Think you can only make whiskey from rye or barley? Think again. At least at Brooklyn's Kings County Distillery, they've made the spirit with some crazy components. When Gizmodo stopped by for a visit earlier this week, we spent a fascinating day with co-founder Colin Spoelman as he pulled some transubstantiating magic and turned Coca-Cola into whiskey.
Located in the rustically beautiful 113 year-old Paymaster's building at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kings County Distillery is the first distillery to produce whiskey legally in New York since Prohibition. In 2010, the state relaxed some farmhouse distillery laws to allow small producers to sell and serve their product in the same location. This paved the way for a lot of craft producers in Brooklyn and its environs, with Kings County leading the way.
Kings County has been in operation for about three years, and, though they've commissioned some massive copper pot stills from Scotland in which to distill, they aren't quite ready for the big time yet (including some last plumbing details that need to be ironed out before those massive stills can be turned on). In the meantime, Spoelman and Co. have been working in something of a jimmy-rigged situation, using a series of smaller stills and tools they've set up themselves (like a giant Black & Decker drill with a stirrer affixed to the end to agitate mash, and a clever homemade chiller in a big blue tub).
More importantly, the setup is indicative of the DIY attitude that is very much alive in the distillery. In fact that attitude is how we ended up distilling soda in the first place. Surprisingly enough, the process is not that much different from what a lot of other craft distillers are doing in Kentucky. So how is it done? You start with what it actually takes to make whiskey in the first place.
Sugar is key. In fact, sugar is one of the main requirements for something to become alcohol. With whiskey, you first have the sour mashing process, followed by distilling, with an intermission of a few days in the middle for the chemistry to take its course. Mashing is basically just the cooking of a grain-and-water soup, allowing enzymes to break down the starch that will later turn into liquor. Usually this comes from grains, but we took sugar from The Real Thing, and left a mix of Coke and yeast to sit for four days or so before running it through the still.
In some craft breweries, they might be experimenting with oats or rice in the sour mash. Kings County has also messed around with adding Mast Brothers chocolate. In this part of the process, you're bringing the whiskey up to a boil to burn off water and collect the good boozy part. Whiskey has to be distilled twice to bring it up to a purity that's palatable. The first run will bring the mash up to forty percent proof—something known as low wines, which are an oily, funky-tasting distillate.
The second run brings the alcoholic percentage up to about 82 percent, and, as time goes by, and as the temperature climbs to around 212 degrees, some of the alcohol burns off; the result thus hits about 70 percent. The whole process requires only a high school-level understanding of chemistry, but quite a bit of skill and artistry. During those six hours or so, while the wines are running through the still, you get what's called heads, hearts, and tails. The heads you don't want; that's the kind of stuff that people claim will make you go blind. You can 86 the tails, as well. Those are undesirable chemicals as well that you're trying to get rid of. But the hearts—the hearts are your young whiskey. And our Coca Cola whiskey (well, it was technically moonshine, because it wasn't aged) was surprisingly good!
The body was most definitely whiskey and the finish—though it had less bite—was unmistakably Coca-Cola. When mixed with actual Coke, it was pretty unique—and probably dangerous, in that it didn't really taste that much like whiskey. Spoelman told us he's interested in perhaps making alcohol out of cola to sell in the future but, for now, there are a few too many FDA-related logistical hoops to jump through.
The most important thing here is that you can make booze out of almost anything, as long as it has sugar. Oh, the possibilities… If you're curious for even more detail, check out Kings County's brand new book, The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining.
Photos and video by Michael Hession