Podcast Episode: Interview: Colin Spoelman (Distiller and Author of Dead Distillers)
A casual chat between two whiskey history buffs. And Colin is not just an author, he is also the co-founder and distiller at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.
Listen to the Episode
Join me for part one of my discussion with Kings County Distillery's master distiller and co-founder Colin Spoelman. A few years back Colin wrote an intriguing book about American whiskey history called Dead Distillers and we will take the time in this episode to chat a bit about his background as a New York City distiller and more including:
- What has been going on during the pandemic?
- From Eastern Kentucky to New York City
- The New York moonshiner
- Sourcing from the bootlegger
- Getting started as a distiller
- The rebirth of the New York distillery industry
- Getting to know New York whiskey history from the days of New Amsterdam
- New York and Pennsylvania vs Kentucky
- The issues with distilleries and immigrants in the 1840s and 50s
- Dickinson's Alley and the Moonshiners Gunfight
- The Brooklyn of the distiller and Al Capone
- Was George Thorpe the first corn whiskey distiller?
- The first commercial distillery in the New World
- The charred oak barrel theory
- The origins of brand
- How to write about whiskey history without promoting myths?
- The horror stories of distilleries that led to Dead Distillers
- Prohibition made me do it!
- The Schenley Lawrenceburg Indiana connection
Hear part 2 of the interview by becoming a member of the Whiskey Lore Society.
Welcome to Whiskey Lore I'm Drew Hannush
Well it's time for another interview and this will be the first interview that I'm going to do with a writer a history writer who focuses on whiskey history not only is he a writer but he's also the co-founder of Kings County Distillery in New York city talking about Colin Spoelman Colin has a very interesting history in the way that he got from where he was born which is a place that's known for whiskey and moonshine all the way up to New York City which is a place we don't typically think of as the home of whiskey but if you go back in American history you'll find that Pennsylvania Maryland and New York were very rich in their whiskey history we learned some of that in the first couple of episodes of season four with the Whiskey Rebellion well New York not only had a whiskey history it had a moonshining culture and we're going to talk about that during this episode we're going to talk about how Colin found his way into distilling in Brooklyn and you'll get to eavesdrop on some of the banter between he and I a whiskey history podcaster and a whiskey history author we're going to talk about myths and legends we'll discuss the origins of American whiskey and will take some time to dig through some of the fascinating stories including some of the more shockingly graphic stories that led Colin into writing the book Dead Distillers so it's going to be a fascinating hour and we're going to get to that discussion in just a moment but the first thing I want to do is let you know that for the next four to five weeks Whiskey Lore is going to go on hiatus and the reason is because I am chasing after a story to wrap up season four I think is gonna be absolutely fascinating but it requires me to take a road trip of over 5 000 miles and you're saying why do you have to take a road trip of over 5 000 miles well I'm not going to release that information to you right now I want you to stay curious for the next few weeks until I come back and deliver the story to you but it's gonna be a fun story and the reason I'm having to drive instead of flying out there has nothing to do with covid there's a specific reason why I have to do this by car so since I'm doing it by car I'm also going to hit some other spots along the way including taking a little side trip through Kentucky on my way back to South Carolina so details will be coming up if you get lonely for Whiskey Lore and you want to hear some more content and you are not a Whiskey Lore Society member yet then head out to patreon.com lore you can hear all the second halves of the interviews that I put out there a couple of behind the scenes episodes that I've put out there also you can get a copy of the Whiskey Lore flavor wheel and a free printable tasting notes pdf and so much more so if you want to do that just go to patreon.com/whiskeylore and I will keep you company there for the weeks that I am gone but otherwise keep watching instagram.com/WhiskeyLore and facebook.com/whiskeylore and I will post some of my pictures that I'm taking along my path so that will be coming up right here from Whiskey Lore so for now let's learn a little bit more about New York distilling only its history but what's going on now with Kings County Distillery and also find out a little bit more about that book Dead Distillers here's my guest Colin Spoelman well Welcome to the show thanks Drew it's it's nice to be at least talking to somebody in New York if I can't be in New York at least I have the opportunity through zoom to to do this would love to come see your your distillery someday and and see what you're doing how are things going with the whole pandemic thing you guys feel like an opening is coming soon an opening is is coming soon one way or another I think that's kind of the case but also it's been a very there's been different eras within the pandemic and there was sort of the hand sanitizer beginning to it and then this sort of slow Summer we got outdoor dining back and that actually helped us quite a bit we pivoted to e-commerce we've been doing virtual tastings but the good news right now is that people seem to be drinking the the media story has always been that people are drinking a lot more