Ep. 28 - Dead Distilers Author Colin Spoelman
BOURBON HISTORY // Talking with the Author of "Dead Distillers" and Kings County Distillery's Co-Founder Colin about American whiskey history.
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
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore: The Interviews." The full transcript and resources talked about in this episode are available on the tab(s) above.
For More Information:
Welcome to a special edition of Whiskey Lore. I'm your host, Drew Hannush. And this is a sneak preview of a brand new podcast that I'm releasing called Whiskey Lore, the Interviews, and the idea of this new podcast feed is that I'm going to have an opportunity to share with you all of the old interviews that I did here on the Whiskey Lore podcast feed, but I'm going to shift all of those over to the new interviews feed, and I'll have a chance in upcoming seasons to add in more interviews, full length interviews, not the partial ones that you used to hear here on whiskey, Lord, Nope, bringing you the entire interview front to back on that Whiskey Lore, the interviews feed. And I really wanted to expand beyond just doing interviews with people who were associated with stories that I was doing. Now, there are many times that I would have an opportunity to do an interview and I would pass on it because it didn't relate to a particular story. So by having the interviews feed, that is going to give me the ability to do interviews year round and not be tied to any individual subject. So we're going to talk history. We're going to talk to distillers, we'll talk to authors and bring you all that history that you love. Maybe talk a little process, maybe do a little tasting along the way, and that is what the Whiskey Lore, the interviews podcast is going to be all about. So if you're subscribed here, I would love for you to follow or subscribe Whiskey Lore the interviews as well. And in September, I'm going to start with some new interviews, but right now I am going through some of the old interviews and putting them full length into the Whiskey Lore, the interviews podcast feed.
But I wanted to have a chance to share with you now, one of those podcasts, and this one is an interview that I did with a man named Colin Spoelman, who not only is written his own entertaining and informative book called dead distillers. He's also written the book on moonshine called the guide to urban moonshining, which is something he knows all about. Not only because he came from Eastern Kentucky originally, but because he actually got started on doing a little moonshining himself in Brooklyn, New York, before becoming master distiller and the Kings County Distillery. So this interview is going to give you a great opportunity to learn more about the history of New York, distilling from the Dutch all the way through to the era around the movie Gangs of New York, or if you saw the BBC show. One of my favorites called Copper before they took that off the air. You're going to learn about that era. You're going to learn all the way up until the rebirth of distilling in the state of New York after Prohibition. And just like with Tennessee, Texas, and many other states, it's a very recent rebirth. So let's jump right in right now and hear my entire conversation with Dead Distillers author, Colin Spoelman.
Well, welcome to the show.
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. We'd 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?
And 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 a different areas within the pandemic and there was sort of the hand sanitizer beginning to it. And then this sort of slow summer, we've 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 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 handles the handles of whatever they could find, but buying habits now appear to have shifted more to the higher end whiskey is 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 and, and 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, 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, 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 it, 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 7, 8, 9, when this was all going down. And so I would bring some moonshine back from Kentucky. That was part of my interest 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. That's legal to sort of do you know, to do some, some home brewing, so to speak, but for spirits has 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. You know, I would keep doing it in the apartment, just do it on the side. And you know, and I got into it and realized that you can't really do that. You have to be commercial.
There still are with all the trappings of a commercial distiller. So
We don'tI think of moonshine in New York City,
Right? Yes. And, and, and there was the 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 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, that I, I, 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.
How do you cause you weren't distilling at all, when you were in Kentucky, where did you work 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, 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, 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 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 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 attacks got lower and lower. So, you know, the, just the, the economic reasons for moonshine and 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.
You have JW 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, th this was, 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 seventies that were in the kind of Alchemist cookbook kind of anarchists, you know, just kind of like zenes 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, 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 one that I ended up kind of gravitating to, but both of those were kind of hobby, distiller, supply shops. 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, 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 going to potentially get into trouble, which was not my intent.
Right, 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, where it 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?
There were, there were distilleries going back to the nineties in New York and those were distilleries that are associated with wineries. So there was kind of a European tradition of having, you know, making grappa and OTBs 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 Lee 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 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, the kind of farm bureau behind him.
