Just a couple years ago Florida had 15 registered distilleries, not all of them fully operational, with a couple large-scale contract distilleries and one making vinegar. These days a quick search reveals 46 registered distilleries, most of them bona fide craft microdistillers bringing a range of elegant new products to market. This new breed of distillers follows on the heels of craft breweries, artisanal breads and all DIY food businesses. The trend is about self-expression and intrepid entrepreneurship, not to mention capitalizing on the locavore and “small is beautiful” movements.
From whiskey to rum, bourbon and vodka, here are some of our area’s most dynamic boutique distilleries, their high-test quaffables largely available at Total Wine, ABC stores and Publix.
This one burst onto the scene in 2015 with a strong lineup of products. The permits for tours and tastings are in the works, but for now it’s a production facility only. They offer five product lines of craft spirits: Banyan Reserve Vodka (currently the state’s No. 1 craft vodka, awarded best vodka in the south by Southern Living in 2016), Old St. Pete (tropical gin, sweet corn whiskey, rum and spiced rum, and a vodka), Tippler’s Orange Liqueur, Oak & Palm (spiced rum and coconut rum), and Royal Mead, many incorporating Florida ingredients.
The gin is of special note, made in a Florida style, using the entire citrus (juice and peel) of the state’s oranges, lemons and pink grapefruit (something really only Tanqueray No. 10 has claimed), as well as 13 botanicals such as star anise, green cardamom and coriander seeds in addition to the requisite juniper. It won a gold medal for the Fifty Best 2017.
The distillery has two copper pot stills reassembled from the 1930s, with cool old-timey St. Petersburg postcards slid into every bottle’s box. At this point products are distributed only in Florida, and can be purchased at ABC stores, Publix, Winn-Dixie, Walgreens and at the distillery. Many products are in the $29 range. 800 31st St. S, St. Petersburg, (727) 914-0931.
The Kozuba family had years of distilling experience in Poland, a country that had its distilling heyday between the two world wars. Poland was known for its eaux de vie and vodkas, mostly made of rye and potato. During communist rule, there were big government-run distilleries and mom-and-pop bathtub enterprises, but nothing that fit into the artisanal, craft category that has boomed in this country.
They chose to relocate to St. Petersburg, hoping to capitalize on the perception that local means quality. Founded in 2005, Kozuba & Sons was the first privately owned microdistillery in Poland. But the Poles, it seems, didn’t turn to domestic products for the premium stuff. It was an uphill battle to sell their premium cordials, vodkas and whiskeys.
In 2016, Zbigniew Kozuba, a biochemist by training, elder son Matthias and younger son Jacob put the room of gleaming copper stills through their first paces in a long-empty 1950s warehouse that was once an ice house for seafood storage. They started with Mr. Rye, a kind of Polish-American collaboration, then debuted a 100 percent wheat vodka and cordials (cranberry, quince), a white dog called White Dog made of 100 percent rye malt, and introduced Tampa Bay to Starkus, a barrel-aged vodka named for a stork. Prices run from about $25 to $55. Tours and tastings are offered. 1960 5th Ave S, St. Petersburg, (727) 201-9078.
The idea for the Tampa Bay area’s first premium handcrafted, microdistilled vodka made entirely of Florida ingredients started as a hostess-gift conundrum. Lee and Sarah Nelson wanted to take Danish friends something that screamed “Florida” loud and clear. With partner Pat O’Brien, they launched their distillery in 2012, opening a tasting room the next year, then moving over to the El Encanto building in Ybor City last May, which prompted foot traffic to skyrocket. Averaging 200 visitors per weekend, they expanded tours from three per weekend to one on Thursday, one Friday and two each on Saturday and Sunday.
They just offered their first distilling class, which sold out in four hours. Lee says it’s the first class in the country to offer students the ability to make whiskey and then take it home with them at the end of the class.
These days they have 12 different flavors of Cane Vodka (about $25) made in their 50-gallon reflux-column, all of them starting with Florida cane sugar and filtered water drawn from the Floridan aquifer. From there, it continues to be Sunshine State all the way: from Orlando orange to Key West lemon/lime to Plant City strawberry to even a Florida Fire Ant jalapeno vodka. Oh, and there’s a holiday seasonal called Candy Cane with pomegranate and peppermint.
They also offer a “white dog” called Sunshine Moonshine and a gin called Tamiami Gin flavored with coriander, cucumber, juniper and Florida-grown tangerine (both about $30). There is also Red Drum, a three-year-old corn whiskey that they started aging in the old location and finished off in Ybor. It’s named after the fish Lee likes to catch in the bay. The distillery’s gift shop features other locally produced products. 1820 N 15th Street, Tampa; (813) 302-9696.
Located right in the “Beer-muda Triangle,” as Michael Cotherman calls the craft beer smorgasbord that is Dunedin, this small distillery has doubled its quantities for each of the past three years and hopes to do 250 to 300 cases in 2017. That’s tiny, but Cotherman and his wife, Tara Cupp, still have other full-time jobs, as a network engineer and nursing supervisor, respectively.
