeys are getting their day as well.  And while malt whiskeys are common in Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, they are becoming more popular with craft distillers in the states, eager to dive into a category of American whiskey that has been until now mostly mostly forgotten.  American malt whiskey is often bolder and sweeter than its European counterpart, but no less interesting.

I first got interested in distilling when I was growing up in Kentucky.  I was particularly curious about moonshine, which is any illegally made spirit, but the most common type is white whiskey made from corn.  After moving to New York, I got a small still online and started making moonshine in my Brooklyn apartment.  After a couple of years of experiments with my future business partner, David Haskell, we opened Kings County Distillery, New York City’s oldest operating whiskey distillery, the first since the prohibition era within the city limits.

_DSC5229-2Founded in 2010, soon after the creation of a New York State Farm Distillery License, Kings County makes homemade moonshine and bourbon out of the 113-year-old Paymaster Building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  The distillery uses New York grain and atypically traditional distilling equipment to make distinctive whiskey.  Kings County’s whiskeys have won awards at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirit Awards and have been lauded by the New York Times and in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.  We make bourbon, and though I’m from Kentucky, we do it in a slightly different way: using Scotch pot stills, with organic ingredients, and a larger portion of malt than is common for a bourbon.

First located in a 325 square-foot, second-floor room in East Williamsburg, the distillery existed as the smallest commercial distillery in the country, with five 24-liter stainless steel s_DSC5012tills making bourbon and moonshine seven days a week, 16 hours a day.  In 2012, the distillery moved into the Paymaster Building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard, just steps former distillery district of the waterfront, which was active through the 1700s and 1800s. We’re now working on our own malt whiskey and keep experimenting with different recipes like our chocolate whiskey and other unusual projects, some designed to be released (peated bourbon and oat whiskey) and others just for fun, including distilling coca-cola.  Craft distillers are opening all over the country, and together we are creating a more diverse landscape for American whiskey.

Colin Spoelman
Co-Founder & Master Distiller 
Kings County Distillery


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1 Comment

  1. pino perrone

    Ho avuto la fortuna di assaggiare i loro prodotti e debbo dire che sono ben fatti. Una piacevole scoperta.

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