And once the farm bureau got ahold of it, they realized there was legislation, legislative potential and changing that rule. And so by the time the law passed, he kind of ran out of money, moved to Texas. It was, yeah, they never got to build his distillery, but there were people all around, 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 seem, 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 farmer's markets and you have plenty of opportunities for exchange between the agricultural side of, of food and beverage and the consumption side of food and beverage, which has happening. Of course. So so in 2010, we became the first licensed farm distiller. W maybe, I don't know, first in the state, but certainly the first in the city and then opened with a moonshine. So our first whiskey that we made was white whiskey. I can show you, but you, can, you sort of narrate what this is?
Is that the original? Yes. I mean, he can't have Moonshine without it being in the Mason jar, right?
In that path. And my business partner was kind of like, maybe dial it down. So settled on that flasks and, and the flasks were sort of well-known for today. That's we just a very simple stripped 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 was 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's it gonna 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 the early eighties when there was Milwaukee and there was St. Louis and there was Denver, right. You know, and that was the regional style of, of beer. 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 realized that there weren't realized that there hadn't been since Prohibition. They didn't realize 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, that was kind of part of that colonial economy. Then distilling shifted to rum and 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 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, 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 happening at a much smaller scale, even though history has remembered the Whiskey Rebellion 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 back, you know, before electricity and running water.
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 as a civil war, the center of whiskey was probably more in New York and Pennsylvania than it was moving out into those rural areas of Kentucky.
Yeah I mean, people forget that Kentucky was settled, ultimately, you know, in the, in the early to mid 18 hundreds, 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, 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, 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 price sort of thing.
And in New York land was more valuable than, 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 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
Coming in with my, my knowledge of history, and I surprise people sometimes because we, immigration is something that we talk about now from a different aspect. But during that time, when you were having this mass immigration coming from Ireland and coming from the old world here, there was actually a political party called the Know 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 a hundred, 200 years by then. So yeah, it's, it's, it's a, 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 meat, but they were just feeding swill to their, their cattle with no other feed. And so they were sickly.
And there were cows iving in tenement, Brooklyn, where again, you have no running water, you have no electricity. They're just sort of they're living in their own. 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
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 18 hundreds or abolition and and temperance. Yeah. So the, when the Civil War broke out in New York the Abraham Lincoln passed this excise tax on tobacco playing cards, feathers, pianos, you know, anything that you would find in a fun place 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 Car ended, they would go in and start rating and breaking up the distilleries and really created an kind of anti distiller sentiment that, that pushed people kind of into the countryside away from that sort of people on top of each other possibility of explosion, public health, you know, it's just like, there was just better to get away from it. And so, yeah.
So you mentioned a place called Dickinson's Alley, which was a place that at the end of that three years or so of riots that were going on in New York or in Brooklyn that, that area, there was actually a gunfight 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. I, my first question is, are you near that area? Does that area still?
Yeah that is about 50 feet from the distillery. Yeah, no, I mean, it's, it is a great location and, and not even one that we had any idea about. And so 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 us Navy and, and a big, you know, employer in Brooklyn and throughout the 18 hundreds. 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 a 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 18 hundreds, 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 50 feet the other direction, 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 Al Capone kind of may have learned the kind of relationship to the federal government and then 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, 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 where 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 firefight in 1871, that the moonshiners kind of got out in the boats and left some of them evacuated the area, but did the areas 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 were 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 siphoned off to distribution points in Atlantic City. And, you know, it just, it, 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 the still at 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 48 inch column stills, 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, 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, at, in 1920? In January, 1920, I guess it was. So it wasn't necessarily, I mean, and, but 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, th there, wasn't probably a whole lot of business lost and any of the sort of illegal distillers you know, were probably trying to get out of, you know, trying to get further away from the publicity or the scrutiny shall we say? 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 was just a reflection of if 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 it go through Kentucky and you'll hear it overnight, 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 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 that? Would 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 Netherland 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 the, 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, predated rye whiskey or originated and with George Thorpe or anything like that. I think the, the corn even grew well in Massachusetts and people are kind of, oh, this to growing their rye, looking at how well the Indian corn was doing. And then we're saying, well, maybe we should people should grow that stuff. Right. Cause 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 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 certainly came about contemporary and this with rye whiskey in the US.