during the pandemic I think in the early days people were stocking up on Tito's and you know candles the handles of whatever they could find but buying habits now appear to have shifted more to the higher end whiskies the kinds of things that you might kind of have an experience tasting at home and our whiskey certainly fit into that so our our distributor business in New York wholesale business has gone up quite a bit especially with Christmas but then even January February which are usually slow have been pretty strong so so that's a good sign yeah so you've got the Kings County Distillery and you are also the author of two books two books yep okay one is called Dead Distillers which I just got a chance to read through which is a fun read and we'll talk about some of the stuff in that but I wanted to start with your other one which is the guide to urban moonshining because I think it kind of leads into giving us a little background on who you are and how you ended up in New York because you actually come from a very moonshine slash almost bourbon area an area that a lot of people associate with with bourbon but you're actually in an area that was much more known for moonshine so how did you get to Brooklyn and where did you come from so I grew up in harlan county Kentucky which is pretty close to the Cumberland Gap where Kentucky Tennessee Virginia come together and my father was a presbyterian minister it was a dry county alcohol was certainly not a big part of my family life or anybody's family life really until I got to be about 14 and then we would go to the bootlegger and the bootlegger was somebody who would travel to Virginia or Richmond Kentucky and buy commercial alcohol and then bring it back to high school kids and resell it so my experience with with alcohol was very different than I moved to New York and everybody just kind of puts bourbon on me because I'm from Kentucky and I would have to explain that I'm from you know the coal mining Appalachian moonshine part of the state and then the conversation would switch over to moonshine and that's what really people were kind of most intrigued by back in 2000 you know 789 when this was all going down and so I would bring some moonshine back from Kentucky that was part of my interest in in getting into ultimately becoming a distiller but at a certain point I just wanted to be a hobby distiller you know a home brewer which exists for wine and beer although it's legal to sort of do you know to do some some home brewing so to speak but for spiritus beverages that's still illegal and to do that is to be a moonshiner so there was a little bit of a kind of transgressive quality to trying to recover this cultural inheritance that I realized that I had come from no real intention of starting a distillery until kind of I realized that the idea was a strong one because people were really into it and and there was no way to really continue to do it at a certain point it had gotten big enough there were there was a newspaper that was trying to write about it and I just figured I needed to get a license I could still do what I was doing yeah you know I would keep doing it in the apartment just do it on the side and you know and I got into it realized that you can't really do that you have to become a commercial yeah distiller with all the trappings of a commercial distiller so we do we don't think of moonshine in New York city well right yes and and and there was this sort of cultural disconnect of you know there there's sort of the farm to table movement was happening and so people were really intrigued by food culture and and how things particularly things traditional food and beverage how those things had gotten lost certainly in an urban environment so to be able to kind of bring this tradition of moonshine to that audience was there was something potent in that and that I appreciated it and then sort of was like how can I how can I benefit from this how can I monetize this right so yeah well I was just how do you because you weren't distilling at all when you were in Kentucky where did you and you went to the bootlegger but did you ever see a still and did you ever see an operation never never I was never close enough to whoever was actually making the moonshine to go into the woods to see us still it was really you know in most of those instances there was pretty significant removal from you and your sort of retail bootlegger everybody knew the retail bootlegger that was like you know completely well known and you didn't even have to necessarily have a connection to go visit there but you know to get up in the woods with the guys who were actually making the stuff that was sort of a different ball game and yeah to this day I haven't necessarily I've met a lot of moonshiners and I've you know tasted a lot of shine from people all around the country not just in in appalachia but plenty of plenty of stuff you know once I kind of came out of the woodwork yeah people will track me down and be like what do you what do you think of this and I've got a lot of that but I but none of it is necessarily well some of it some of it is of that sort of legitimate tradition but a lot of it is younger people who are rediscovering it and trying to kind of recapture and make sure that that doesn't quite get lost which was very much in danger of happening when I was in the in that's the sort of range that we're talking about just because alcohol cars made it easier to travel out of the mountains you didn't have the geographic isolation that you had there were more counties that were going wet the price of alcohol relative to the price of tax got lower and lower so you know the just the the economic reasons for moonshining kind of went away at that moment and so from that