Moonshiners: The Editor, the Architect and the Bottle

danielmweissc2010 2144 Moonshiners: The Editor, the Architect and the Bottle“So you just yeasted?” David Haskell, a features editor at New York magazine, asked a young man in a blue T-shirt named Simon, who was sitting in a vinyl chair by an industrial window in Bushwick.

Simon, a recent Bennington graduate who makes video art, and who has black hair and a thick mustache, said he did. He had also mashed, strained and stripped a foul-smelling brew that would eventually be distilled into un-aged corn whiskey (or moonshine) or aged into bourbon.

This was late in the afternoon on a Saturday at the Kings County Distillery, which Mr. Haskell and his business partner, Colin Spoelman, registered in April under a farm distillery license, introduced into law by former governor Eliot Spitzer. The 325-square-foot space, situated on the second floor of a nondescript building not far from the English Kills creek, was heavy with the smell of yeast and simmering corn.

“One person has complained about the smell,” said Mr. Spoelman, sitting on an oak barrel where bourbon has been aging since May. Mr. Spoelman, who grew up in Kentucky, works for the architecture firm Bernard Tschumi. “But it’s an industrial building. People make products here. I think it smells nice. I come here after work, and I’m like, ‘Ah. It’s working.’”

There were, in the beginning, some problems.

“The floor leaks, so whenever someone spills a drop of water, it goes down to the landlord,” said Mr. Spoelman.

“There are a lot of imported ties and dress shirts from China stored downstairs,” said Mr. Haskell.

Mr. Haskell, who looks younger than 31, has curly brown hair and dark brown eyes. He is the more serious of the pair. Mr. Spoelman, also 31, is tall and cheerful with messy blond hair and a beard. Kings County Distillery, which the former Yale roommates funded with small investments from friends and family, is New York City’s first since Prohibition, the kind of quirky accomplishment that put the partners in the hyper-artisanal Brooklyn landscape of small-batch, hand-labeled (theirs, with a typewriter found on a Williamsburg street), local-ingredient-using purveyors occupied by Mast Brothers chocolate, Brooklyn Brine pickles and Marlow & Daughters butchers. Naturally, their moonshine is served at the sister (brother?) establishment Marlow & Sons, as well as other hip local restaurants like Roberta’s and Fette Sau. Meanwhile, Astor Wines and Spirits sells 128 of their 200-milliliter moonshine bottles a month, at $20 each. In November, the spirit will be served at the Modern, Danny Meyer’s midtown restaurant.

“David is one of the old Marlow & Sons’ core clientele. He’s always supported us and I wanted to support him,” said Jason Schwartz, a manager at Marlow, where the moonshine is mixed with vermouth and served in a $12 cocktail called the White Manhattan. “A lot of those white, un-aged whiskeys have a high tone to them that’s difficult to the palate. Theirs is the most naturally sweet and delicate. I would have probably purchased it regardless.”

They currently make two and a half gallons of the moonshine and bourbon a day. The bourbon, they hope, will be ready by December. “It’s pretty clear to us that the bourbon will be a more popular product, but we need to make enough money with the moonshine to support the distillery in the meantime,” said Mr. Haskell.

Since Mr. Haskell and Mr. Spoelman have day jobs, five helpers like Simon work day and night shifts, seven days a week.

“A lot of them are journalism students,” said Mr. Spoelman.

“Some are in school,” said Mr. Haskell, “Others were bartending and were sick of customer service. Some are drawn to the chemistry.”

Speaking of those day jobs: Unlike magazines or even architecture, whiskey sales are always reliable. Could the distillery ever replace their primary careers? (When The Observer called Roberta’s, in Bushwick, we reached an acquaintance, formerly an editor at a Condé Nast magazine.)

“My day job is a little dead-end,” said Mr. Spoelman. “It’s a cool job … but ultimately there is a limit to how far I can go there. So, yes, I hope so.”

Mr. Haskell smiled. “I hope so, too. For Colin. I love my job, and I don’t want to leave it at all. I think of this as a business I’ve started on the side.”

Since Hugo Lindgren and Lauren Kern left New York and landed at The New York Times Magazine, as editor in chief and deputy editor, respectively, Mr. Haskell has taken a more senior role on the masthead. Has it been difficult to run a distillery on weekends?

“Maybe a little,” he said. “But then I look at colleagues at New York magazine who have kids.” Mr. Spoelman started laughing before his friend finished. “And, it’s like, that’s such a stress. Every time I think, ‘Can I manage two things at once?’ I think how it’s just sort of expected when someone pops out a baby and suddenly everyone has to breast-feed and get a babysitter who is puking or the baby is puking. All that stuff is more stressful than this.” (Adam Moss, New York‘s editor, is aware of his employee’s whiskey production. “He’s curious about it,” said Mr. Haskell. “He tasted an early version.”)

Earlier, Mr. Haskell walked The Observer through the distillery process. After the corn is mashed and the barley and yeast are added, the porridge-like stew sits in large tubs for six days while the yeast eats the sugars and converts them into alcohol. “It sort of smells like bread. Then once the mash is ready to go, we strain out the solids with these laundry bags,” he said, pointing to netted bags hanging by the window. (A farmer from the greenmarket comes by once a week and picks up the strained corn to use as feed for his pigs.)

The strained liquid is twice distilled in 28-liter stills (micro-distilleries typically use at least 400-litter stills), with the second run closely monitored in four phases: foreshots, heads, hearts and tales. “Foreshots is the first alcohol to come out, and that’s basically the poison,” said Mr. Haskell. “We use it as a disinfectant or a cleaning agent. Heads have a lot of flavor, but it’s also the stuff that gives you hangovers, so you don’t want too much of that. Then it goes into the hearts, which we keep, and at a certain point it goes into the tails, which we don’t keep. The tails have a NutraSweet-y smell to them.” Every distillery creates its own parameters for how much heads or tails is mixed with their hearts. “We’re very conservative,” he explained.  

Once the bourbon is fully aged, they plan to experiment with other whiskeys.

“We’ve been playing around with making rye, but it keeps burning to the bottom of the still,” said Ms. Spoelman. “It’s a very persnickety grain. We have other things in the works. …”

“But not to be talked about,” Mr. Haskell said.

“What if the tape recorder was off?” asked The Observer.

“Right,” said Mr. Haskell. “So, off the record …”