How New York’s Microdistillery Law Is Building a New Industry

on 01/03/11 at 4:07 pm


“If you’re thinking of starting a distillery, here’s a tip: Don’t put it on the second floor of a building with nice wooden floors,” Colin Spoelman laughs. “Sometimes, the sour mash spills and burns the wood.”

The 31-year-old Spoelman knows what he’s talking about. The New York-based architect is also the owner of Brooklyn’s King’s County Distillery, the oldest legal whiskey distillery in New York City. This April, it will celebrate its first birthday.

A Kentucky native, Spoelman has long been fascinated with “moonshining and distilling culture,” but he found that New York was sadly lacking when it came to distilling. Following a few successful experiments with what one might call “informal, extralegal alcohol production,” he decided to see what he needed to do to create a legal distillery.

Partnering with his college roommate, David Haskell, he was surprised to discover that New York offered a special, inexpensive permit for small-batch distilleries. To qualify for the license, which the state launched in 2002 and expanded in 2007, the pair had to go through a quick interview, pay a small fee and agree to source half of their ingredients from New York farmers.

“It was actually serendipitous,” Spoelman remembers. “Originally, we used a generic flake corn, but we started using organic corn that was grown near the Finger Lakes. It made a big difference, and the finished product tasted much better.”

The Distilling Promised Land

Depending on whose estimate you use, somewhere between 150 and 250 promising microdistilling startups are operating in the U.S. right now. Of these, New York has roughly 18, putting it in a close contest with Oregon as the top state for small-batch distillers. Given the Western state’s reputation as a hotbed for microbrewers, it’s not hard to see why Oregon would be so popular with microdistillers as well. Some beer makers, like Ashland, Ore.’s Rogue brewery, have even made the transition from brews to booze. Distilling since 2003, Rogue has built a slate of seven highly regarded rums, gins and whiskies.

New York’s preeminence is more of a quandary. After all, while the city was once home to hundreds of breweries, wineries and distilleries, prohibition wiped out the industry. Later, when the microbrew boom hit in the 1980s, high rents made it difficult for beer makers to get a toehold in the city. Today, one of its few successful alcohol producers is Brooklyn Brewery, which opened in 1986. Initially based in Upstate New York, the company moved to a Brooklyn factory in 1996.

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