point forward it's been sort of more of a cultural exercise than a sort of you know survival mechanism of breaking the law kind of thing so you have J.W. Dant as the as the Dead Distiller on your book and so he started distilling in a log still how did you start distilling because I'm sure you had to be a little bit creative or or go out of the way to figure out either how to build your own still or find a still right well this was and and I will say I think moonshine kind of flourished back in 2010 in part because the internet made it possible for people to anonymously share information about distilling because there were books from the 70s that were in the kind of alchemist cookbook kind of anarchist you know just kind of like zines poorly illustrated typed up on a typewriter stuff that you could find self-published there were some shreds of things that you could find that could kind of point the way but the internet really just opened it up and if you were like me and didn't know how to solder and didn't know copper from stainless steel or plastic and you know it was scary to try to build a steel but you could buy a still and so in the same way that there were places that sold pipe water pipes for tobacco use that were clearly intended for a different purpose right there were stills that you could buy that were only for distillation of essential oils that of course were there for hobby distillers and so I went to brew house and and was one of those sites and Hillbilly Stills is is one that I ended up kind of gravitating to but both of those were kind of hobby distiller supply shops and and so with that plus a good home brew shop you could essentially do whatever you needed to do and and that's how I got started as a distiller not necessarily as a business that kind of came only after confronting the sort of uns well first of all getting into it I really discovered that I liked doing it and it was fun and but also it was unsustainable I mean I was gonna potentially get into trouble which was not my intent right so New York we just covered Tennessee over the last year and how really their whole industry has blown up between 19 or 2010 when finally it became legal in more counties than just three to be able to make whiskey so what was that process like for you was was the law already being enacted because New York didn't have any did they have any distilleries in New York at that time in 2010 or there were there were distilleries going back to the 90s in New York and those were distilleries that were associated with wineries okay so there was kind of a European tradition of having you know making grappa and odavies at your winery and there was an infrastructure for that but there was no infrastructure for whiskey and to get a micro distillers license or or whatever was was on the books from probably back from Prohibition it was some 34 000 for a three-year commitment and as a startup distiller you know that's that's basically prohibitive and as it turns out there were no real distillers in New York State and and none that were making whiskey but there was a
there was a gentleman who was trying to get a distillery a whiskey distillery off the ground and he kind of raised some money and he got some the kind of farm bureau behind him and once the farm bureau got a hold of it they realized there was legislation legislative potential in changing that rule and so by the time the law passed he kind of ran out of money moved to Texas it was he never got to build his distillery but there were people all around that said oh what a wonderful idea we have craft beer in New York we have many wineries in New York why not distilleries so then in 2009 there was a little subclass of that license the farm distillery license and that's what we became the first in New York City to hold and that is a just reduction in fees and you can have a sort of tasting room and kind of a customer facing side of the business does it seems does it seem strange to be under a farm license when you're in the middle of urban Brooklyn well we use a lot of farm products and so it really is a way to connect agriculture to tourism that's that was the I the the idea behind the law was to create some synergies between agriculture and tourism and that made sense upstate but that also makes sense in New York City where you have farmers markets and you have plenty of you know opportunities for exchange between the agricultural side of of food and beverage and the consumption side of food and beverage which is happening of course so so in 2010 we became the first licensed farm distiller maybe I don't know first in the state but certainly the first in the city and then opened with the moonshine so our first whiskey that we made was white whiskey I can show you but you you can sort of narrate what this is it's amazing is that the original yes I mean you can't have moonshine without it being in the mason jar right right I was always in that path and my business partner was kind of like maybe dial it down
