New York City’s First Distillery Since Prohibition

We’re sitting in a tiny commercial studio in East Williamsburg on a Saturday afternoon, watching the first trickle of legally distilled whiskey to be produced in New York City since Prohibition drip into a graduated cylinder. The room is about 325 square feet, and, like most everything in New York, tries to fit too much into too small a space. There’s a quarter-ton of grain in one corner, sixteen tubs of fermenting mash near the door, a neat pyramid of eighteen five-gallon oak barrels in the middle of the room, and our tiny stills lined against the wall. Our neighbors practice scales on electric guitars, and our landlord imports ties from China in the warehouse beneath us.

It’s not easy to make spirits in this city. While brewing beer at home is legal (and a practice that appears to be booming in Brooklyn), the locavorization of liquor remains a lot more problematic: There is an asphyxiating amount of red tape involved in assembling all the federal permits, state licenses, bonds, wholesale registrations, sales-tax identifications, and label approvals. Still, why hadn’t anyone tried? We asked ourselves that question about a year ago and couldn’t come up with a good answer. In fact, recent changes in the state liquor laws substantially decreased the fees for boutique distillers’ licenses. So we decided to have a go at it.

We aren’t obvious distillers. We don’t consider ourselves obsessive foodies, nor do we have an encyclopedic knowledge of great whiskeys. But we do have a bit of bootlegging in our blood: Colin is from a dry county in southeastern Kentucky (moonshine country), and David recently learned that his great-grandfather got through Prohibition making bourbon in his New York basement.

There are many kinds of whiskeys, depending on which grains you use (rye, barley, wheat), and how and where you age them (Scotch, for instance, must be made in Scotland). We decided to follow our heritage and focus on corn whiskey, which we will sell unaged (as moonshine) and barreled (as bourbon—which, despite what you may have heard, need not be made in Kentucky).

Learning how to turn corn into booze is a little tricky, since the illegality of hobbyist distilling means there’s not much by way of textbooks or courses. Fortunately, there is a man in Canada named Ian Smiley who has written a barely legible Ur-text on home-distilling. If you spend enough time reading Smiley and lurking in Internet forums and conducting chemistry experiments in your kitchen, it’s possible to get a handle on the key steps.

We get our corn from local farmers, partly for legal reasons: Our license mandates that the majority of the ingredients that go into our spirits come from New York State. Ten 50-pound bags of corn arrived last week from an organic farm near Buffalo, and once we’re fully operational we expect to go through a bag a day. (See sidebar.) The most difficult part of making whiskey comes during the second distillation, the so-called spirit run. The first stuff that comes out of the still (that is, the liquids that boil at the lowest temperature) is toxic and known to cause blindness; the end of the run is watery and tastes likes NutraSweet. You want to catch what’s in between, when the still’s temperature is roughly between 80 and 92 degrees Celsius. This means checking the output every few minutes, floating a hydrometer in a graduated cylinder to measure the liquid’s density (and alcohol content), and learning to taste the difference between the whiskey and the poison. The liquid we collect from the spirit run will either be diluted immediately to 40 percent alcohol and bottled as moonshine or aged in barrels. The smaller the barrel the faster bourbon matures—we’re anticipating that our miniature barrels will be ready in eight months.

Kings County Distillery should probably be called a nanodistillery: We’re using five ten-gallon pot stills, which are tiny compared with anything you might have seen when touring a so-called microdistillery. We both have jobs (Colin at an architecture firm, David at this magazine), so the distillery runs nights and weekends. Our maximum production is just 48 pocket flasks’ worth of whiskey each day, which sounds to us like a nice number for sharing with our friends and neighbors.

We’ve been in business for just a week and a half, and we’ll be joined by others soon enough. (There are at least two more microdistilleries with applications in the works.) This strikes us as a good thing. New York is a town of prodigious drinkers, and if you think about the many East Coast microbreweries and all the vineyards out on Long Island, you start to get a sense for the variety of spirits that might soon be coming to local shelves.

After about ten minutes, the alcohol dripping from our still mellows into the heart of the spirit run, and we can start to get a sense of how the finished product will taste. It’s sweet and clean with a bright finish. We take a couple of sips, but the liquid is precious, and we’re trying to fill our first barrel. If we’re lucky, we’ll be serving bourbon at Christmas.

New York City’s First Distillery Since Prohibition