In search of the perfect classic manhattan: Kings County Distillery


I’m in search of the perfect classic Manhattan. Follow along as I visit classic cocktail bars, modern speakeasies, and hotels—tasting their versions of this classic cocktail. The best get four rocks glasses 🥃🥃🥃🥃, and one rocks glass 🥃 is reserved for the atrocities—of which there are many.

I’m planning to open a modern speakeasy. It’s a long-term project, something I want to build slowly, with a lot of attention to detail, over time. I put my first coins away, set my intentions, and now I’m ready for discovery. Discovery is where I do all of my research: finding out what it takes to open and run a bar, figuring out where can I afford to buy, and deciding whom to hire to help me. I also get to ideate on fun stuff like names, concepts for décor, and how I’ll get involved with the community—eep! So many questions. So, today I started with a tour of Kings County Distillery, New York City’s oldest and largest whiskey distillery, the first since prohibition.

Let me start by saying that bourbon is my liquor of choice. I take it neat, on the rocks, or in a classic Manhattan. I like bourbon because it’s the kind of pleasure-pain amalgamation I thirst for. It’s sweet with a gripping bite at the end. Its color is like molasses, and it makes me feel amazing—sexy and grown af. Also, it doesn’t give me a hangover.

What makes bourbon bourbon, and different from whiskey is that it is made with 51 percent corn. (Hopefully, not Monsanto, but most likely, because they’re everywhere.) Although Kentucky distills 99 percent of the bourbon in the United States, bourbon is also distilled in other states.

The Kings County Distillery is on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a shipyard and industrial complex located in northwest Brooklyn and built in 1801. Founded in 2010, Kings County makes handmade moonshine, bourbon, and other whiskeys. You can read more about the first legal NYC distillery since prohibition here. The tour costs $15.

The distillery is towered by The Farragut Houses, a public housing project built in the 1950s. According to the project’s Wikipedia page, most residents live in poverty; for more than five years, the majority of the buildings in the superblock did not have a washer or dryer, forcing tenants to walk over a mile to the nearest laundromat. On top of that, there was a lack of affordable food items. According to rumors, a grocery store was supposed to be built in 2010, the same year Kings County was founded, but that never happened.

The tour I attended started with a mixer. While people arrived and checked in, a bartender mixed three cocktails made with Kings County liquors and spirits: Moonshine Punch, an Old-Fashioned, and a Manhattan.  Of course, I opted for the Manhattan.

My Manhattan was bourbon-heavy and not to my taste. I like to taste the vermouth and bitters and cherry juice—it’s the simple four-item combination that keeps me coming back. When I want something stronger, I’ll have a neat drink. My Manhattan was garnished with a genuine maraschino cherry, but the bartender also put a citrus peel in it. Ew. A few sips was enough. The drink was $14, with a $2 tip. I give it two rocks glasses 🥃🥃.

The tour guide spoke like an amusement park tour guide with short, brief, rehearsed sentences that ended on a high note, followed by a giggle and a clasp of the hands. He brandished a long biker-like beard, silver rings, and an Easy Rider sweatshirt with a feathered skull. He seemed to be an expert in whiskey and bourbon-making, but I can’t confirm, as I don’t have a lot to compare the tour to.

I tuned out to a lot of what he was saying about American history and bourbon after he mentioned the slaves who’d harvested the sugar cane for the spirits. I was glad they included it in the presentation, though. One piece of information I heard that blew my mind is that profits from bourbon-making in the U.S. have funded every American conflict to date.

The guide also talked about Prohibition and the pitfalls of trying to legislate people’s behavior through a moral lens. This is of particular interest to me when it comes up in my communications work. From Prohibition, we can cull several lessons about human behavior—which lead us to a better understanding of why Prohibition was unsuccessful.

“The sound economic theory … predicts that prohibition of mutually beneficial exchanges is doomed to failure. The lessons of prohibition remain important today. They apply not only to the debate over the war on drugs but also to the mounting efforts to drastically reduce access to alcohol and tobacco and to such issues as censorship and bans on insider trading, abortion, and gambling,” Stephen Moss writes for The Guardian.

When he finished the oral history, we walked 500 meters to the distillery and listened as he told us about the distilling process. You can learn about that here. Fun fact: Kings County sends the spent grain from the bourbon mash upstate, where it is used to make organic soda. The distillery smelled like banana bread and was disheveled and dusty. There were a couple of people murmuring around the floor, but since the process of making bourbon is automated, there isn’t a need for a lot of staff.

We received a lesson on the barreling and packaging process. The guide showed us a series of bottles of bourbon from two-day maturation to two-and-a-half years maturation. The first set of bottles was clear.

There is a common misconception that bourbon is always brown, but that’s not true. The barrels saturate the liquor and give it its beautiful hue, so the longer the liquor is in the barrels, the browner the bourbon is. If your bourbon is eight years old, it could have other, older bourbons in the mix, too. However, by law, distillers have to display the age of the youngest bourbon in the bottle.

I snuck out when they started the bourbon tasting, which concluded the tour. Two hours and $31 later, I knew more about bourbon than I did before. The meh Manhattan and cold weather notwithstanding, Kings County Distillery was a good use of my time.


Reading: The Bourbon Bartender: 50 Cocktails to Celebrate the American Spirit

Watching: Prohibition by Ken Burns and Boardwalk Empire with Steve Buscemi. If you can watch these simultaneously, you’re in for a real brain treat.

Drinking: The Classic Manhattan

  • 2 oz. bourbon

  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • Tools:  Mixing Mixing glass, bar spoon, strainer

  • Glass: Cocktail

  • Garnish: Cherry (Luxardo’s or any such original maraschino cherry made from Italian marasca cherries, not imitation maraschinos)

    Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, strain into a chilled glass, and garnish.

cocktails, BlogShanelle Matthews