so settled on the flasks and and the flasks were sort of well known for today that's with just a very simple strip label on it but the idea was always to kind of we weren't a big business we didn't want to pretend we were a big business didn't want to whip up a brand out of thin air and kind of lean into that it was really more we're starting as a distillery and not a brand so that there's a lot of businesses that start as a brand and then the distillery comes later we started as a distillery and that was the brand and and a lot of our experiments and different kinds of whiskies have come out of being practitioners or being you know being in the business of every day walking into the shop and trying to figure out what whiskey are we going to make today and how is it going to be different and how is it going to be interesting and and certainly in the case of being in a New York distiller what are we going to do that's different from Kentucky bourbon how are we going to carve our audience that is probably very different from the one that's in Kentucky or Tennessee or even the Pacific Northwest or Texas which are already sort of developing sub-regions within American whiskey now that distilleries are 10 years into the craft boom we're starting to get a sense for what the landscape might become and you can imagine beer back in you know the early 80s when there was Milwaukee and there was St Louis and there was Denver right you know and and that was the regional style of beer and and then you started to see craft breweries pop up and start to define their places and so I think the same will be true of craft whiskey eventually how much of the history of New York distilling did you know when you started this project well on one hand I knew I mean I knew nothing so little to real to even not I didn't know that there were no distilleries in New York city I figured there were just as there were breweries and wineries that there would also be distilleries realize that there weren't realize that there hadn't been since Prohibition then realized that New York actually had a very rich history of distilling before the Civil War that had more or less been forgotten and first it was the when we were still New Amsterdam back in 1640 on Staten Island it was kind of part of that colonial economy then distilling shifted to rum in the British Colonial period but then after after the revolutionary war really swung back to whiskey and it was that distilleries tended to be in the cities and the farmers would come into town with a load of grain they'd drop it off at the distillery they'd buy some supplies they'd pick up the slop from the distillery in the back of their carts and then they'd head back to long island or upstate New York or wherever they went to and so in the in that era philadelphia New York boston that's where all the factories were and distilleries were factories now there was also the Whiskey Rebellion and the sort of frontier farmers but that was a happening at a much smaller scale even though history has remembered the Whiskey Rebellion right farmers that participated in it Alexander Hamilton passed the whiskey tax thinking of those urban distilleries that were doing you know barrels and barrels of whiskey every day even bigger scale than we are now yeah back you know before electricity and running water well that that was the thing I found interesting in researching the Whiskey Rebellion is that hamilton was more for industrialization and part of the reason why he was somewhat penalizing those on the frontier is because he didn't really want the small farmer distilleries to be the ones that were successful he knew that they could produce higher volumes and become much more you know heavy on the output if he gave benefit to the the industrial ones in the east on the you know in philadelphia and New York and and so you have that going on you have right after that george Washington and and he's you know come back now and he's got a distillery running on his land and you've got the city of New York that you know we when we think of now as I've studied history I've moved away from that Kentucky only thought pattern and started to realize that from the time of the revolutionary war all the way up almost to the Civil War the center of whiskey was probably more in New York and Pennsylvania than it was moving out into those yeah yeah rural areas of Kentucky yeah I mean people forget that Kentucky was settled ultimately you know in the in the early to mid 1800s you know I mean it's it it took a while for people to actually populate Kentucky and that meant that you know the volume of whiskey that was coming out of there was much smaller and I remember reading an article it was only in the 1840s that New York whiskey domestic whiskey made in New York city was actually outsold by whiskey from Lawrenceburg Indiana
i kind of was like oh what what great irony that that is the you know I mean it was that's where that's where the distilleries were there on the ohio river and right and at that moment then you had all that farm culture around ohio Indiana Kentucky that were all feeding into that whiskey boom that was happening then but that was you know that was as late as the 1840s 1850s and and only then is the the price sort of thing and New York land was more valuable then and so it didn't it made less sense to operate a distiller and there was some cultural friction a lot of the distillers tended to be Irish or German right immigrants and so distilling began to be perceived as a as a kind of moral scourge I mean certainly alcohol there's always a temperance through line in American history but it gets very strong around the 1840s 1850s as leading into the Civil War issues around the Civil War but there were also northeastern issues certainly in New York it was the natives versus the immigrants and and that's republicans versus democrats or protestants versus catholics or non-drinkers versus drinkers so well coming in with my my knowledge of history and I surprise people sometimes because we immigration is something we talk about now from a different aspect but during that time when you were having this mass immigration coming from Ireland and and coming from the old world here there was actually a political party called the no nothings which was also known as the American party and their whole goal was to it was also known as the anti-Catholic party so their whole mission was really to figure out how to take society away from a focus on the immigrants and really benefit the