is In Wild Air
Born and raised in Harlan, Kentucky, Colin first got interested in whiskey in his home state and after moving to New York, opened Kings County Distillery with his friend David Haskell. Since its opening in 2010, Kings County has become established as New York City’s oldest, largest, and premier craft distillery. Kings County’s whiskeys have won awards from the American Distilling Institute, the American Craft Spirits Association, and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and have won praise from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and GQ, among many other outlets. With Haskell his co-author of The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining, a how-to manual for whiskey making and Dead Distillers, both published by Abrams.
My wife is a film director and our favorite thing to do is watch movies. On our first date we saw a double feature of Date Night and Chloe. We try to watch a movie every day, but that’s a pretty hard pace to maintain. Once in Las Vegas for a day, we holed up in a hotel room and watched all three Godfather movies in sequence. I love old movies, especially anything with Barbara Stanwyck or Humphrey Bogart, or but any will do.
Storytelling is something often associated with rural culture, where an oral tradition sprang up in the absence of print, before radio and television. I especially like stories that can be told in a single sitting, which is why its hard for me to get excited about the golden age of television, where stories can be less precise and can sprawl thin.
Like a good short story or an album (both of which have fallen out of favor too), the stand-alone movie is losing its relevance as serialized content becomes popular: streaming television, but also news, blogs, podcasts. I like traditional stories that rely on tested techniques: plot twists, heroes and antagonists, climax and resolution, which are less common recent years than the movies of the 40s, 50s, and 80s.
In researching former distillers, I came across a few surprises. There were at least 3 presidents who were distillers (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison), and a few industrialists made at least some of their fortunes in whiskey (Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon). Jack Daniel was an ornery, short, sad man, who found religion on his deathbed and forbid anyone from ever using his name to promote whiskey (we see how that worked out). And he learned the distilling business from a slave, Nearest Green, who continued on with Jack after emancipation as a distiller.
There were more than a few women who have been written out of distilling history, but one, Mary Dowling, inherited her husband’s distillery after his death and became a canny steward of his business. During Prohibition, she was convicted of bootlegging, but it was overturned when the stenographer’s notes were illegible. She moved her distillery to Mexico and made bourbon there, hoping for repeal and would have made a fortune if she hadn’t died just before repeal would have allowed her to finally realize her fortune.
And there is George Remus, the lawyer turned bootlegger who set up in Cincinnati because it was nearest the most distilleries. He threw lavish parties, giving away money, jewelry—even new cars to guests. F. Scott Fitzgerald based his character of the Great Gatsby in part on George Remus. Like Gatsby, Remus loved to a fault. He became despondent over his wife’s affair with a revenue agent. He killed her in broad daylight in a Cincinnati park and, acting as his own lawyer, argued that Prohibition drove him to kill her. The jury took only a few hours to find him not guilty, an equally bizarre but no less tragic outcome than his fictional counterpart published a few years earlier.
The image of a distiller as an old white Southern man in a seersucker suit sitting on a porch is a misleading image. Distilling was carried out afterward by a parade of marginalized groups: first slaves, then the Irish when they were hated, then Jews, Catholics, women, and hillbillies. As a result of this exclusion, distillers tended to have an industrious will, charisma, and a mischievous side. As a result, they tended to have outsized personalities, making sin in a self-righteous America that still wrestles withits alcohol laws.
Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about cemeteries. Nothing could be further from the immediate, digital culture we find ourselves in. No one wants to think about death or dead people.
In 2011, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn approached us about having a “dead distillers” tour, wherein guests would ride the trolley to visit graves of former distillers (it was a more common profession once), and then head to our distillery for a tour and tasting. The tour was so successful it became a book; and in writing what became Dead Distillers I rediscovered the beguiling and contemplative characteristics of cemeteries—sanctuaries of solitude and beauty that are nearly everywhere we are, but routinely overlooked.
