The "white dog" whiskey flows in a steady stream into a 4-quart measure. Every now and then, Dick Waters dips a small cup under the clear rivulet to taste. It is the beginning of about a four-hour run on the gleaming copper column still, the proof high and the room heady with fermented mash.
Waters and his wife, Marti, are part of a micro-spirits revolution going on in the country right now. Boutique distilleries are popping up all over, each with a distinctive vision for an artisanal whiskey, rum, bourbon or other high-test quaff. The Waterses are early to the party here in Florida, the only legal micro-distillers of whiskey in Central Florida and one of just a handful in the state.
Despite Florida's long and inglorious history of bootlegging, this is a far cry from moonshine pot stills hidden deep in the woods. This is all on the up-and-up. The couple bought a still from Copper Moonshine Stills in Arkansas (even off the rack, it cost $5,000 and commanded a nine-month waiting list), then in February 2008 they applied for a state permit. In a tricky bureaucratic Catch-22, you have to have an operational distillery to apply for a distillery permit. But the government will throw the book at you for operating said distillery sans paperwork.
Permit in hand, Dick and Marti started operations at Palm Ridge Reserve in January 2009, repurposing their 10-stall horse barn just outside of Umatilla, which is about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. A couple of the stalls are now filled with more than 100 5-gallon American oak barrels, each toasted inside with a hard char to impart flavor to the finished whiskey. Another stall is filled with the 8-foot-tall still and 50-gallon drums in which the "wash" (the combination of grains and corn boiled to produce alcohol) is stored, and still another is where Marti keeps her bottling operation. A couple of old dogs oversee the proceedings from elsewhere in the barn, perhaps wistful about the days when all its smells were equestrian and bovine.
Kernel of an idea
Necessity being the mother of invention, Marti set her mind to figuring out how to stay on their farm. Married for 41 years, they have two grown girls, the younger of whom, Chandra, had a thing for horses. They bought the 80-acre former orange grove in 1984 as a place to nurture her enthusiasm. For years it was just a weekend retreat, but once their girls were grown they built a house on the property. They bred cows; they considered breeding horses and growing grapes.
A couple of years ago, Marti read a magazine article about the rise of handcrafted micro-batch distilleries. She called Dick at work (he was in construction at the time), and a plan took shape. Dick was a longtime Crown Royal drinker, but he knew he'd need a bolder and more distinctive flavor palate to sell a boutique product. They tinkered with recipes from the Internet, conducting blind tastings with friends and family. They'd arrive most places with sloshing mason jars, noting the recipes that routinely pleased the tasters.
The Waterses settled on a recipe of corn, barley malt, regular rye and toasted flake rye. This mix, looking like the mother lode of bird seed, goes into a 50-gallon drum lined with drapery sheers (Marti's idea) along with untreated well water and special whiskey yeast. The mash solids gets lifted out and about 30 gallons of liquid are piped into the still's vat, where it is heated. At the top of the still's column is a container to capture condensation from water vapors and a container to cool and trap alcoholic vapors.
Dick eagle-eyes the trickle that results from the vapors, tasting the fresh whiskey — more colorfully referred to as "white dog" — occasionally. The high-alcohol "heads" come off the still first, then there's the middle run and finally the low-alcohol "tails." These heads and tails go into a mason jar and get added back into the next batch of mash, but the middle run yield is carefully quantified and logged into an official document that state regulators require.
He makes his whiskey by taste, in batches of 4 ½ to 5 ½ gallons every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The fresh whiskey gets poured into the small barrels, where it ages and deepens in flavor and color for up to seven months, Dick's taste buds the final arbiter. It is then cut to exactly 90 proof and Marti leaps into action, bottling, corking, labeling and boxing the finished product.
All that wood aging takes the clear white dog and gives it a deep amber color, with a smoky aroma and sweet vanilla and hazelnut on the palate along with something more rugged like leather or tobacco. It reads like a fine bourbon, the finished 750 milliliter bottle commanding a price around $50. Already it has found its way into rarefied dining rooms at New York's Waldorf-Astoria or closer to home at the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, Mellow Mushroom pizza outposts and Total Wine stores.
Peek through the barn window and the Waterses may look a little like Florida moonshiners. But Dick makes an important distinction: "Moonshine is singular of purpose — to get you tanked. With whiskey, it's an art. We're looking for flavor from the grains and about where the maker has decided to make the cuts (on the heads and tails)."
At the end of the day, this boutique distillery is about as "green" as it gets. No waste. When the mash no longer contains enough starch to convert to sugar, Marti and Dick walk the pungent grains over to the fence as a treat. In Umatilla, there are some happy cows.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.