natives as they would say even though the natives really hadn't been here for more than under 200 years on topic by then so yeah it's it's it's and so New York really kind of encapsulates a lot of that struggle in the 1840s 1850s and we think of the movie gangs of New York and what was going on there you had tammany hall and all this corruption going on I did an episode around the swill milk scandal that happened in New York in the 1850s that you know basically you had these dairy distilleries that were poisoning these kids with you know these infants with with this milk because they were doctoring it with everything they could could find to make it look like you know good me but they were just feeding swill to their their cattle with no other feed right and so they were sickly and and they were cows living in tenement Brooklyn where again you have no running water you haven't known that yeah they're just sort of they're living in their own experiments but people were living in their own excrement I mean it was you know it was like urban camping is sort of 1850s New York everybody's sort of you know Irish immigrants you had whole tenement buildings that were you know stacked full of people you know conditions were not great from a public health perspective irregardless of swill milk no I mean that's yeah yeah but but but swell milk it was it was an opportunity to sort of flog the temperance movement which was you know again kind of slavery and temperance were the two sort of major progressive movements of the 1800s or abolition and and temperance yeah so the when the Civil War broke out in New York they Abraham Lincoln passed this excise tax on tobacco playing cards feathers pianos you know anything that you would find in a fun place right and and and alcohol and that really set the stage for the confrontation that would become the whiskey wars of Brooklyn and that really kind of killed distilling in New York as far as I can tell because when the Civil War ended they would go in and start raiding and breaking up the distilleries and really created an a kind of anti-distiller sentiment that that pushed people kind of into the countryside and away from that sort of people on top of each other possibility of explosion public health you know just like there was just better to get away from it yeah so so yeah so you mentioned a place called Dickinson's alley which is a place that that at the end of that three years or so of of riots that were going on in New York or in Brooklyn that that area there was actually a gun fight in the street which ended up taking out a 25 year old gauger when we say gauger he was working for the government going out and collecting for the tax and that that was probably part of what ended up giving these moonshiners a bad reputation and my first question is are you near that area does that area still exist that is about 50 feet from the distillery is it really okay yeah no I mean it's it is a great location and and not even one that we had any idea about until we went and started doing the research and of course we're in a very old part of Brooklyn right on the waterfront right near the Brooklyn bridge and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Navy Yard was shipbuilding for the u.s navy and and a big you know employer in Brooklyn in throughout the 1800s so just the the sheer coincidence of of being in the Brooklyn Navy Yard but then also being on this site of somewhat historic importance certainly of historic importance to the story of American whiskey and whiskey in New York city has has been a great opportunity for us and and as a distiller that has no history beyond the 10 years that we've been around to be able to tie into some of this broader history is a great opportunity and we're not you know Woodford Reserve at the you know the Oscar Pepper Distillery that was around the 1800s right but to be on a site that really was a historical distilling neighborhood that was a heavily Irish neighborhood that became a heavily italian neighborhood and then of course Al Capone was born just 50 feet the other direction wow and and grew up kind of on the mean streets of of that kind of rough neighborhood it was kind of the red light district of Brooklyn for a long time and and Al Capone kind of may have learned the the kind of relationship to the Federal government and alcohol and the opportunities in the sin business from having grown up in that particular part of Brooklyn and then in 1920 when he became an adult he moved to Chicago and kind of took all that knowledge and ran it at a national scale as opposed to a neighborhood scale but you know the continuity of Irish moonshiners to the sort of italian kind of gangster culture that was developing Prohibition organized crime all of that really does have a geographical connection to where we are now and so to be able to kind of take the modern history of distilling which is or the contemporary history of distilling which is craft distilling and then lay that over the top is just it's it's fascinating and it's a great opportunity to to tell that story which has has not often been told well again we don't we don't associate moonshining with New York city or Brooklyn but yet if if we start pulling out some of these stories and looking at them and looking at Al Capone do you think that moonshining was still going on because in the book you you kind of mentioned that after that fire fight in 1871 that the moonshiners kind of got out in the boats and and left some of them evacuated the area but did the area still kind of hold on to that moonshining tradition all the way through to when capone was there yes but by that point he had well let's say the generation of Irish immigrants was still around but they were old-timers you know they