It was probably more moonshine than it was because yeah, because you wouldn't and 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,
Well, I have a view on that too, which is just that it was, it was so common in Europe to, 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 just gives very little credit to the, the worldliness of people at the time. And certainly they developed you know George Washington sold mostly common whiskey, which we take to mean un-aged, that was what we 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 M you know, recycled barrels by toasting them on the inside to kind of kill the bacteria that might've been in there from whatever came before it or the smell. Yeah. So you know, to, 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 focus mindset to something that really just evolves 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 are you talking 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 agent could have just been the fact that, you know, it was coming down the, the river and the time that it spent 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, it's not something. So 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 this speculation going on,
Right. And alcohol history is, is particularly rife with the invention for, for one reason or another. So,
So when you get into writing a book like Dead 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 cause 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 a truth insofar as there's a documentation. 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 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, George w there was a while when George Washington's distillery was sort of claiming to be the largest in the United States, which was just refutable 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 written about, but in lobbyist as it was. And also one of the great times to kind of be able to, you know, w w w you don't have to go to a research library to get some of this original documentation, you can just go to the internet. And so I think it is a kind of exciting time to kind of apply the armchair historian approach to looking at whiskey history.
Cause sometimes it's just, as it's just knowing what to look for in the historical record and, and certainly kind of for me, and part of the reason why dead distillers came about is I was looking for distilleries. I'm searching old newspapers in Brooklyn for the word distillery and all that ever popped up where these gruesome accidents involving children. And it was just these like horror stories of, of child labor that was going into 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 it doesn't tell you
It it personalizes,, it, it, it makes you, well, I love that you put all of the clips that 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 a train and being sliced in half and her head rolling down the hill. And I'm like, oh, you know, we think nowadays, if you want to go watch a horror movie, or you want to if, if, if that kind of macabre kind of thing is your, is in your wheel house, that you can find that stuff where you want to, but in the 19th century, you know, that you think about writers like Edgar Allen 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 at that 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 that the post popularity and the growth of the rural cemetery movement and a focus on sort of death as this transformative kind of experience as if 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 and 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 it.
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 w you know, those types of things that could cause a death in early childhood. So, you know, the death was a, 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 went to Glenturret and then learned about this woman named Grace Gow and they discovered she fell into a into a fermentor. 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 Donald Johnston of Laphraoig, one of the brothers that Laphroaig, he fell into a pot of of 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 technology was, you know, less understood you know, safety was as safe as you want it to be. And and, and distilleries were factories. I mean, there were, there were heavy machinery, lot of steam and fire, and all of that was happening kind of in the same place and, and dust to corn dust. And, and so from lightning and Rick house 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, oh, I can't put that in there, or 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, 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 got fed up and committed suicide and, and had, hadn't 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 just overwhelming, like I can't believe I have to go flog this again and the anonymity of it. So I, I, you know, I picked the stories that I felt resonated with me and things that I had picked up on one way or another, from my experience both as a distiller, but it being a distillery is also being a sales person. And, and later in the book, you start to get into some of those outsize personalities that really define the modern era of, of distilling history. And that's Jack Daniel obviously, but you know, the Samuel's family and maker's mark, I think belongs in that category of, of, and, and, you know, people who are George Remus on the sort of on the more illicit illicit side of things. Yeah. These, these are ramus 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 have no choice. And the jury goes away for two hours and they come back and they say, this is our Christmas gift. You 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, cause I guess his, his well Tennessee was had Prohibitions.
Right. So, so Motlow had to go to St. Louis. And the, the story that I hear is about basically there was whiskey that was starting to disappear from the warehouses during Prohibition and Lem Motlow had to go to court over that. And later onGeorge 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.
Hello Whiskey Lore family. I am Drew Hannush. I hope you are enjoying this interview with Colin Spoelman, the author of Dead Distillers, and also the master distillery at Kings County Distillery in New York. And this is just a friendly reminder that if these kinds of interviews are the things that you like, you can hear full interviews on the brand new Whiskey Lore, the Interviews feed, and make sure you subscribe. So you don't miss any of the interviews coming up this September. And also you got the chance to catch up on full interviews from the back catalog that is all over there at Whiskey Lore, the Interviews. And now part two of my conversation with Colin Spoelman,
This book centers, a lot around cemeteries are talking about that distillers. And the, and you mentioned certain cemeteries you visited each of these. Are, is that a normal thing for you as a traveler? Have you been sort of drawn to cemeteries or was this more built around the research of the book?