It first showcased 727 Vodka, followed by Half Mine Gin (an American citrusy style, as opposed to the more junipery London style), Hello Peno Vodka (a pepper-flavored vodka launched the middle of last year) and a single malt whiskey (it’s a little spendy at $70, with a distiller’s reserve at $100). They are doing trial runs right now on Palmer’s Tropical rum, which they hope to unveil around Thanksgiving or Christmas. For now, the only place you can buy Cotherman’s products is in the gift shop, or by the drink at Hog Island Fish Camp in Dunedin and Barley Mow’s two locations. 933 Huntley Ave., Dunedin; (727) 642-5337.
60 tangerines go into each bottle of tangerine brandy at Fish Hawk Spirits in Ybor City.
Kevin Casey and his best friend and business partner Joey Boothby bounced around the Caribbean for a bit, impressed that everyplace had its own local rum. Florida didn’t have that, and definitely Tampa Bay didn’t have that. They aimed to change this state of affairs, launching Twisted Sun several years ago, distilling out the Fishhawk Spirits facility in Ocala. They are in the process of opening a distillery and tasting room in Seminole Heights, and after many delays it looks like it will debut late in 2017.
Their first product, released in 2015, was a traditional gold rum Twisted Sun Gold ($26-$32), followed by Mutiny, a chile-infused spiced rum ($26-$32). Although they will keep some products under the Twisted Sun name, they are in the process of changing the name of the distillery to 82 West Distilling, named for Tampa’s longitude. 6430 N Florida Ave., Seminole Heights.
Dick and Marti Waters are celebrating their ninth anniversary of making whiskey this month. A tornado swept through on Memorial Day and really did a job on their trees, but their repurposed 10-stall horse barn just outside of Umatilla is still standing. They bought their gorgeous still from Copper Moonshine Stills in Arkansas in 2008 and started operations for their Palm Ridge Reserve the next year.
Their initial product was a 90-proof young Florida Bourbon-style whiskey (about $50) mellowed with toasted oak and orange wood and left to finish in small charred-oak barrels. It garnered raves far and wide, after which they debuted a rye (also around $50) that has been similarly received. It bears a family resemblance to the bourbon, but with characteristic rye spiciness — both won silver medals at the American Craft Spirits Association Competition in 2016 and bronze medals at the Washington Cup Competition.
And there’s more news on the horizon.
“Later this year we will have our first new release in 3 years. We’re in the process of label approval now,” Dick says. “Our Reserve whiskey has a lot of rye in the mashbill, (which) accounts for most of the robust flavor profile. The new whiskey, Palm Ridge Golden, will replace the rye with wheat, giving it a softer profile.”
At first, he says, Golden will only be available at the distillery during their open houses as they ramp up production. Their other two products are available at Total Wine & More stores, ABC Liquors, Publix Liquors and many independent liquor stores. For more details, visit palmridgereserve.com.
Kevin and Natalie Goff took their inspiration from Natalie’s dad, an Irishman with a propensity for good whiskies and cigars. They got the bug, aiming to grow rye on their 80 acres in the cypress woods near Weeki Wachee and then to produce a small-batch rye whiskey with their own grain. They debuted Wild Buck Rye Whiskey ($55-$59) in 2015 and then in 2016 unveiled Mermaid Rum ($36-$39), made from hybrid heirloom sugar cane they grow on 2 ½ acres of their land.
Wild Buck has garnered them some major accolades (it took gold in 2016 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and best rye at the Fifty Best competition in 2016), but so has their rum, nabbing a double gold in San Francisco and a best in class, best in category and best overall rum at the ADI Spirit Competition in 2016 and 2017.
Kevin is working on a moonshine as well as experimenting with gins, relying on herbs grown onsite. In the fall they will open for tours, featuring a 12-foot waterwheel that will be fed from a pond. An early-1900s grist mill will grind their grain. For more information, visit wildbuckwhiskey.com or call (352) 592-9622.
Troy Roberts’ Siesta Key Gold Rum was one of the first in the state to set its sights on small-batch rums. These days they are available in 19 states, and Drum Circle produces 150,000 bottles a year with a growing product line made of highest-grade molasses from Florida sugar cane. Toasted Coconut ($24.99), which came out three years ago, is the “monster,” according to Roberts. Made with real shredded coconut and no extracts, they can’t keep it in stock.
Their Siesta Key Distiller’s Reserve Spiced Rum (about $50) uses the solera system whereby new rum is added to older rum for a more nuanced blend and it received a whopping 94 points from Wine Enthusiast (the regular Siesta Key Spiced Rum, about $24.99, got a 91, so it’s no slouch, either). Both of the spiced rums recently received Rummy Awards from the Caribbean Journal, the only rum outside of the Caribbean to do so.
Beyond that, Roberts has tinkered with a beer-barrel spiced rum, following a national trend where distillers and regional craft brewers trade barrels back and forth. Every batch is a little different, depending on the beer in question. Drum Circle offers tours Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, and the tasting room is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. 2212 Industrial Blvd., Sarasota (941) 702-8143.
The Cask and Ale in St. Pete has a rare bottle of Michter’s Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey that’s one of only 273 in existence. (Worth more than $5000, it belongs to a patron and sits in a private storage locker.)