were they were there to tell the stories of the good old days and and but you had then you had a lot more mobility you had automobiles you could go pick up in new jersey and you know then you start to get that Prohibition era of people owning a distillery in Kentucky from which they siphon off to distribution points in atlantic city and you know it just it the the whole system became much much more organized you know it was it was not necessarily the the Irish guys in the basement with a little pot still it was you know column stills that were hidden in in warehouses and and really elaborate operations that were you know built in in every you know there's a picture in Dead Distillers where you have distilled buffalo trace from you know 1920 or whatever it is and then you have an illegal still from 1920 and they look virtually the same they're both you know 48-inch column stills yeah you know so it's the scale of of the illegal distillation was just as big as the legal distillation but the and and Prohibition we think of something that happened all at once but it in various places would go dark and and so there was this feeling that you could sort of you had plenty of time to prepare for actual Prohibition yeah I as I understand it there was almost a feeling that it was that the distillers were going to get be given some time to prepare for this even up to world war one but once the war Prohibition went in place they just said why don't we just go ahead and move into this and a lot of distillers got stuck with a lot of of whiskey but then there were other states like Tennessee that had gone into Prohibition as early as 1910. so was it earlier in New York or did Prohibition hit Prohibition hit at the at in 1920 in in January 1920 I guess it was so it wasn't necessary I mean and then there were very few distillers left in New York city there in fact I don't even know if there were real distillers there were certainly rectifiers who were buying bulk alcohol maybe they were doing some redistillation mostly what they were doing was packaging and and and probably adulterating I mean that's what rectifiers did in those days so you know the there wasn't probably a whole lot of business lost and any of the sort of illegal distillers you know we're probably trying to get out of you know trying to get further away from the publicity or the the scrutiny shall we say yeah yeah so even you know the the the fact that moonshining kind of first blossomed in Brooklyn and then quickly extinguished and moved somewhere else I think you know it's just a reflection of that's where the scrutiny was there were revenue officers you know first in the cities then they moved kind of into Virginia Kentucky Alabama places like that yeah so another thing that I love to cover in my podcast episodes and try to dispel are all of these claims of being the oldest because go through Kentucky and you'll hear it overnight the the first to do this the oldest this you know so when I'm going through your book one of the characters that that we come upon first is George Thorpe and george George Thorpe is I guess for we don't really know if he was actually making whiskey or not we have a connection where we know that they had a still and and we know that he was making corn beer but do we really know if he was actually making whiskey I mean I would argue it seems very unlikely I mean if you did bother to put the fermented beverage in the still would you not wouldn't you write about wouldn't that be something to put in your letters back back east so I think you know people have kind of taken the opportunity to assemble those two facts and also not to yield the first distillery I mean the first distillery that anybody knows for sure that was a commercial distillery was written about as part of the Dutch New Netherlands company on Staten Island was that the first I don't know but that's the first one that was written about that's sort of identifiable George Thorpe probably was not in the way that still is described it's it was more like a microscope it was a piece of scientific instrumentation for its era and not necessarily there to make whiskey we were making whiskey with a one gallon still forget about it I mean you'd be there all day and all night so I think not but there's you know rye whiskey came from the old world and people were growing rye with the intent to make whiskey in that in the 1640s 16 you know in that historical moment as written about in massachusetts and in New York and other places but I don't know that you can say corn whiskey you know pre-dated rye whiskey or originated and with George Thorpe or anything like that I think the the corn even grew well in massachusetts and people were kind of oh this they're growing their rye looking at how well the Indian corn was doing and they were saying well maybe we should people should grow that stuff right because this is low yield off the still and and not you know the birds eat it so maybe we should just take our cues from what people are growing here before we got here and so I think you know bourbon developed if you if you consider bourbon to be corn based corn derived whiskey right it it certainly came about contemporaries with rye whisky in the U.S. but it was probably more moonshine than it would because yeah because you wouldn't when we think of bourbon now if we follow the rules of what bourbon is we have no idea when they started putting it into charred oak barrels and we have no idea about I have a view on that too which is just that it was it was so common in Europe to age things in barrels and they knew that you could toast barrels and char barrels to get different effects from Cognac so the idea that the European technology was completely foreign to the Americans I'm it just