Brooklyn Booze

Brooklyn is known for many things – churches, the original home of the Dodgers, peculiar accents and pronunciations, the 3rd largest city  in the country (if it were a city) and my “hometown.”

It also has an interesting history in the alcohol industry particularly in
distilled spirits.

A previous posting mentioned Kings County Distillery, which claims to be New York City’s oldest operating whiskey distillery, the first since before prohibition. They produce handcrafted bourbon and moonshine and I intend to visit their operation and report back.

In doing my research about them, other distillers and the history of Brooklyn in the booze business, I came across some interesting information.

Currently, the estimated number of micro distiller startups in the US is said to be between 150 and 250. Roughly 18 are in New York, as much as in Oregon, making these two states the leaders. In New York, the state offers a special, inexpensive permit for small-batch distilleries. To get the license, there are application forms, a fee, an interview and agreement to source half the ingredients from New York farmers. The state and the entrepreneurial spirit have revived an industry that was totally destroyed by prohibition.

In addition to Kings County Distillery (bourbon, moonshine and chocolate whiskey), Brooklyn is also the home of Breuckelen Distilling (gin and whiskey), New York Distilling Co (rye and gin), Brooklyn Brewery (beer), Red Hook winery (wine) and many others still to come.

Remember the part where I mentioned the cooperation between government and distillers? It wasn’t always that way. Which brings me to the Great Whiskey War of 1869 in Brooklyn,  also known as the Moonshine War.

There were dozens, if not scores, of distilleries and rectifiers in Brooklyn around the time of the Civil War. For whatever reason – lawlessness or concern about corruption and misuse of tax dollars – most decided not to pay taxes. We think of moonshiners as living in the rural areas of the south and the Ozarks, but my hometown was right up there with the best of them.

According to a posting in the Brooklyn Library blog: “From 1866 through 1868 the newspapers were full of reports of seized distilleries.  In 1867 the government collected only $21,618 from Brooklyn distillers, when in fact the volume of liquor they produced should have yielded $1,225,000 in duties.”

By 1869, the revenuers could no longer stand it and were itching for a fight. So on the morning of December 4, 1869 close to 1,000 troops and a small army of tax collectors were sent into the Fifth Ward of the borough. The area was also known then as “Irish Town,” a waterfront district of factories and tenements adjacent to the Navy Yard. Thirteen distilleries were utterly demolished.

Raids, involving stills and equipment destruction and ultimately arrests of the Brooklyn moonshiners, continued throughout the early 1870s. At one raid, as many as 1,500 soldiers were involved, some of who were observed enjoying the products they confiscated and were totally inebriated. By 1876, the moonshiners had begun to abandon Brooklyn – some changed professions and a number moved to Manhattan.

As one historian put it, “The story of Brooklyn moonshiners and their struggle against federal authority is more than a colorful bit of local history. It is the tale…of the extension of the government into the lives of ordinary citizens.”

Politics aside, I’m glad that micro distillers are back in Brooklyn.

But the Dodgers can stay where they are.


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