Kelci Koonce came from a moonshining family, but she never considered working in the beverage industry until a virtual event connected her with Kings County Distillery.
BW: When did you know that you wanted to work in beverage alcohol?
KK: I’ve always had a love for craft spirits but particularly whiskey since moonshining is a part of my family’s history, so I’m a whiskey enthusiast by heritage and choice. But it wasn’t until I attended a virtual tasting with Kings County Distillery that I realize I wanted to work in the industry. One day in the early months of the pandemic, I got an event email from WomenWhoWhiskey about a virtual tasting event with Kings County Distillery. As a member of WomenWhoWhiskey (NYC Chapter) I wanted to support the chapter so I purchased a ticket for the event to support them and lift my spirit – no pun intended – ha-ha! I had such a good time during the tasting and loved how Jennifer Blair (Kings County Distillery) talked about the distillery, I kept thinking, “I would love to volunteer here.”
I connected with her on Instagram and when I saw her post about looking for tour guides I got so excited! I outreached to her about the position and shortly after that, I was invited to the distillery to meet with Devin Ershow and Jess Kanter-Kowal, and talking to them further solidified my excitement to work in the industry. I thought to myself, “I want to work with people like Devin and Jess while educating people on distilling and the spirit of whiskey.” The beauty of the Gatehouses was the cherry on top.
BW: What does your daily life as the head tour guide for Kings County Distillery look like?
KK: While no two days are alike (which I love), I begin them all with a smile and greet the team to see how everyone is feeling. I open the distillery, get the tastings for the day poured with the tour team, restock the gift shop if necessary, and then it’s showtime! I usually start with leading our Top Shelf Tour which is a longer tour that includes some American whiskey history. Throughout the day, I’m switching between giving tours, checking in guests, helping out at the gift shop, and cleaning. When the tours are done, I still continue conversations about whiskey, distillation, maturation, barrels, etc. with anyone who may have additional thoughts or questions. The cool thing about giving tours is that you never know who you’re going to meet, and I have met a lot of great people while giving tours. After closing up the distillery, I end the day walking over to the tasting room where I chat with the bartenders for a bit before I head home.
BW: What is your favorite way to enjoy whiskey?
KK: Majority of the time, I’m a neat gal. However, once summertime hits, I’m all about creating whiskey cocktails. Once work is done, it’s not unlikely to see me smiling over a penicillin, which is one of my favorite cocktails.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the distilled spirits industry?
KK: I have tons but the main pieces of advice that come to mind are: know your fit, remember your “why”, be your authentic self, and know that you deserve to be in these spaces building with other women. The distilled spirits industry is fast-paced and changes at any given moment, especially during the pandemic. Honoring your authentic self and remembering why you do what you do will keep you thriving, empowered, and centered through your journey. Fit is crucial, I am confident and enthusiastic about what I do at Kings County Distillery because how we operate feels like a healthy work family, I can be myself here, my voice is valued, and I truly stand behind what we do.
I am grateful and blessed that I get to work with such amazing, talented, and supportive people, KCD keeps me teachable. While the industry has come a long way it’s still quite male dominant, which can be challenging. If imposter syndrome tries to get under your skin, pick up Fred Minnick‘s book, “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved, Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey” to remember the women in the industry before you and put those imposter syndrome thoughts to rest. Know that you belong where you are and deserve to go as far as you allow the journey to take you.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Brooklyn.
KK: This question has me daydreaming about summer and winter just started, ha-ha! I’ve had quite a few perfect whiskey weekends in Brooklyn and my favorites are when I have a tour group that knows little to nothing about whiskey and they leave enthusiastic to learn more about all kinds of whiskey. It’s like a spark they didn’t know they had in them is now lit. Once tours are done and the work shift is over, I’ll grab my favorite sub from Wegman’s and head over to the Gatehouses (which is loaded with beautiful flowers) where a DJ is playing the best summer jams, and sit with the team and enjoy their company, share laughs, and soak up the summer sun and breeze.
Photos Courtesy of Kelci Koonce