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Out in the woods, Hernando couple distills award-winning whiskey

WEEKI WACHEE

Not only is Wild Buck American Rye Whiskey handmade; so is its distillery.

Husband-and-wife owners Kevin and Natalie Goff built the horse barn that houses the cooking pots and stills on their 80 acres surrounded by the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, west of U.S. 19.

The chilling system is a hose coiled in an ice machine and then routed to the cookers. The paddles that agitate the mash were taken from a mortar mixer. To control the winch that opens the lid on his cooking pots, Kevin uses the remote from a garage door opener.

"I'm telling you, he's like MacGyver," Natalie said.

The Goffs, as fledgling micro-distillers, may be unusually resourceful and hardworking, but they're not as unusual as they once might have been.

More than 20 years after it hit beermaking, the craft beverage wave is rippling through the world of spirits. But even in this crowded field — there are now about 500 small-batch distilleries in the country — the Goffs stand out.

Shortly before shipping their first 30 cases of whiskey for sale at three Hernando County stores, they won a bronze medal at a contest hosted by the American Distilling Institute in San Francisco.

And on a marketing trip last Thursday, they received orders for their rye from several high-end bars and restaurants, including icons on both sides of Tampa Bay — Bern's Steak House in Tampa and the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort.

"We're just so impressed about how well received it's been by the experts and the connoisseurs," said Natalie, 49. "They love the simplicity and that we make and modify our own equipment to make things taste just the way we want them to."

Three days before the trip south to meet with those connoisseurs, the Goffs showed off their operation, a row of gleaming 100-gallon cooking tanks lined up in the barn's center aisle, flanked by stables.

Rye whiskey, by law, must be made of at least 51 percent of its namesake grain. On last week's tour, the Goffs said they use pure rye — supplied by a farmer in eastern Hernando County — for more of the grain's distinct, spicy flavors.

They scooped 150 pounds of it into a cooker holding filtered rainwater, which they use to avoid the minerals in well water that impart off tastes.

The water had been heated to 150 degrees when they added the grain. Kevin, 57, pumped steam through a hose submerged in the mash — as the heated rye-and-water mixture is called — to slowly bring it back up to 195 degrees. It would "rest" at that heat for 45 minutes, he said, before he added malted grain for both its flavor and enzymes, which promote fermentation.

The next step is cranking up the homemade chiller to bring the temperature down to 90 degrees, cool enough so it won't kill the yeast that starts the fermentation.

This lasts two or three days, depending on when the alcohol content hits the desired 12 percent. Then comes the first distillation, the "stripping run," the point of which is to extract most of the alcohol from the mash.

The point of the second run, carried out in a bulbous copper still tucked in the converted horse stable, is to extract only the very best product, the "heart" of distillation.

Grain alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than water, starts to evaporate as Kevin slowly turns up the heat. First, though, come other volatile chemicals, including acetone, which, if left in his whiskey would, at the very least, produce hideous flavors and hangovers.

So he taps off the first yield of the run and saves it in gallon milk jugs.

"It actually makes a really good cleaner," he said.

The alcohol that comes off at slightly higher temperatures is the best of the run. At still higher heats come the "tails" of the distillation, which can be bitter and which he also rejects.

"I'm losing product, but it's a better whiskey," he said.

The raw whiskey is then aged in oak barrels, charred inside to give the whiskey color and flavor.

A shot-sized sample, poured out on a barrel head, was as dark as a bourbon, but not nearly as sweet and more distinctly oaky and peppery.

The barrels are as small as 5 gallons, tiny compared with the ones used by commercial whiskeymakers. And that, the Goffs say, is one reason they can age their product a much shorter time, as briefly as nine months, compared to more than a decade for the premium Scotches and bourbons at their product's price point — $60 per bottle.

That short stay in the barrel is the reason that the Tampa Bay Whiskey Society's David Greene, who hasn't sampled Wild Buck, is skeptical that any small distiller can match the smoothness and overall quality of the best, established brands.

"There's really no way around the youngness of a spirit," Greene said.

But last Thursday, another expert, Bern's spirits director Dean Hurst, pronounced it "one of the best whiskeys he's had in a long time," Kevin said.

It's the kind of response that justifies the Goffs' decision to make whiskey after moving full time to their patch of pine flatwoods, which is not only the base of their operation, but was the inspiration for it.

Kevin, a longtime pool contractor, and Natalie, a Realtor and registered nurse, long used the cabin they built on this property as a weekend getaway from their home in St. Petersburg. They hit on making whiskey as a way to live here full time, and still seem slightly stunned at how well it has worked out.

Kevin, who handles the distilling while Natalie takes care of the books and marketing, says he looks forward to waking up at 4 a.m. to start heating the still, looks forward to the 16 hours per day he typically spends in the distillery.

"I feel like I've found my niche," he said. "Making whiskey out here in the woods, it can't get any better than that."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.

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