This is the profound opposite of how people felt about cemeteries in the first half of the 1800s, before large public parks existed. Aside from plazas, squares, and greens, there were few rambling rural places that city dwellers could go. Rural Cemeteries, as they became known, were the first public parks: city dwellers would travel to picnic, promenade, and commune with nature and the dead. Green-Wood was once the second most visited landmark in America after Niagara Falls.
19th-century Americans had a morbid, melancholy streak and cemeteries were a place to indulge it. As public parks became established, the cemetery began to lose its place of prominence as a forum, eventually becoming what they are today, secret and forgotten gardens, catalogues of people and stories, stark in their anonymity and rich with possibility.
I got interested in quilts for the same reasons I got interested in moonshine. So few things are hand made anymore such that truly hand made things stand out as increasingly special. A good quilt is a labored over patchwork of fabrics, often hand-stitched, and shows the detailed hand of its maker up close. But from far away becomes abstract, a pattern of such pleasing aesthetic balance that many belong as much in a museum as on a bed or couch.
I’m not a proficient collector, but in traveling through Kentucky’s whiskey country, I found that a lot of the old quilts were still easy to find, handmade heirlooms, sometimes with names and dates stitched into the fabric. The quilts I like are from the 1950s and 1960s, when the fabrics were still good and before sewing machines were as common.
A good quilt is a family document, passed along with a story of its making and its maker. And even when the story is lost, the quilt is still there, a relic of comfort and the person who gave it.
I get asked a lot what makes our whiskey different from other whiskeys. It’s a funny question when you think about it. It tastes different. It’s a question you wouldn’t ask of a wine maker or a beer brewer. But I think with American whiskeys like bourbon and rye, the whiskey is so homogenous from one bottle to another that people feel like they can’t taste much difference—and indeed there isn’t much difference, or hasn’t been until very recently.
It’s an open secret in American whiskey that there are only a handful of commercial distilleries making bourbon and rye, and many so-called craft brands are also made at those distilleries, with very little to distinguish them from any other. There’s not a lot in terms of recipe and process that change that, and truly grain-to-glass small distilleries are just now establishing their place in the market.
When we opened, we started with a lot of questions: what does bourbon from New York taste like? What could it taste like? What happens when you mix American and European traditions? How important is age, really? Does whiskey have terroir like wine?
Through these we came up with some whiskeys that helped answer those questions. We make a white whiskey (or moonshine, if you prefer) that is surprisingly drinkable on its own, so while age can improve whiskey, it helps to start with better distillate. Bourbon is really aged moonshine, and so we make bourbon not trying to replicate Kentucky’s taste profile, but using a high-malt recipe instead of three basic bourbon recipes. We created a peated bourbon and an American single malt by blending American and Scotch distilling cultures. We have a New York rye that is made to the same recipe with several other distillers to explore the terroir question.
Whether or not these whiskeys sufficiently answer those questions is really up to the drinker, but it’s an interesting challenge to find good questions to pose, whiskeys to answer those questions, and inevitably they lead to other questions and other answers. Whiskey can take years to age, so some of those answers won’t come for a decade or more.
Kentucky is known for whiskey, but it is also known for caves: Mammoth Cave is the largest in the world by almost double. In fact, the limestone filtered water that is often credited to Kentucky bourbon’s mellow flavor is also responsible for carving caves under the surface.
“Caving” is the proper term for what novices might call spelunking, and refers to exploring undeveloped caves with headlamps, helmets, and other gear. Some caves are set up for tours with trails, stairs, and lights, but most are not—ripe for a the adventurous hiker to go underground and get dirty.
Most undeveloped caves are small but full of possibility. Spooky and eternal, the passages, rooms, formations and underground rivers within a cave are strangely compelling. Cavers developed some of the first computer games and some early adventure games were set in caves to mimic this experience of exploration. And within every cave is the possibility of an undiscovered passage leading to something new, uncharted, and beautiful, hidden in the earth for thousands of years until that very moment.