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How Kings County Distillery Made Its Moonshine A Hit With Substance Over Style

Got a great product but can't make heads or tails of packaging, marketing, or branding? Take a page from Brooklyn's Kings County Distillery and think substance and story over style.

Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 10 Best Business Lessons of 2013. For the full list, click here.

In 2010, Kings County Distillery—the first whiskey distillery in New York City since the prohibition era—started churning out moonshine and bourbon in a building that was once a bank and later home to a company that made burial shrouds.

Cofounders Colin Spoelman and David Haskell found out during the planning stages that Haskell's grandfather was a New York bootlegger during prohibition; Spoelman, meanwhile, had grown up in a dry county in Kentucky (which seems a particularly harsh irony for a bourbon lover). Booze was in their blood.

Today, they run a commercial distillery whose small-batch products have garnered boldly positive reviews. The New York Times says Kings County's barrel-aged whiskey has an "almost piney tang of new American oak embracing the grain"; GQ said of its moonshine that there's "no grimace when you take a sip—just a mild burn that makes you want another."

So the product wasn't the problem. Despite a quirky backstory and a seemingly national passion for all things Brooklyn, the branding was. Spoelman, who still works part-time at an architectural firm, says the packaging in particular had him stumped.

"The architect I work for refuses to design facades; he says it's more about what it does and less about what it looks like," Spoelman says. "I got into that same sort of dilemma—how do you design a logo and the appearance?"

Instead of killing himself to replicate old-timey fonts or come up with a brand identity, he typed out some labels on a typewriter.

"It just became about the words and that simple sort of approach," Spoelman says. "And I think, weirdly, that makes sense from a branding point of view."

Bottom Line: Define your brand with substance over style.

[Video Producer: Shalini Sharma, Camera/Editor: Tony Ditata]

Add New Comment


  • RedRobber

    How much does it cost to start a commercial distillery? I have been a brewer for years, but distilling really seems like it is all the rage these days.Looking around, it looks like has some awesome looking stills, and I would love to get started myself.

  • guest

    Yeah, I'm not sure the guy gets that by refusing to have a brand, he's now got a brand.

  • Leeonearth

    Agree with Steve.  Simplicity does not mean absence of style - but a kind of style.  And this is stylin' - in a good way.  This is a great example of where style meets substance/quality and story beautifully.  Enjoyed the read.

  • Steve

    Not sure if this really is substance over style because we've had many years now of brands large and small, authentic and fake, falling over themselves to look the shabbiest chic. This level of undesign is about as stylish as it gets, but it does work with the brand story here, though I doubt these dudes are as 'innocent' in the art of branding as the article suggests. Words like 'prohibition', 'moonshine' and 'bootleg' are just aching for a bottle found in a disused pharmacy and a label that had to be hand-made under cover of darkness. Did I mention the ancient and slightly unreliable typewriter....?