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Deja Vu

February 4, 2013

Lips That Touch Liquor


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2013: The decommissioned Brooklyn Navy Yard is now home to the first legal distillery opened in New York City since the start of Prohibition. Kings County Distillery, a producer of artisanal moonshine and bourbon, hopes to spark a new interest in locally made liquor. The New York Times reports:

Soon the stills could be producing 30 gallons of whiskey a day, to be bottled in flasks and sold as moonshine or aged upstairs in charred oak barrels to make bourbon. They represent a wholesale upgrade from the little metal contraption that Colin Spoelman was using to make moonshine illegally in his Williamsburg apartment just a few years ago.

Back then, said Mr. Spoelman, a Kentucky native, he “worried about getting caught.” Now, he and his two partners in Kings County Distillery are at the forefront of a wave of small-batch brewing of spirits in the city, particularly in Brooklyn.

Already, eight businesses in Brooklyn and the Bronx, with names like Breuckelen Distilling and Van Brunt Stillhouse, have obtained licenses to operate distilleries. They are among about 30 small distillers in the state who have taken advantage of a 2007 law that allowed them to operate. Late last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill that will let them sell their wares at farmers’ markets starting this spring.

1864: The area around the Navy Yard wasn’t always so welcoming to liquor start-ups. A series of raids on whiskey distillers in the mid-1860s caused regular skirmishes between locals and military officials. Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle recounted one such incident:

Some days ago a raid was made in a certain portion of the Fifth Ward, where it is said a combination exists in order to protect its members in the illegal distillation of whiskey. The raid was planned with every dramatic accessory. The strategic collector was as silent as Grant as to his plans. At the appointed time a company of marines, ready for action, filed into the Fifth Ward from the Navy Yard. Women and children lined the windows and the housetops to take observation, and to ascertain if possible the reason for this sudden apparition of a “grim visaged war”.

Terrible discoveries were made. In one place it was alleged “mash” was found, and in several houses illicit distilleries would have been discovered if their owners had not made away with them, like so many saucepans.

The women, seeing that their assailants began to waver, assumed the offensive and as alleged flung missiles at the unlucky marines. Finally one disgusted marine, it seems, succeeded in swallowing more whiskey than the whole party found in the stills, and on his own account and risk he made an onslaught on the astonished multitude which had assembled to see what the row was about. The belligerent marine was captured. The force was withdrawn, to the relief of all, for if one bayonet thrust had been given there is no telling what the consequences would have been.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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