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St. Petersburg couple trade city life for a whiskey-making dream in Hernando County

The corporation, like any other, has a business plan. It has an attorney. It has applications and permits, and layer upon layer of government regulations demanding to be followed.

It has an office in a barn it shares with two disinterested horses. It has an outhouse. It has a road secured with multiple locked gates and surveillance cameras, and is approachable only via four-wheel drive.

Eventually, it will also have a still.

• • •

Not so long ago, Natalie and Kevin Goff were living a typical, middle class life in St. Petersburg. They worked, they traveled on weekends and they talked about a different kind of future.

After Natalie's parents passed away within months of each other in 2007, the time seemed right for some changes. The Goffs eventually sold their house and settled in Hernando County, where they had purchased 40 acres of wilderness a few years earlier.

It wasn't just that life seemed simpler there, it also felt full of possibilities. They considered fish farming, raising tilapia to sell to resorts. They thought about growing olive trees. They thought about creating a ranch-style destination for people to bring their horses.

But through all the ideas, the conversation inevitably wound back to the dream of creating a new blend of whiskey or bourbon. They recalled long-ago nights when Kevin would sit on the back porch of his in-laws' house in St. Pete, sipping whiskey with Natalie's father and hearing stories of earlier branches of the family tree that had run a still in Iowa.

"Kevin said to me: 'Why not? Tell me why we can't do this?' '' Natalie said. "I told him, 'Well, because it could be expensive.' And he said, 'Okay, what else?' I said, 'I don't really have another reason.' "

"So we decided: We have this certain amount of money, and we're going to give it the best shot we can. And if we lose it all? Well, what can you say?

"But if we're successful …''

The Goffs knew this wouldn't be easy. To start with, there was the bureaucratic maze that had to be navigated. Hernando had no zoning regulations dealing with a micro-distillery, so officials treated the application as if it were a winery.

There are also state and federal regulations, requirements, licensing fees and surprise inspections to face.

Then there are labels to be drawn, bottles to be chosen, a product name to be selected, and a still to be set up when it arrives from Europe.

Mostly, there is the creation of a new whiskey.

Ingredients obviously matter. So does the size and type of barrel used. Temperature is a huge factor, as well as the duration of the aging process.

The couple have never actually made a bottle of whiskey, but Kevin has some ideas he thinks will make it unique. The Goffs are even talking about growing their own rye and corn.

They're pretty set on making rye whiskey, but may also try bourbon and vodka.

"You just have to experiment and not get too discouraged,'' Natalie said. "But it's going to be an expensive process because for every gallon you make, you're being taxed $13.50. That's whether it's a throwaway or not.''

If all goes perfectly, it will be more than a year before the first product hits the shelves locally and abroad. A safer bet might be 2014.

Even so, when news of their venture came out in a county zoning meeting last month, the Goffs heard from potential investors.

"We don't have a name yet. We don't have a product. We don't even have a still, and people are wanting to invest? That's wild,'' Natalie said. "I guess they just think it's a cool idea and want to be part of this.''

To be sure, this is a business venture. A potential payday years down the road. But it is something else, too. The Goffs could have invested in a safer idea.

This is close to their hearts. It's creative. It's passionate. It acknowledges Natalie's family, and it fits in this wide-open space of deer and bears.

Is it the stuff of dreams? Sure, but it's not as if the Goffs are betting their lives on a whim. They're not quitting their day jobs yet.

What they are doing is taking a shot at something different. Something risky. The kind of dream most of us only talk about.

Perhaps one day, it will be worth a toast.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

St. Petersburg couple trade city life for a whiskey-making dream in Hernando County 03/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 11:17pm]
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