Kings County Distillery: Just like High School US History Class, but with Booze
One only needs to go on a handful of distillery tours to start expecting a couple of things. There should be at least one still. (If you're visiting real moonshiners, it may just be a cooking pot with an inverted funnel on top.) If you don't see one, then it may be worth asking your tour guide exactly what they make there. Your guide should also give a rudimentary overview of the distillation process (ie, separating alcohol from water is good) and maybe a little bit of background on the distillery itself or the tradition of distilling in that particular region. I was not prepared for the history lesson waiting for me at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.
Even walking into the place -a restored Naval administrative building- you get the sense that these walls have hosted generations of (self-)important men. Now, they welcome women too -I notice a female distiller and met guest services director, Lia- and conduct business no less important than making some fantastic whiskey.
I go up to the second floor tasting room where II check in with Lia. I'm then lead around a corner to a classroom in the "boozeum." There's a blackboard at the front and visitors seated on benched rows, listening to a teacher. Ok, maybe it's just tour guide Matt, but the guy seriously knows his booze history. I come in a bit late, so the lesson has already gotten to post-Revolutionary War spirits consumption (Someone somehow has calculated that average liquor consumption in the 1780s was five gallons per year. Now it's two. That's still a lot of Fireball.)
When we get to Irish mass immigration to New York, the link to Kings County Distillery's Navy Yard location becomes clearer. Right next door is a neighborhood named Vinegar Hill. It was named by the Irish who settled there around the time the Navy Yard opened in 1801. "Vinegar Hill" was a famous battle in the Irish Rebellion several years prior.
The Irish could move across oceans and still manage to establish a little bit of Ireland in their new country. This included home-distilling whiskey. The way Matt tells it, the local authorities were fairly permissive the Irish's shenanigans (where do you think the word cam from?) as long as they didn't spill out of the ghetto. After the Civil War, the US Government owed a tremendous war debt, so President Grant passed legislation heavily taxing spirits production. Of course, the Irish were paying no taxes on the whiskey they made and sold amongst themselves, and were hoping to keep it that way. Fast forward through some details, and there were eventually riots from within view of the current distillery's windows. Tax agents raided and destroyed stills, dumping out liquor in scenes that would foreshadow famous images from Prohibition.
There's more to get through and we sit there for a while. Just like in real school, my attention drifts - right around when Matt mentions that Al Capone’s birthplace and the whorehouse where he caught syphilis are right up the street.
I study the shelves of bottles along the wall. They have the literal (masking tape and pen) markings of experimental batches. This is the kind of shit I like to see. It means someone here is genuinely curious and inventive, and not just distilling from recipe.
The tour is fairly engaging too. It's the first time I see open fermentation tanks. They're large and there's four of them. The tanks are as new as the distillery -opened in 2012- but purposely made to look old-timey with wood boards. Along with two 100-gallon copper pot stills, Matt says they can distill an entire tank's worth in less than a day.
We go back upstairs to try the finished product. Kings County Distillery has a lot of variations on whiskey, and even though Matt says he's willing to pour as many samples as we want, it's a fairly large group (celebrating a birthday and engagement) and I don't want to be a hog.
Kings County's moonshine is 80 proof and made from a mash bill that's 80% corn and 20% malted barley. The nose has a musty staleness that gives way to pickle and green pepper. The palate is equally sweet and bitter, with a rind-like finish.
There's a couple flavored versions of the moonshine, remaining at 80 proof. The first one I try has had mashed up strawberries and sugar steeped in the distillate for a week. The nose is only light strawberry, while the palate is mellow fruit with a bitter and earthy aftertaste.
Another one has cacao husks infused for four months. The nose has hints of honey and vanilla. The palate is leather, soy sauce and minimal sweetness, with a tiny burn on the end.
To make their bourbon, the moonshine gets aged in new oak barrels of #4 char for two years (as all their whiskeys are), and gets bottled at 90 proof. The nose has plenty of vanilla and tannin, with some caramel. The palate is spice and fruit forward, with a noticeable burn on the finish.
The story of how Kings County's peated bourbon came to be just demonstrates how you have to be flexible and open to accidents in this business (as long as no one gets hurt). In this case, the distillery had been making a mash of 80% corn and 20% unmalted barley, but got a shipment of malted, peated barley by mistake. They made the bourbon anyway and really enjoyed it. The result has an earthy, minerally nose that reminds me of a nursery greenhouse. The palate is all those manly flavors: smoke, tobacco and finishing on leather. It's like someone bottled the essence of the Marlboro Man (minus the throat cancer).
Kings County's single malt is made entirely of that malted, peated barley and aged in used bourbon barrels for eighteen months. It is 94 proof. On the nose, I get the best of toffee and candy (sounds more like an 80s one-hit-wonder duo). The palate is bready and yeasty, strangely lacking in the bourbon barrel essences I like.
I try a wheat whiskey, which is 85% wheat and 15% malted barley, aged for two years in new oak barrels, and bottled at 80 proof. The nose is wood and hay, or the barn-like essence I get on some ryes. The palate is sour pickle, finishing on more wood.
I learn one more interesting tidbit, this one directly related to bourbon. Around 1897,a group of distillers decided there was so much poor quality whiskey, accompanied by false age claims, that some sort of government certification was in order. Hence the impetus for the Bottled-in-Bond Act was born. It stipulates for a bourbon to claim "bottled-in-bond" status was to be bottled at a minimum of 100 proof and aged for at least four years, in addition to the requirements to be labeled "bourbon" in the first place. An advantage for the distillers, besides distinguishing their quality directly on the label, is that they would not have to pay excise tax on the whiskey until it was released from the warehouse.
Kings County Distillery has a bottled in bond version of their bourbon and I get to try it. The nose has deep char notes, with dried fruits and tobacco. The palate is high wood and plum, with a spicy finish.
I would call a trip to Kings County Distillery an all-purpose visit. You get the fun of tasting uncommon styles of whiskey, balanced by the slog through three hundred plus years of American history, and much longer tradition of distilling. To Matt’s credit, he kept the infotainment light and bite-sized; and went above-and-beyond in answering all questions (and pouring samples). The distillery serves as a welcome diversion for any tour through Brooklyn. After all, there’s only so many mason-jar-cocktail bars and more-expensive-than-new vintage stores a person can handle in one day. Plus, Matt’s earnestness could cut through even the most viscous snark and jaded ‘tudes in this, the hippest of boroughs.