Colin, playing John Darling in a local production of Peter Pan, in the days before Kings County Distillery took flight. Photo via Colin Spoelman
Because we here at Brokelyn are responsible drinkers, when we hit the bottle, we don’t just look to get trashed, we look for inspiration. In the world of whiskey there are few stories more inspiring than that of Kings County Distillery, which started as New York City’s first distillery since Prohibition-era rules on distilleries were lifted, back in 2010 in a 325 square-foot room in East Williamsburg and went on to critical acclaim, praise from the public, and a brand new distillery in the Brooklyn Navy Yards.
We sat down with co-founder Colin Spoelman, former scent model and executive producer, to see the long and winding route he took from rural Harland County, Kentucky, to bustling New York City, and the hobby he took with him.
1. Bert, All My Sons, Regional Theater, Abington, VA- 1990
I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, which is a very impoverished area where there aren’t actually a lot of jobs. So in high school, it wasn’t a question of getting a job mowing a lawn because lawnmowing was a pretty coveted position, and a lot of that stuff wasn’t available to me. The first time I ever had a real paying job was when I was in a play. I was cast as the role of Bert in an Arthur Miller play in a regional theater in Abington, Virginia, and I was ten years old. The theater was 90 miles away, a two-hour drive, from my house and in order to do the rehearsals and performances, my parents would have had to drive me each way, every day, so instead I stayed in the actor housing. A lot of the actors were from New York, so they had these dorm rooms, basically, and they let me live away from home at ten years old with a bunch of New York actors. They paid me the rate they paid any other non-equity actor, so I actually got paid pretty well for that job, and certainly pretty well for a ten year old.
2. Actor, Peter Pan, Regional Theater, Abington, VA- 1994
I worked at that theater again for another play when I was 13, I was John Darling in Peter Pan, and they did not offer me the same terms. It was a different artistic director, and he said “Oh, I thought we’d just offer you the job for experience,” and I was like, “This is bullshit,” so I staged a little protest and they ended up paying me something, but not as much as the last time.
3. Beeper Company Intern, Metrocall, Pensacola, FL- 1997
So then I went off to boarding school for a couple years, and a friend of mine from school offered to let me go live with his family in Florida right after school and I worked for a beeper company. I was interning there and I didn’t really have tasks, so I just fiddled around on their computer system and ended up crashing it at least twice.
4. Brief Writer, Julie Atkins Associates, Harland County, Kentucky- 1998
The next summer I worked in my hometown, in Harland County, Kentucky, and a lot of people there would get on government assistance. People in the area were pretty trained on how to do that, so the government, of course, would fight back a little bit. You could hire a lawyer who would fight for your case, so I was doing appeals for social security benefits for a lawyer, just writing briefs for court. It was sort of a depressing job.
Colin, back in the day, relaxing after building some trails
5. Trailbuilding, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, CO- 2000
I was trailbuilding in Colorado one summer with a group called Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, that was kind of fun. We would rehabilitate hiking trails or outdoor parks, anything the government needed but the forest service couldn’t build. I did a similar job the summer before in Louisville, Kentucky, working for an organization called Fund for the Arts, which raised money for Shakespeare in the Park and the symphony and all that.
6. Personal Assistant, Downtown: A Street Tale, New York, NY- 2002
Then I graduated college and moved to New York with the hopes of doing something in the film business, but I didn’t know where to begin so I just took a temp job and I worked at the Columbia School Department of International Affairs in their fundraising office. I quit that job to go work on a movie set as a PA, which is a job I think every person in New York eventually does, on an independent feature called Downtown: A Street Tale. The movie didn’t come out until at least ten years after we had made it, and when I went to see it I was the only person in the theater that day.
Capote, which Cyan Films almost produced
7. Executive Producer, Cyan Films, New York, NY- 2002-2004
After that, I started working for a film production company that a friend of mine from college started, Scion Films, and through that we were executive producing a number of movies. We really were more ambition then credibility, and ultimately weren’t able to raise that much money. At one point we were producing the movie Capote, and when it came time for us to move money into the account and make the movie happen, we weren’t able to raise all the money. We had to go tell the director, the producer, and the writer that we weren’t going to be able to raise the money at this breakfast meeting at [the director] Bennett Miller’s apartment, and because I wasn’t the finance guy the burden was on me to be the bad cop and say “Listen guys, we just can’t raise the money,” and these guys were saying, “But we maybe can raise the money!” and everyone in the room would get really hopeful, and I’d have to tell them “No,” so that was a rough meeting.
8. Temp, Estee Lauder, New York, NY- 2005-2007
After that I worked at a few banks, which were pretty soul-sucking places to work, so I told my temp agency “Is there something I could do that’s a little sexier?” and I regret that choice of wording. I was immediately sent to Estee Lauder, which I didn’t know anything about, and I worked in their Fragrance Marketing department. I had the unusual responsibility of being a “fragrance model.” They were developing men’s fragrances for their brands, and there were very few men who worked in that office, so when they needed to figure out what a fragrance would smell like on a man, they would round up all the dudes in the office and spray us down with whatever they were testing, and the people in charge of development would smell and comment. It was great, and ridiculous.
9. Publications Manager, Bernard Tschumi Architects, New York, NY- 2007-Present
The next job I had was working part-time for Bernard Tschumi Architects. He was the Dean at the Columbia School of Architecture for 15 years and he built the Acropolis Museum and the Parc de la Villette, a park in Paris. Now, I majored in architecture but I didn’t train to be an architect, and I’m basically useless in an office because the undergrad program that I went through wouldn’t let us use computers and only let us design by hand. So of course I was unemployable for anything in an architectural office, but Bernard was looking for someone to help him put together publications, as an academic he’s often writing books. So that’s how I got started there, and that over time grew into a position where now I do a lot of marketing and public relations and positioning projects.
Colin at his day job nowadays. Photo via Colin Spoelman
10. Co-Founder, Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, NY- 2009-Present
Things were really bad after the Estee Lauder job. I broke up with the girl I was living with, moved to Brooklyn, there was this huge rift in my life, and around then I started getting interested in making whiskey. I had started visiting my family back and forth in Kentucky, brought some moonshine back to my apartment, and we’d share it with people at parties, it was kind of a big party house in Williamsburg. At a certain point we got a little still off the internet and started making moonshine in the apartment, and then, after a couple years of that, filed for a federal license to do it legally, and we became the first craft distillery in New York City.
Any advice to people looking to start their own business based on their passion?
In our case, it was really a gradual thing, you know, I was running this kind of hobby business for a while, and then even when it was a legal business we were so small that we didn’t have much of a presence, which led to some opportunities to grow the business. To me it’s always been keep the real job and do what you’re really interested in on the side. I mean, hopefully people get to do what they love and get paid for it, but I see this all around me, what people really want to do with their lives doesn’t always pay them money, and I think it takes some time getting used to that, especially when you’re young and move to New York City with ambitions of doing what you love.
It’s also important to have these other jobs because you learn things from them that help you out in the future. In a weird way, fragrance has a lot to do with whiskey, they’re both liquids of very high value, working in a visual field like architecture helped me with designing the labels, working in film taught me how to set up LLCs, so I think all of these little pieces do prepare you in ways you don’t realize until much, much later.