It, it really came through the Greenwood Cemetery in New York in Brooklyn. They had approached us about doing a dead distillers cemetery tour. And I said, you know, it was back in the time when we had just moved into the Navy yard. And I said, how many distilleries could there possibly be in Brooklyn? And as it turns out, there were quite a few Quite significant people to Brooklyn's history, including Hezekiah Pierrepont, who really was just ultimate. I mean, he was a distiller, but ultimately became a wealthy landowner in Brooklyn and was very good friends with Robert Fulton and invested in steam ferry service and, and steam technology. And then his son, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont was the founder of Greenwood Cemetery. So Greenwood Cemetery, which is a rural cemetery, which is just a kind of model from the early 18 hundreds really was kind of derived from, you know, distilling money. And so that, that got me kind of intrigued at this older history of distilling I too come from a Kentucky is where the history of American whiskey comes from. But to rediscover those German and Irish immigrants who had built fairly huge factories, probably not good whiskey, but huge factories, nonetheless. And, and, you know, had significant fortune such that they bought very nice tombstones.
And, you know, and then you begin to understand that, oh, there's a, there's a different narrative here. And cemeteries tell narrative that narrative newspapers tell one narrative of sort of these gruesome accidents, but the cemeteries told another where there was, there were people who just kind of lived their lives and they were in a profession and they had a huge tombstone or, or not, or they built, you know a dynasty around it. So you get a sense for who their children and their their cousins and that sort of thing. And, and got a sense that it was a real big business in a way that most of us don't necessarily think of distilling being associated with New York City or the Northeast at all.
So you see the name Pierrepont. And the first thing that came to my mind was JP Morgan, because his middle initial P is for. So when you see you know, JP Morgan chase, you know, that, that all evolved out of this,
Right? He was he was like sort of a cousin and they, they all the whole family descended from the Reverend Pierrepont who was like you know, sort of Connecticut fire and brimstone minister. But yeah, th that family's wealth and connections certainly are traceable back to, to some degree to stilling and obviously the Frick family and, and Overholt, and that kind of Andrew Mellon, there's a, there's a surprising connection to whiskey that most people probably are not very aware of where a lot of wealth in the United States was built on distilling alcohol. And in some cases it was kind of shuttered, you know, shunted to the background because we want it to tell the story of steel and coke and, and, and, you know, more, you know, I don't know moral or ethical businesses to kind of trot out and what ultimately, ones that became more, you know financially meaningful to those people.
But but trying to those, those ancient connections are always very fascinating and there's a lot more of America was built on alcohol money. And a lot of, a lot more of American was built on Prohibition, illegal activity than, than we'll ever be known. I mean, there's no way to ever kind of understand where all that money went to, but there was a, certainly a lot of money. There was a lot of wealth created and, and where that went to is a fascinating study. But I did get into visiting cemeteries through that in particular, because Greenwood feels so removed from the rest of New York City and so rural. And so, I mean, it is to this day, a rural cemetery, and that just refers to kind of the landscape design of that era, which had a lot of windings sort of streets and Frederick law Olmsted kind of appropriated that for the idea of parks, because there weren't really public parks. The cemeteries were the public parks. That's where people went to go have fresh air. And so be as an urban person coming to the fresh air as a Kentucky and displaced of New York I really kind of fell in love with the place. And so then went to other cities and other cemeteries. And particularly in Kentucky, every cemetery is such an opportunity, but in particular cave hill and the one in Bardstown, Kentucky, which are in the book but, but many others. And I visited a dance grave in, in just a little church. I have a little winding road, but there Is, and, and all his cousins and, and, you know, progeny,
You really get it. You really get a sense of the community, the families, when I was doing the research on the, the dance family and the beam family, and the town of new hope and, and seeing all the different names that came out of there and that, you know, it was you know, Bazell Hayden came down from, from Maryland with with 60 families and they all populated this area and here is the birth of our you know, Kentucky distilling yet. They all came from Maryland. So that tells us that, well, there was probably distilling going on in Maryland and this, again, Northeast connection to, you know, being the origin of American distilling.
