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Florida Distillery launches premium artisan vodka made of cane sugar

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The idea for the Tampa Bay area's first premium hand-crafted, micro-distilled vodka made entirely of Florida ingredients started as a hostess-gift conundrum.

Lee and Sarah Nelson were going to Denmark to visit friends and wanted to bring something emphatically American as a present. They ended up taking cigars, but the seed was planted.

"Why can't we produce something really great that represents Florida?" thought Nelson, a projects manager for the treasury services department of JPMorgan Chase. He joined forces with a buddy from his hockey team, Pat O'Brien, in 2010 and began planning the artisan vodka. They pooled their savings and borrowed $30,000 from the crowd-sourcing site Lending Club.

On Wednesday, idea turned reality at the launch of Cane Vodka, made of Florida cane sugar and filtered water drawn from the Floridan Aquifer. The initial product is an unflavored premium vodka, but in a corner of their small Florida Distillery — in an office park in the curiously spelled Faulkenburg Centre on Falkenburg Road — Plant City strawberries stewed murkily in a batch of liquor for the company's first flavored vodka. Oranges from Indian River, blueberries from Brooksville and grapes from Gainesville will follow.

Locavore in a bottle

A spirit historically prized for its flavorlessness, vodkas have burst onto the scene in flavors from bacon to smoked salmon, marshmallow to (shudder) peanut butter and jelly. Vodka is the top-selling spirit in the country, with 27 percent flavored.

Swedish brand Absolut kicked it all off back in 1986 with Absolut Peppar, and by 2010 more than 75 different flavored vodkas were sold in liquor stores and supermarkets. The trend can be attributed to a couple of things. Vodka tends to be the least expensive liquor to produce, and with the recent martini craze, kooky flavors have been a boon to bartenders' creativity.

While the premium vodka proliferation has been happening for a while, the Florida Distillery may be ahead of the curve on a couple of trends. Though most flavored vodkas derive their flavor from chemical extracts, flavored Cane Vodkas will be infused with Florida-grown fruits. It's the locavore movement in a bottle, dovetailing with the rise of Florida artisan cheeses, locally grown produce, craft beers and cottage-industry food businesses crowding the state farmers markets.

Then there's the cane sugar itself. The earliest Russian vodkas were made of water and ethanol from fermented potatoes. Much more common these days is vodka made of grains. For the increasing number of people who are gluten intolerant or just gluten avoidant, a gluten-free vodka may sound like a good idea. And as a heavily corn-based diet is increasingly linked to harmful health effects, a corn-free vodka may not be a bad notion either.

'After the hearts'

There are 14 companies in Florida that have a distiller's license. Two of them are large distilleries, one makes vinegar and 11 are micro-distilleries (two not yet in production). The industry trade group, the American Distilling Institute, estimates there will be 450 to 500 craft distilleries nationally by 2015.

At the Florida Distillery, the only thing in the room not from Florida is a gleaming six-column copper reflux still made by Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky. It has a list price of $2,585, one of many initial expenses for the fledgling business. Much of the warehouse's other equipment is more homespun. To make a batch, 8 pounds of cane sugar goes into a 22-gallon tank with 500 milliliters of yeast and yeast nutrient along with water.

"At this point, it's exactly the way you'd make beer," said Nelson, 35. "The only difference is what you're giving the yeast to eat."

After seven or eight days the "beer wort" reaches 12 ½ percent alcohol, at which point it is strained and poured into the still. The boiler creates distillate vapors, which rise through the columns in the reflux still. At the top of this column, the vapors are condensed and then run back down as a liquid, passing through other rising vapors.

"You can't count the times it's been distilled here; it just gets purer and purer," Nelson said, explaining the different boiling points: "Everything that comes off before 172 degrees is the 'heads,' which we throw away. You're after the hearts. We throw the 'tails,' or ends, into the next batch."

The Florida Distillery gets about 1 gallon per hour from its still, 190 proof liquid that is redistilled, watered down and then slowly filtered twice through charred coconut shells to remove impurities and off tastes.

With California's Hangar One vodka as the Holy Grail, O'Brien and the Nelsons have had a steep learning curve, early batches tasting like rocket fuel by all accounts. They seem to have hit their stride with Cane Vodka, the first batch of 50 cases (600 bottles) just shipped. Their plan is to distribute Cane Vodka, retailing at $30 for a 750-milliliter bottle, in bars and retail outlets all over the Tampa Bay area by the end of the year. Still, O'Brien, who works in sales and marketing for a medical device company, knows the biggest challenges lie ahead.

"When it comes to spirits, marketing is the key," he said.

Cane Vodka might not be a contender in cities like Portland, Ore., which has its own Distillery Row. But O'Brien, 32, is hopeful about its prospects in Florida.

"It's easy to generate a lot of excitement about a local vodka, especially one that tastes really good."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 892-2293 or on Twitter at @lreiley.

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