Feeling thirsty? It's looking as if Florida drinkers may have something to celebrate when a measure moving through the Legislature loosens purchase restrictions at craft breweries.
But it's not just about beer. If the legislation passes, it will also help a growing number of Florida micro-distilleries, a new class of independent liquormakers popping up from St. Petersburg to Dunedin and beyond.
It's no accident that the future of distilleries is linked to that of breweries.
"We're not separated by that much more than alcohol content," says Mike Harting, founder of 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, who himself will launch a bourbon soon.
The difference is, while craft brewing may start as a hobby and slowly develop into a business plan, distilling is strictly for the intrepid — and perhaps also the prosperous. Right now enthusiasm is running high in Florida.
In 2005 there were about 50 micro-distilleries in the United States. A decade later there are 10 times that number. According to former state Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, who authored a bill in the House to relax distillery restrictions, there are now 25 distilleries licensed to be developed in Florida.
The rollout of products is fast and furious: St. Petersburg Distillery held its launch last week, NJoy Spirits in Weeki Wachee debuted its Wild Buck Rye Whiskey this month, and Michael Cotherman and Tara Cupp opened the doors of Cotherman Distilling in Dunedin's "Beer-muda Triangle" in March.
"Unlike with craft beer where home brewers can practice for years before going pro, it's a felony to practice distilling," says Cotherman, whose products include 727 Vodka, Half Mine Gin and an as-of-yet unreleased single-malt whiskey that will be named after Cotherman's fifth great-grandfather, Jacob Catherman (yes, spelled differently), who was traded to the British during the Revolutionary War for a 5-gallon barrel of whiskey.
These new distilleries are not the deep-woods pot stills that produced bootleg hooch during Prohibition, but many of the distillery laws on the books date to that time.
Several years ago, a St. Augustine entrepreneur came to Renuart, hoping to start a distillery. Problem was, it was illegal for a distiller to sell directly to the public.
"There was an old law," he said. "This goes back to Prohibition days."
It was a three-tiered system of distribution, he said, requiring the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages to be separated, aimed at levying taxes and keeping booze out of the wrong hands. Distributors and package stores, afraid of losing their cut, fought vigorously against on-site sales at distilleries.
In 2013 a bill passed that allowed micro-distilleries to sell a limited amount on-site; this year House Bill 263, which Renuart authored, and Senate Bill 596 aim to loosen things further, with an allowance of two bottles per person per brand. The measure was unanimously approved in the Senate last week, and next goes to the House and, ultimately, to Gov. Rick Scott. If it passes, at a distillery offering a rum, a gin and a bourbon, consumers could buy two of each per year. But whether a distillery sells one bottle or a thousand, says Natalie Goff of NJoy Spirits, it still costs $4,000 for a distillery permit.
Indeed, many of these new distilleries offer multiple products, in part to appeal to a range of consumer tastes, and in part because aged whiskeys and such can take years to produce while clear liquors like vodka or "white dog" are ready fairly swiftly.
St. Petersburg Distillery will first unveil four products in the Old St. Pete line — vodka, gin, whiskey and rum — as well as Tippler's, an orange liqueur made of the peel and juice of Florida temple oranges, said Daniel Undhammar, director of product development. Later it will offer a spiced and a coconut rum as well as a premium vodka called Banyan Reserve. Even in its infancy, St. Petersburg Distillery took a double gold medal for the Tippler's and for the Old St. Pete vodka at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America convention last week in Orlando.
Undhammar, who spent years in London and New York developing and representing spirit brands, is adamant that the time is nigh for St. Petersburg.
"There's an independent artisan tradition that's been embraced in this city's history," he said. "We keep talking about the microbreweries and quality food, but it was time for this. We're all about local."
Paul Twyford, who was an early adopter in Florida, launched his first product at Winter Park Distilling Co. in 2011, inspired by those he saw on the country's West Coast. Although admittedly for the few and the brave at first, he has watched as other distilleries have come on board.
"I think the time is ripe for this. The laws are becoming more favorable," Twyford said, adding wryly, "They see tax revenue."
Micro-distilling plays into a greater zeitgeist, said Goff, who with her husband, Kevin, launched NJoy Spirits on 80 acres in Weeki Wachee in 2012. Of 457 entries in the recent American Distilling Institutes 2015 Spirits Competition in San Francisco, their Wild Buck Rye Whiskey received a bronze medal.
"People are supporting the craft movement," she said. "There's a new interest in the public for 'green' and homegrown. People are demanding something different. A lot of these (micro-distilleries) have been years in the making but are just coming online now."
Florida Distillery, which launched Cane Vodka in 2012, made entirely of Florida sugar cane and fruit, is banking on the on-site business the passage of this new legislation will entail. They will move this year from a warehouse on Falkenburg Road to a downtown Tampa location with a tasting room, thanks in part to a micro-distillery status exemption the city of Tampa recently made that allows a distillery to move into a commercial zone.
Undhammar, whose Old St. Pete products are already available at Station House, Sea Salt, Cask and Ale, and Mandarin Hide, all in St. Petersburg, thinks boutique spirits, especially those made of local ingredients, are a win-win.
"Craft beers and distilleries promote local business. And when tourists visit the state, they go home and can bring the spirit of Florida, no pun intended."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.