gives very little credit to the yeah the worldliness of people at the time and certainly they developed you know George Washington sold mostly common whiskey which we take to mean unaged whiskey that was what he was mostly selling but that's not to say that he didn't know that it made sense to age some of the whiskey and whether or not he was aging it in new barrels or or toasted barrels people routinely em you know recycled barrels by toasting them on the inside to kind of kill the bacteria that might have been in there from whatever came before it or the smell so you know to try and pinpoint an innovation in in what is ultimately a folk history and a folk evolution of a product you know is is applying a kind of silicon valley modern inventor thomas edison henry ford focused mindset to something that really just evolved alongside many other types of alcoholic beverages were being made all over the world well speculation is such a huge part of all of this history because you talk about the barrels coming down to Kentucky from the forks of the Ohio and you had they were they said they had old Monongahela put on them and so we take that word old and we assume okay well they must have been aging it and that's why well the aging could have just been the fact that you know it was coming down the the river and the time that it's been on the river before it got there another one that I love is when they say I've heard this from multiple people that the word brand originated from them stamping bourbon onto bourbon barrels and I you know the word brand or the concept of brand goes all the way back into antiquity it's it's not something so it's it's like we pick up this stuff and we we want to have an answer so we just make one up and that makes it really hard when you're trying to study this stuff and trying to get the story correct when there's all the speculation going on right and alcohol history is is particularly rife with the invention yeah for for one reason or another so so when you get into writing a book like that distillers and you're going through and doing all of this research how do you how do you make that distinction between what may be fact and what may be perpetuating another myth well I think you have to write about what is what what is a pretty clear fact because you have the historical documentation George Thorpe did write a letter that said we have made a fermented corn beverage that is comparable to english beer so that you can kind of pin on that and he did have a still so those are historical truisms or truth in so far as there's a documentation of it for things that are hearsay or mythology or apocryphal I found it was very helpful as a distiller to kind of look at the look at the actuality of it and and say well that doesn't actually make sense that you would have a little one gallon still and try to produce whiskey from it I mean you can't you can't use today you can't get a one gallon still and make whiskey from it the cut is so short you wouldn't I mean it's just pointless it's just like you know so you know george there was a while when George Washington's distillery was sort of claiming to be the largest in the United States which was just irrefutable by anybody looking through any newspapers of distilleries for sale during that time and there were you know distilleries that were 10 times as big as George Washington's distillery but it you know there just is that temptation to kind of seize on what you know and foreground that and assume that what you don't know isn't there because it wasn't you know written about but in a lot of cases it was and and also one of the great times to kind of be able to you know you don't have to go to a research library to get some of this original documentation you can just go to the internet yeah and so I think it is a kind of exciting time to kind of apply the armchair historian approach to looking at whiskey history because sometimes it's just it's just knowing what to look for in the historical record yeah and and certainly kind of for me and part of the reason why Dead Distillers came about is I was looking for distilleries I was searching old newspapers in Brooklyn for the word distillery and all that ever popped up were these gruesome
accidents involving children and it was just these like horror stories of of child labor that was going in to stir the mash and they fell in or or they were scalded from a pipe that went out into the street where kids were playing and and it's so colorful but it gives you the texture of life that no amount of kind of looking at the data or the census you know saying well there was you know a million barrels of whiskey made in Brooklyn and so so just it doesn't tell you it personalizes it it it it makes you well I love that you put all of the clips that you have those little clips throughout there there was one that you had and it was from a Topeka newspaper and it was telling about a boy who had been scalded by swill and then but that wasn't what caught my attention you had left enough of the clipping below it that I read the next headline which was talking about a girl being hit by a train and being sliced in half and her head rolling down the hill and I'm like you know we think nowadays if you want to go watch a horror movie or you want to if if that kind of macabre kind of thing is your is in your wheelhouse that you can find that stuff where you want to but in the 19th century you know that you think about writers like Edgar Allan Poe who gravitated towards that kind of writing and then you read this kind of stuff in just your regular news are in graphic detail that feels a bit like sensationalism you get a whole different kind of of a feel for that era by reading those right and I think the the poe's popularity