While craft brewing has firmly entrenched itself in local drinking culture, craft distilling is still a very niche market. Part of this is due to outdated and arguably unfair distilling laws, and part of it is because successful distilling can often be a lot tougher and more time-consuming than brewing up a few batches of beer.
Fish Hawk Spirits is an exception to the rule, having consistently produced a wide range of spirits at its Ocala farm since 2012. Since then, the distillery has opened a storefront in Gainesville, and more recently, right here in Centro Ybor.
If you've visited any distilleries in Florida, you're already aware of the catch: Fish Hawk is unable to sell drinks directly to visitors, so they're forced to sell souvenir glasses instead, which come with a free tasting of several of Fish Hawk's products. Bottles of each spirit are available for purchase, so if you like what you try, you can always grab a bottle or two to take home.
Fish Hawk is in the old Pita's Republic space, but the interior has been transformed completely to match the rustic, farm-based feel of the home distillery in Ocala, where the majority of its spirits are still produced. Reclaimed wooden pallets, old whiskey barrels, a sliding barn door in the back and various equipment like a small copper still, a fruit press and an old grain mill give the place a laid-back, countryside look and feel that's pretty far removed from its actual Ybor surroundings.
As I've found to be the case with most distillery tasting setups, the whole process is as much about the finer details of each spirit as it is about just having a few tastes. You're not just going to sample the wares, you're going to learn about what goes into them, and how the ingredients and process affect the finished product. If you're curious like me, you'll love it — I wish more breweries had the ability to operate this way.
For $10, you can sample four of Fish Hawk's fruit-infused vodkas, as well as its molasses-based rums, tangerine brandy (they say 60 tangerines go into each bottle), and even a modern take on absinthe, featuring a variety of botanicals, including hibiscus, which gives it a ruby red color and floral nose. Amazingly, nearly all the ingredients used in these are sourced in Florida, from the fruit and sugarcane for the Island Grove vodkas, to the molasses for the Twisted Sun rums and the tangerines for the Marion 106 brandy. The only imported ingredients are the occasional spices — ginseng, clove, cinnamon — that aren't easily sourced in-state.
While all of these spirits were lively and generally excellent in quality, I was especially impressed with Fish Hawk's line of whiskeys called Sui Generis, which means "one of a kind" in Latin.
The line includes a traditional white whiskey (or moonshine, if you'd prefer) and a very popular bourbon-esque whiskey made with sweet silver queen corn from Fish Hawk's farm. I found the smokier, scotchlike whiskeys to be particularly excellent.
Conquistador 1513 is an oat-based whiskey, made from a mixture of smoked and raw oats, finished with charred American oak chips. It's surprisingly mild, with a blend of sweet graininess and mild campfire smoke.
Siren Song, on the other hand, uses corn instead of oats. Unlike Silver Queen, which uses the entire corn plant — husk and all — in the mash, Siren Song uses only the kernels, which are smoked to create a whiskey not dissimilar to the whiskies of Islay or the Scottish Highlands. It's very impressive, considering this whiskey is not distilled from malted barley.
In addition to these, Fish Hawk has begun dabbling in infused whiskeys, using Siren Song as the base. The flavor combinations are pretty diverse, ranging from mango-habanero-cilantro to fig-basil-thyme. Traditionalists may scoff, but these are really interesting spins on an already somewhat untraditional whiskey, which is not a trajectory, unlike the one we've seen with craft beer over the past decade.
If you're a spirits buff with a taste for the unusual and a thirst for learning about the nuts and bolts of what you're drinking, stop in for a tasting at Fish Hawk. These are real Florida spirits, from farm to glass, as it were. Craft distilling is on the rise — get in on it now, and you can brag to your friends later about how ahead of the curve you were.
Contact Justin Grant at [email protected] Follow @WordsWithJG.