Historical proof: Tour covers ‘Whiskey Wars’ in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Historical proof: Tour covers ‘Whiskey Wars’ in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
Photo by Louise Wateridge

It’s hard history.

Liquor lovers with a taste for history can savor a blend of both at a monthly Navy Yard tour, talk, and tasting. The “Whiskey Wars” tour, which next kicks off at the Yard’s Building 92 on Nov. 21, focuses on the struggles fought over America’s favorite spirit. Whiskey history buffs will also clue visitors in on the one constant that separates distilleries from illegal stills — taxes.

“An illegal still was a still that didn’t pay taxes,” said Colin Spoelman, founder of the Kings County Distillery, where the tour ends. “And that’s true today.”

Brooklyn in the late 19th Century saw many battles between federal troops and Irish immigrant moonshiners who had no interest in paying the federal taxes imposed on their stills. No shots were fired over whiskey within the Navy Yard, said Spoelman, but the 1,500 soldiers stationed there did not have to travel far to find their tax-resisting opposition. The soldiers faced bricks and bats whenever they set foot into the seedy neighborhoods surrounding their barracks.

“Between the Navy Yard and the stills, it was maybe one or two blocks,” said Spoelman.

Spoelman and other tour whistorians will discuss another notable figure in local moonshine mythology — the legendary gangster Al Capone. The bootlegger was born at the corner of Navy Street and Flushing Avenue, just across the street from where the Navy Yard stands today, according to Spoelman.

Capone may have made his name in Chicago, but he learned everything about the whiskey business in Brooklyn, according to the distillery founder.

“He was raised in the culture of moonshining and bootlegging, and, while he moved to Chicago, he learned those skills on the mean streets of Brooklyn,” Spoelman said.

The tour also includes an interactive map of the development of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Kings County Distillery’s “moonshine museum,” and a taste of the contemporary version, with samples of the Distillery’s modern — and fully taxed — moonshine and bourbon.

“Whiskey Wars” at Building 92 (63 Flushing Ave. near Carlton Avenue in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, www.bldg92.org). Nov. 21 at 4:30 pm. $15.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.