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New bill increases prospect of growth for Florida craft distilleries

The legislation increases their production cap and eases regulations, according to one St. Petersburg distiller.
The St. Petersburg Distillery is just one Florida distillery expected to benefit from loosened restrictions in a newly signed bill.
The St. Petersburg Distillery is just one Florida distillery expected to benefit from loosened restrictions in a newly signed bill. [ St. Petersburg Distillery ]
Published Jul. 7
Updated Jul. 7

The Florida craft distillery industry is celebrating a big win.

On June 29, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill easing regulations for 65 licensed distilleries in the Sunshine State. It allows businesses to eliminate stringent production caps and sell their drinks more widely. Starting July 1, distilleries can churn out 250,000 gallons annually, three times the quantity previously allowed.

A spate of additional regulations were tacked onto the legislation.

The law terminates a longstanding rule that forbid distilleries from selling more than 6 bottles to a customer per year. And it introduces new agricultural measures. In five years, at least 60 percent of the finished branded product from craft distilleries must be distilled in state. That liquor has to include one Florida agricultural product, at a minimum.

Distilleries can also outfit themselves as entertainment venues now. If they serve food and host live music in an appropriately large space, businesses can sell their own liquor and that from other distilleries. That expands the drink menu, meaning the venues may function more like bars.

Matt Armstrong, the planning and development manager at the St. Petersburg Distillery, which makes gin, vodka, whiskey, bourbon, rum and orange liqueur, told the Times how the bill eliminates some hurdles in the craft distillery world.

He also serves as the vice president of the Florida Craft Spirits Association.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What does this legislation mean for Florida craft distilleries?

Nationally, there is not a technical definition for a craft distillery. But the American Craft Spirits Association looks at production levels, counting anyone that produces less than 750,000 gallons per year as craft. Up until this legislation passed, the production cap for craft distilleries in Florida was just a tenth of that, at 75,000 gallons.

At that amount, the distillery can’t grow. If you’re experiencing success and tourists are coming in, you’re very limited in how much you can make or sell. You wonder, should I hire more people? Should I buy more buildings? And the numbers don’t justify that.

Being able to produce more means we can sell more. Distilleries can deliver through distribution, retail, bars and restaurants at a higher rate. We can also accommodate a greater number of visitors coming to the distillery itself.

It will let us compete with distilleries across the county, who haven’t been facing regulations like this.

And the six-bottle regulation changed, too.

Craft distilleries were only permitted to sell six bottles per year per person before. Tough. You would have a local come in again and have to say, “Sorry, you already bought six coconut rums this year. You can’t have any more.”

Selling more on site is huge.

Now we can also sell bottles at farmer’s markets, festivals and fairs. The new legislation even lets craft distilleries serve mixed drinks on their premises. That was previously not allowed.

You couldn’t offer the customers that experience of tasting cocktails or have a mixologist on staff — someone to bring out flavors that accentuate the spirit.

Matt Armstrong
Matt Armstrong [ St. Petersburg Distillery ]

How is the agriculture industry involved? The bill requires at least 60 percent of the finished product to be distilled in state by 2026.

It also has to include one Florida agricultural product. That’s a bit of a challenge: finding all the unique grains you want in the state. Certainly, we’ve got plenty of oranges, coconut, pineapple, mango, guava and sugars. But corn and rye can be tricky.

Craft distillers have been talking to the University of Florida [Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension], who looked into growing similar grains here. Through six years of research, they were successful in proving that there is potential in the Panhandle in the winter.

The next step is demonstrating to farmers that there is large and consistent industry demand. Those crops would be grown closer to home and be impossible to find anywhere else. It’s going to taste different, in a good way.

Are distilleries already equipped for the allowed increase in production?

For most, it will be a process.

The St. Petersburg Distillery is on the larger end of craft in Florida. We’re upping now because we can. This fall, we’re opening for full tasting tours. We are doubling production by using new equipment that makes twice as much in half the time. With those grain silos, we can do like 12 tons of grain per hour.

But none of us will hit that cap anytime soon. It is something we negotiated, so we would have a big enough baseball field to play baseball. But most of us are still playing T-ball here. We just like the plan to be bigger eventually.

It was amazing to see the support across political parties though. All the way through committee, it was unanimous in agreement.

But advocates have been working for this legislation for the better part of the decade. Why did it take so long to pass?

Craft distilleries in the state were going it alone for a long time. Different people went to local representatives with demands. It was like herding cats. No one could unify around a common set of goals.

Last year, the Florida Craft Spirits Association formed. We were created under a charter and set up an executive board of directors. There’s several committees and 40 members. It helped us realize we are stronger together.

This time around, the legislation reflects a statewide purpose.