POSTED: Sunday, March 10, 2013 - 2:00am
UPDATED: Sunday, March 10, 2013 - 2:04am
CNN — In a 113-year-old brick building in the industrial Brooklyn Navy Yard, five small metal stills are churning to make an urban version of America's Native Spirit: bourbon made in Brooklyn.
King's County Distillery is New York City's first operating whiskey distillery since the end of Prohibition, the 13 years during which it was illegal to make or sell alcohol in the United States. Even though federal prohibition was repealed in 1933, many state laws remained on the books until 2002.
"We were the first distillery to take advantage of the new law," Colin Spoelman, the founder of King's County Distillery, said. The 33-year-old got his start making illegal moonshine in his apartment but in 2010 Spoelman turned the business to spearhead a wave of small-batch brewing of spirits in the Big Apple.
In a market that is dominated by large-scale manufacturers based in rural Kentucky, Spoelman has found a niche. "To be able to offer something that's a little bit different, that's made a little bit differently seems to have an appeal," said the Kentucky native.
In the process of turning grain mash into whiskey, Spoelman and his partners rely on locally sourced ingredients and even use wood chips from downed trees caused by storm Sandy to fire up the whiskey stills. The five small stills currently in use will soon be replaced by two large gleaming copper stills, a practical response to the high demand of whiskey and bourbon.
Kings County Distillery's glass flasks, with their simple labeling, are sharing shelf space with an increasing number of local spirits. Jonathan Goldstein, owner of the Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Manhattan, says his customers have started to seek out products made in New York.
"A year ago we had next to zero as far as New York state products went, and in the last 12 months it's exploded on the scene," Goldman said.
It is an opportune time for urban liquor pioneers. Amid heavier demand, whiskey distribution was up nationwide by 4.9% from 2011 to 2012, according to the Beverage Information Group.
"The distilleries are popping up in Brooklyn because it's affordable, but also there's a culture in Brooklyn that support distilleries," said Sarah Lohman, author of fourpoundsflour.com, who has studied the history of whiskey distilling in Brooklyn.
For Colin Spoelman making bourbon in Brooklyn is a vocation, "Most people think it's cool. My dad who is a minister in Kentucky is a little less comfortable with my chosen career path, but I think he's also just happy that I have a job."