The gold medals on their necklace-like red, white and blue ribbons resemble Olympic honors. And, indeed, the gilded discs represent Olympian heights in the world of distilled spirits for NJoy Spirits, a handcraft distillery where Kevin and Natalie Goff bottled their first 100 percent rye whiskey just a year ago.
On 80 acres in the midst of the 40,000-acre Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the Goffs grow much of the rye that is the basis for their Wild Buck whiskey. The farm-to-table whiff, including the freshness of the grain, makes their product unique even among craft distilleries, Kevin Goff said.
The sugar cane base for their Mermaid rum is produced by a grower in Clewiston. Aging the rum in once-used charred oak barrels that formerly held the whiskey imparts a blossomy perfume to the rum.
Such are among the fine points of their products, the Goffs believe, that garnered gold medals for both whiskey and rum at the recent International Spirits Competition in San Francisco and for rum at the American Distilling Institutes Spirits Competition in San Diego.
In the whiskey judging, said Kevin, 58, "We feel we were the guppies in this competition."
Not only was Wild Buck up against the likes of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Four Roses, but it beat them all.
"We were with some major rum producers in San Francisco and international craft distilleries at San Diego," he said.
Natalie, 50, who heads NJoy's marketing efforts, expects to draw on the awards to promote their spirits beyond the Tampa Bay area, where they're being sipped to acclaim.
Wild Buck and Mermaid already are being served at such Tampa Bay gastronomic luminaries as Bern's Steak House and Edison: food+drink lab in Tampa.
Signature cocktails with Wild Buck and Mermaid brands are being poured locally at Hooter's, Brian's Place, Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant and Bonefish Grill.
Selling NJoy-bottled fifths locally are Weeki Wachee Liquors, Glen Lake Liquors, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, to name a few.
"We try to keep extending ourselves, finding new establishments to increase our distribution," Natalie said. "We need to get out and about, be a brand ambassador ourselves."
The couple has staged tastings, giving out cocktail recipe cards at various events, such as charity fundraisers, store openings and food festivals.
NJoy's spirits are "top shelf," indicating high quality, as evinced by their winnings. They're accordingly priced. On area liquor store shelves, Mermaid rum is priced from $34.99 to $39.99 and Wild Buck whiskey from $53.99 to $57.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle.
"They're 100 proof," Natalie said, "so you need less, and a bottle lasts a little longer."
The Goffs, filling fewer than 50,000 bottles this year, have learned firsthand that the business entails more complexities, hands-on labor and costs than they had envisioned.
The natural cork stoppers — "from Portugal, the acknowledged world's best," said Kevin — and the gold foil labels, available at a minimum order of 10,000, must be stored in a climate-controlled room since Florida's heat disintegrates the cork and decimates the label's glue.
The decanter style they chose to showcase their liquors is made only in Mexico, minimum order of 13,000.
Kevin figures he works 80 hours a week at the distillery.
"More," Natalie said of her hours.
"We don't have a bottler," she said. "I pour from a pitcher."
She pops in the cork, carefully attaches front and back labels by hand, ties on a signature leather strap with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
"Try doing that for two hours and then moving your hand," she said.
A hand-operated suction device helps apply the regulation shrink-wrap seal. With a final sigh, Natalie polishes her fingerprints from each bottle and slides it into a regulation shipping box, manufactured by St. Pete Paper Co. in Clearwater.
Just getting under construction is a "real" production facility, succeeding the current converted horse barn that Kevin built and bringing all functions under one roof. To be added: a stone grinder to replace Kevin's hand grinding, an automatic bottler to replace Natalie's pitcher.
Kevin also has staked out a 21/2-acre plot on which he plans to grow sugar cane this year.
The couple's personal ambassador efforts already are showing signs of success. They've recently negotiated a handful of orders from the trendy restaurant-bar areas in and around Atlanta.
Natalie's late father, a native of Scotland and a lusty whiskey drinker, is likely somewhere smiling. He had a personal still where he cooked up his own bourbon. It was the reading of his notes that set the Goffs to thinking: "When you live in the woods, what do you do but make booze?"
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]