I think there's kind of a false narrative. You hear you, you research distilling history and you hear a lot about the Scots Irish and, you know, the sort of Protestant Irish who kind of came through Pennsylvania and down the Ohio river, but it really was not that so far as I can tell, it was a lot of Catholic immigrants who came through the Cumberland gap up from you know, they would go down to Virginia and then come up into Kentucky that way. So, you know, looking at those pioneers of American distilling, weren't really a lot of who you would imagine. It was a lot of Catholics. And then later it's I mean, there are Catholic Irish and there are Germans and there are you know, it's just, it's just maybe not exactly who you would expect and, and the, the great image of the, the master distiller in the seersucker suit on the porch, you know, really betrays how it was often the whichever ethnic group was not particularly popular in the United States. The, you know, slavery of Irish when people hated the Irish, you have Catholics and Jews, and just every group that was loathed, you could actually find and carve territory in the whiskey business because of its sort of nobody in this sort of upstanding society wanted to touch the moral association with alcohol. So it was a way for an immigrant class or an overlooked or, or under appreciated group of people to kind of carve a real legitimate business for their family and for their heirs. And so I think that that piece of it is important to tell so that it doesn't just become the story of, you know, good old boy, white Southern, you know history, although it may appear that way from looking back at this vantage point,
We've got elements of each, but one of the things that stood out to me was the 1640 distillery that was, was built on Staten Island was built by Dutchman. Yeah. So, and they were making, you know, w we taught, we're talking whiskey history. Usually they were probably making gin. Do you think that you might've been making Geneva because being a having a Dutch background, I know you mentioned that you thought maybe later on in the 1760s that they may have that when Livingston was there, Phillip Livingston was there, maybe he was making Geneva, but it almost makes more sense to me that they might've been making Geneva much earlier than that because you know, that was going to the Bols museum in Amsterdam. That was in the 15 hundreds when they first started making Geneva. So be interested it's well, and
Let's say it's, it's hard to guess. I mean, probably it was either I would argue my best guess is that it was a fruit Brandy, or it was a a whiskey, but it would have been, you know, what, what a Geneva from a whiskey is just that you don't age it and apparel and you add Juniper and other, all listening
To w and the degrees between gin and Geneva are.
Yeah. Right. And if let's say, If you were making gin in 1600, it would have been, your neighbor would have been able to rectify it you know, distill it enough times to you got what could be comparable to a London, dry, modern gin. You would have had a flavorful white whiskey base, and you would have had some botanicals that gave it some, you know, something, some flavor that made it not taste like moonshine, and that's what you worked with. So so whether or not that was done by the distillery or by the, you know, the, the end consumer, I mean, there's Martha Washington's cookbook where she kind of talks about all her what we would today call cocktails. But in that era was called slips and bounces and punches, you know, just ways to make whiskey through the inclusion of cinnamon and heavy doses of fruit and other things. Yeah.
So let's talk about one other aspect of cemeteries that I found really interesting in your book. The concept of Zinc keys. I had never heard this before. Describe what a, what a Zinc Key is. And then I have a question about their, their potential use today.
Right? Well, zinc keys are there was a moment when people for cost and practicality couldn't get stone tombstones, and they would purchase zinc tombstones. And these were things that were sold by like Sears Roebuck and were pretty mass produced. And then you would just fix a plate to the front of it that had all the relevant details. So it, all of a sudden, I, I want to say, I don't have it in front of me, but I want to say around 1900, you start to see stone monuments, but also you start to see these metal monuments that are made of zinc. And the story goes that it, some during Prohibition, people would hide money or contraband. It was a way to kind of have a, a meeting point because every, every grave stone has a name and you just say, go to Colin Spoelman that's out there, you know, and it just by the fountain and beyond the big Oak tree, and that was a way to have somebody find whatever they were looking for.
These were hollow, correct?
They were hollow. So you could hide something in them. Yeah. You could just take the name plate off and you could put you know, a few gallons of moonshine or mostly money. I'm sure it's what was left.
Well, so my question is, do you think any of those, if we start seeing those, cause they're you see them now, they have kind of a blue tint to them from, from their aging. So when we're looking at those, could there maybe be some moonshine or some whiskey left in there that somebody didn't collect. I asked
That question to the folks at Greenwood Cemetery and they kind of, they sort of felt like it was unlikely that if anything had been going on that they wouldn't know about it. Yeah. Which kind of makes sense that like, you know, there's always the groundskeeper, who's theoretically keeping a little bit of tabs on what's going on in the place. I mean, cemeteries were preferred because they were these big empty places that people didn't go then as now. But there were always people who were kind of lingering and, and Groundskeepers and things like that. So they thought unlikely, but it's a nice sort of tantalizing question, but you would really have to open up everyone to find the right one, which, which might,
Yeah, it might yield some amazing stuff though, or, or it could be a, well, I've got a story I'm about to be investigating about a store of pre-Prohibition whiskey that was discovered. And the first question that comes up is what is the quality of that? Because you're talking about pre-Prohibition, you'll see a lot of distilleries promoting pre-Prohibition style whiskey, and I'm thinking of what I've heard about some of the whiskey that came out before Prohibition. I don't know if I'd want to copy it.
