This one's a little different. That's good, though — I like different, especially when it comes to Ybor City, which can be a bit one-speed at times.
The Florida Cane Distillery started out in a modest east Tampa business park — the kind that looks like outdoor-access storage units, but for businesses — shipping out its first batch of Florida-sourced, small-batch sugarcane vodka made from a tiny, six-column still in 2012.
Earlier this month, the Florida Cane Distillery held its grand opening on 15th Street in Ybor — in the space that used to belong to Row Boat, previously home of the best falafel in Ybor City. (I still miss it.) The new space is twice the size of the old one and now includes a tasting room, microdistillery and barrel room.
But let me slow down a bit and explain what these folks are up to. The Florida Cane Distillery is the creation of Lee Nelson and Pat O'Brien, two distillers who wanted to create a line of spirits made entirely with locally sourced ingredients. Marketed as "100% Florida-distilled," the ensuing line of vodkas were indeed a home-state affair.
The vodka base, which is typically made with grain or potatoes, is instead made with sugarcane, an ingredient more commonly associated with rum. The flavored varieties often include the source in their names: Weeki Wachee Watermelon, Okeechobee Cherry, Orlando Orange, and Plant City Strawberry, for example. There are 11 vodkas in all, including the unflavored version, and everything contained in each bottle — from the sugarcane, to the fruit, to the water — is from Florida.
More recently, the distillery released a line of four flavored, 109-proof moonshines (corn-based, un-aged whiskey), as well as Tamiami Gin, which is flavored with juniper, cucumber, coriander and tangerine. The new barrel room space will allow the distillery to work on barrel-aged gin in the future, as well as whiskey and rum.
So here's the cool and also slightly weird part: Florida laws forbid the selling of spirits at a distillery, so the Florida Cane Distillery, with its prime, foot-traffic-heavy location and cozy, minimalist tasting room, can't sell you drinks if you happen to stop in during your next trip to Ybor.
Instead, you're welcome to try free samples of the various Florida Cane Distillery products, and if you find one you like, bottles sell for $25 each. Just please don't drink them in the back alley.
Although the tasting-room experience is admittedly quite different from its analogue in the beer world — there, you can legally drink as many 10 percent imperial stouts as you'd like — it's one that's entirely worth a trip, especially if you plan on making the rounds in Ybor, as many do during a typical visit. The nearby Bernini, Tequilas and Carne restaurants all serve speciality cocktails featuring the Florida Cane Distillery's Ybor-made vodkas.
If you go, check the website in advance for tour times every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tours include samples of vodka, gin and moonshine, as well as a quick walk-through of the distillery and recipes for cocktails you can make at home. I was surprised at how much I didn't know about the vodka-making process, and I'm sure you will be, too. I've unfairly dismissed vodka as a "characterless" spirit in the past; learning about it in depth has given me a new appreciation for the stuff.
Starting in the summer, there are plans to offer classes on distilling as well. In the meantime, the Florida Cane Distillery represents an unusual type of bar experience in Ybor. You can't hang out for hours sipping a broad range of cocktails, but you can take a peek into Florida's relatively new craft distillery scene, sample the goods, and take a spirit made locally and of exclusively Florida ingredients home to enjoy later, maybe after hitting up a couple of other Ybor bars and breweries.
I'll miss the falafel, but I'm excited to see what comes out of this place.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG