A Tour of the Kings County DIstillery (Guest Post by Jim VanMetre)

Sign above the front door at Kings Count Distillery -- the building out of which my granfather-in-law once received his paycheck!  (Photo by Max Kelly)
Sign above the front door at Kings Count Distillery — the building out of which my granfather-in-law once received his paycheck! (Photo by Max Kelly)

Pete here. I am going to commit myself to becoming more active on the Brooklyn Spirits blog, at least for the next two months. Ideally I’ll get something up here once or twice or week. The first post in this new series is a guest post — from my father-in-law, Jim Van Metre. I’ll let him take it from here. . .

This afternoon my son-in-law Pete Fornatale and I visited the Kings County Distillery located on the grounds of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was my first return visit to the Navy Yard since 1941, when my parents and I lived nearby. The visit was part of Pete’s Christmas present to me — a set of Kings County whiskies and this tour. The distillery is featured in Pete’s new book, just out, Brooklyn Spirits, a fascinating look at the new boutique distilleries of Brooklyn and the cocktails that can be made from their spirits.

The distillery is located in an old two-story brick building, the former Paymasters Office for the Navy (number 121, which is no where near 120 or 122, in the illogical Navy way of scattering numbers all over the yard). As we mounted the steps, the large, old wooden doors looked a bit formidable, giving the appearance of a deserted building. But in we went, to the unlighted vestibule. Immediately we heard cheerful chatter coming from the distillery’s bottling operation and spied two women and a man, hand filling bottles with whiskey in the next room, which had the pleasant aroma of distilled spirits and the engaging sound of liquid spilling from a huge copper still. What space wasn’t taken up with copper still–huge vats of bubbling liquid and holding tanks of corn mash–was stacked high with oak barrels waiting their fill of whiskey.

Distillery Cat in action. (Photo by Max Kelly)

Distillery Cat in action. (Photo by Max Kelly)

Sales manager Patrick Rutan met us and escorted us, explaining the distilling operation. I was impressed that Patrick has been involved in the operation for only one and one-half years, yet was an encyclopedia of knowledge. Particularly impressive was his knowledge of the blending operations to produce the many variants of distilled spirits for which Kings County Distillery is building its reputation. At the end of the tour Pete and I were treated to a whiskey tasting. I purchased a chocolate “flavored” whiskey and a “peated” bourbon whiskey. The latter gets its name from the process of filtering the whiskey through charcoal burned with peat from the British Isles.

What did I learn? Principally that the effluent from the still is separated into four parts. The first is discarded as it contains some of the undesirable products of distilling. The next three parts are the “head,” “heart,” and “tail.” The heart is the desired product, which is poured into the oak barrels for aging, before becoming the beverage you and I enjoy. The head and tail are redistilled to produce some more heart.

wheat whiskey barrel

Upstairs in the building was a large, wooden-floored room lined with many barrels of whiskey, quietly enjoying the aging process. Barrels of 5,10, 20 and 50 gallon sizes. The larger the barrel, the longer the aging — and we are speaking in terms of years. As at other distilleries, these oak barrels can only be used once for aging bourbon, per federal law, then they are sold to other distillers or brewers for other purposes — including to Scotland for the production of scotch whisky. 

It is clear from the budding of boutique distilleries in Brooklyn — there are now at least thirteen — that the production of such spirits is growing rapidly in the U.S. The variety of flavors and finish meet a variety of interests, and we are all the better for them. The Kings County Distillery has just rented more buildings in the Navy Yard for expansion.

Oh, and why was I in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1941? I was seven years old and my father was commanding officer of a U.S. Navy destroyer being built in the yard. My mother, father, and I were in Brooklyn on December 7th when the Japanese nation bombed Pearl Harbor. It was fascinating to visit the old navy yard after 73 years! Thanks, Pete.

– Jim Van Metre (retired Navy captain)