Right. Right. Well, it's interesting. I mean, I would, I would wager the pre-Prohibition whiskey was probably pretty good and that it was really the post-Prohibition whiskey that was very bad for a long time. You know, it took a long time for distillers to catch up, but there are a lot of things and people, the reason people chase after Dusty's really anything that would be true about why a 1970 bottle of wild Turkey would be so good would certainly also be true of a, of a whiskey made much earlier, which would be the old growth wood. You know, you really didn't have a whole lot of scientific control over the process. So as you say, it might be, you might get stuff that's pretty bad, but you might get stuff that's pretty good. And if the distiller was reputable and had a good reputation, chances are they weren't, they were making something that was good. So I, I would stand behind pre-Prohibition and also Bottled in Bond act had been passed.
Right. You know it's probably more the stuff pre 1897, that we're
right, right.more, yeah. Something from, you know, w w w L Weller started as a rectifier and, and, and Julian van Winkle the first was always kind of saying, I make the whiskey that I came from at the, or from, you know, I make the good stuff. And, and, and just, so there, you know, there was kind of that, that era of the bottle of bond, where there really was a lot of who knows what you were really getting when you got a bottle of whiskey. Yeah. So if assuming you were getting bonded whiskey from, from pre-Prohibition, that, that I would be very curious to try. I've never had, I've never had the luck to try it. I've had some stuff from the eighties, from the 1940s and 1950s. Yeah. It's always impressive to me, not just because it's fun drinking something old, but you get such different flavors from old whiskey. It's more vanilla and chocolate and caramel than necessarily a lot of stuff that is now distilled as distilled at the top of the spectrum. So you've come off the, still at one 40, you know, you go into the barrel at 1 25, all that older whiskey, you would come out of low proof, go into the barrel of the low proof. The wood was very different. Sometimes it was older trees, more mature trees. Cooper Ridge was more common. So, you know, you weren't necessarily getting the homo homogenous sort of characteristic out of barrels that you see today. So
Well, and what's interesting about pre-Prohibition whiskey is that we didn't have the rules of bourbon back then. So there's no telling they could have been made in a variety of different ways at that so
So,yeah, I, I would like to I'm, I'm still on a hunt for Old Crow from the 1950s, because the, it really wasn't until the late 1960s before whatever happened to Old Crow happened, and it's never been the same sense. So you know, yeah, it's, it's definitely a fun hobby to have. And one that I haven't quite gotten into yet, but hopefully one of these.
Well it's getting increasingly xxpensive to deploy game people as people catch on. And the, the stock of old whiskey dusty whiskey, you know, gets consumed. So but it, you know, there's bourbon has always been cheaper than scotch and, and why you should have a scotch whiskey that sells for, you know, a hundred or $200,000 in the most expensive American whiskey that you can get is $3,000. Right. We deserve better than that.
Well, I'd like to say that they've been around longer than we have, but when you really get into studying whiskies history, our histories are fairly close to the same amount of time because they really didn't take off. And in legal distilling on a larger scale until 1823. So when talking about, you know, the U S that's when Dr. James C Crow came over to the United States, and now all of a sudden we're coming up with a brand with old Crow, and now it's becoming much more established. But we were already distilling before then, same as the Scots were distilling before then, but not long before then. So you know, I mean, we can take scotch all the way back to 1494 is the first time that we can say yes, it's in the records that, that somebody was making Uesgah Bertha. And it was, you know, what we would call whiskey these days on aged whiskey. But still the histories aren't that much different from each other in terms of the commercial age of whiskey. So, very interesting. So whatever happened with the whiskey tours, are they doing a whiskey tours out at the cemetery?
Well, we haven't done one in a while. We were doing them for, for a good bit. And then it was before COVID, I don't know why I think they had a change in leadership and maybe they felt this was maybe a little as they could perceive it as disrespectful, I suppose. So for whatever reason, there, there was less less desire on the part of the secretary to run those. But if they changed their mind, we would love to keep doing that. And I know cave hill in Louisville has been, has been doing them less frequently once, once a once a year, something like that with like food. And I went on that with with Mike Veach and that was really completely fascinating. And then just to go off on a cemetery tour with somebody who knows every little thing about every little buddy was, was great. So it's a fun way to bring a flask and Exactly a ride.
Can you, can you carry a flask around with you in open, I guess it's not okay.
Speaker 5 (01:13:22):
I mean, you know, at this point they're u