A strong smell of alcohol permeates an aging building in Brooklyn, a New York City borough that is more famous for its hot dogs and handcrafted bagels than for Kentucky-style whiskey.
It is in this up-and-coming section of New York, across the East River from Manhattan, where Kings County Distillery produces the amber-colored elixir said to put hair on the chest and a burn in the throat.
Although scarcely two years old, Kings County Distillery has the distinction of being the city’s oldest operating whiskey distillery.
It is the first such facility to open since the strict Prohibition laws which outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol were repealed across most of the US in 1933.
The distillery’s award-winning, hand-crafted bourbon is produced in a 113-year-old renovated brick building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The modest whiskey factory is the brainchild of old college buddies Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, who took on the project as something of a lark.
They now see it a part-time passion — and possibly future full-time vocation — as their New York brand of bourbon gains popularity in bars, liquor stores and restaurants around the region.
Spoelman and Haskell, who are in their 30s, were classmates at Yale University in Connecticut and shared an apartment in New York City after they graduated.
They were surprised that there was no established tradition of distilling one’s own bourbon in a city where young professionals are known to enjoy bar-hopping.
“We thought, ‘New York loves the drink, but no one makes one. That’s weird,’” Haskell said.
Spoelman said he was no stranger to home-distilled whiskey.
“I grew up in Kentucky, a state known for its bourbon, but where Prohibition was never repealed,” Spoelman said, referring to the strict US temperance laws that were struck down elsewhere in the US in 1933.
The bootleg alcohol trade in Kentucky spawned a tradition of home-made spirits — popularly known as “moonshine” because it often was produced secretly in the woods, after nightfall.
After deciding to produce their own whiskey, Haskell and Spoelman spent six months conducting research and testing the results.
The entrepreneurial duo eventually developed a satisfactory product, concocted from a recipe with a distinctive pedigree.
“It’s a recipe similar to the one used in George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon,” Haskell said.
They undertook their project just as New York was trying to relax its old laws on spirits and encourage the creation of distilleries. The two friends seized the opportunity and obtained a license to operate their business in April 2010.
Haskell and Spoelman started their enterprise by installing a few small stills in their New York studio apartment.
A year later, the Brooklyn Navy Yard offered them a lease in the aging brick building that once housed an accounting office for shipyard workers, and later became a garment factory run by Hasidic Jews.
Today, four large silver stills hum away inside the facility, releasing a steady drip — about 23 liters each day — of whiskey.
Spoelman and Haskell said they have begun to experiment with their recipe, producing variations such as chocolate-flavored whiskey.
The distillery, which operates seven days a week, from 9am until midnight and employs a part-time staff of approximately a dozen workers, also doubles as a museum dedicated to the art of distilling.