and the growth of the rural cemetery movement and a focus on sort of death as this transformative kind of experience as a the closer you are to death the more you're living life in this kind of gothic American gothic sensibility which really did define 1820s up through the Civil War that just American life because it was so hard I mean let's be honest did kind of focus on those the gruesomeness and the macabre and the the like the scary aspects and I think it was a way that people coped with you know living without some of the comforts that we now appreciate well I think too if you go back and you read a lot of those newspapers there are so many stories of infant deaths so so many I mean people would have 10 12 15 children and whenever you talked about them from a historical standpoint you would say how many survived infancy because that was a real issue back then that that life was hard medical care wasn't right around the corner and you know we didn't know about Germs and and you know those types of things that could cause death in the early childhood so you know the death was a regular part of life back then so I guess that makes sense when you're when you're reading these but it is a little I I've done my own research and going to Scotland and I went to Glenturret and learned about this woman named Grace Gao they discovered she fell into into a fermenter and of course she did not survive that because the co2 probably took her out but that those things you know I mean that's just who is it Donald Johnston of Laphroaig one of the brothers that started Laphroaig he fell into a pot of of pot ale or into into scalding pot ale and that killed him so you know a lot of the stuff I was seeing in there was about boilers exploding so that seemed to be a big issue yeah I mean just the the technology was you know less understood you know safety was you know as safe as you wanted to be yeah and and and distilleries were factories I mean they were heavy machinery a lot of steam and fire and all of that was happening kind of in the same place and and dust too corn dust and and so from lightning and rickhouse fires and corn dust explosions boiler explosions and of course never forget the like the flammability of the distillate itself you know it was it was a very dangerous place distilleries are still very dangerous places to work but you have a lot of you know osha and and various forms of building codes that that are written in place to protect everybody yeah were there any of those that you ran across that either you went well I can't put that in there or that that you're like man this is this is the worst no no I mean if it was real bad I tried to put it in but but they are but but I also thought that it was those that got included I mean there were some that were just kind of like gratuitous and and not necessarily saying anything about distilling history which I felt was kind of important to to have so there's one story of this traveling salesperson who who just you know got fed up and committed suicide and and had a like sign on his chest as he was you know traveling the night train from Chicago to Louisville you know I think anybody who's kind of been in the business of peddling whiskey around the country there is that feeling
yeah you know just overwhelming like I can't believe I have to go flog this again and the anonymity of it so I you know I picked the stories that I felt resonated with me and things that I had you know picked up on one way or another from my experience both as a distiller but being a distiller is also being a salesperson and and later in the book you start to get into some of those outsized personalities that really define the modern era of of distilling history and that's Jack Daniel obviously but you know the samuels family at Maker's Mark I think belongs in that category of of and and you know people who are George Remus on the sort of yeah I'm on the more illicit side side of things yeah yeah I mean these these are remus was the kind of character who could go into a courtroom after having shot his wife in plain daylight in the middle of the main public park in cincinnati and tell a jury it was Prohibition that made me do it I had no choice and the jury goes away for two hours and they come back and they say this is our christmas gift you're free and somehow Lem Motlow of of Jack Daniel decides to get into business with George Remus of all things oh yeah yeah yeah that that's well because I guess his his well Tennessee was had Prohibitions so so matlow had to go to st louis and this the story that I hear is about the basically there was whiskey that was starting to disappear from the warehouses during Prohibition and len matlow had to go to court over that and later on George Remus came back and said that was me by the way
Right right right so yeah watch who you're who you're hanging around with and associating with well I hope you enjoyed part one of my discussion with Dead Distillers author and Kings County Distillery co-founder Colin Spoelman you can find his book out on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller and find out more about his distillery at kingscountydistillery.com you can also join me for part two of my conversation with him as a Whiskey Lore Society member just head to patreon.com/whiskeylore find out what jp morgan has to do with whiskey learn more about cemeteries how they relate to whiskey and bootlegging and get you some tips on how to spend your time in Brooklyn when you visit Kings County Distillery that's all at patreon.com/whiskeylore hope you enjoyed the next few weeks and I'll talk to you again in may and until then cheers and slainte mhath
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC for show notes head to whiskey-lore.com/episodes