As summer creeps throughout the South, a new Florida distillery reaps the rewards. St. Augustine Distillery, which crafts whiskey, gin, vodka, and rum from local ingredients, launched in early 2014. Prior to its opening, the distillery formed and worked with the Florida Distillers Guild and lobbied the state legislature to establish an exception to alcohol laws, which didn’t allow manufacturers to sell their product on-site. Distillers are now permitted to sell two bottles of product per year, per guest to those visiting their facilities.
Already, St. Augustine Distillery’s vodka holds a Double-Gold distinction from The Fifty Best. St. Augustine CEO Phil McDaniel and CFO Michael K. Diaz spoke with us about how the state’s rich agriculture goes hand in hand with liquor distillation. The distillery offers daily tours and includes a museum that documents the area’s agriculture and the history of the building, which in the early 1900s was Florida’s first ice-manufacturing facility. The liquors are distributed to more than 150 bars and restaurants in North Florida, about 40 retail stores, and will soon be on shelves in Publix, Winn Dixie, and some ABC liquor stores, or online for delivery into some states.
Q: You’ve said you’re passionate about distilling because it capitalizes on the state’s resources. You even have sugar cane—one of the key ingredients in rum–planted at the distillery’s door. Why is this so important to you?
Phil: We think agriculture in Florida is essential to our past, present and, of course, our future. We feel we’re adding value to Florida agriculture by taking it and making something out of it. Our whole goal is to show people the history, show people this area that we care about.
Q: Why does distilling appeal to you, as opposed to any other options?
Phil: We were looking at trends across the country and we saw what happened in the wine industry in the mid- to late-1960s and 1970s, and then the craft brewing industry in the eighties and nineties. Now, the last chapter in what I call the “alcohol renaissance” is happening in craft spirits. We wanted to bring something remarkable to the St. Augustine community, something that was going to raise the visitor experience. We wanted to create something that was really authentic and something that was befitting of a lot of the heritage in North Florida. Agriculture has long been a really important part of Florida’s history and culture, and if we’re not careful and help our farmers and farmlands, they could quickly go away because of the nature of development and commercial farming.
We welcome the opportunity to do several things at once: not just saving the building, but working with local farmers and creating a cool experience. We felt that if craft spirits are going to be a trend around the country, we wanted to be a leader.
Q: Florida distilleries are now able to sell a limited amount of product on-site, thanks to legislation that you helped pass. Have others joined you in taking advantage of this exception?
Mike: There are four or five others who now do the same. [Other states] went through the same thing and they found there’s strength in numbers. The art of making small-batch spirits is so new and it’s so young, we’re not competing against each other by any means. We felt strongly that all ships rise with the tide.
Q: Your background is in marketing, but you’ve spent the past several years investing in local arts and culture before launching the distillery. Why did you make that move?
Phil: I felt like if you could spend time in your community, helping give back and making it a better place, you could improve your quality of life and other people’s as well.
Q: You’re the first Florida distillery to create whiskey since Prohibition. Why did you decide on whiskey in addition to these other spirits?
Phil: We started with whiskey because [of its popularity]. Rum makes sense because sugar cane is plentiful in Florida. We grow more of it here in the state than any other state in the country. Vodka is very popular; one of every two bottles of alcohol sold in the country today are vodka, if you can believe it. It’s massively popular because it’s a mixable drink. Gin we wanted to make because we have so many great florals and agricultural products here.
Q: What sets your liquors apart?
Phil: We have no delusion that we’re going to compete with the Bacardis or the Jack Daniels. We can’t make product at that volume and that price point. But what we will be able to do, because we are a smaller format company, is make very select products, and try to make things differently. That’s what I think the mixologists and the bartenders are really looking for.
Q: Will offering daily tours affect the process?
Phil: By having a facility where people are going to be coming every day, we’ll know pretty quickly what people want. It’s not like most other distillers; they don’t have the good fortune that we do to be in a city with such a high number of visitors. Because we’re in St. Augustine, because we were able to find a building on a trolley route that’s going to bring probably 50,000 to 100,000 people a year here, we think that will give us a good testing market.
Q: What knowledge do you want guests to leave with?
Phil: The whole concept is to show people how spirits are made, and then teach them how to make great cocktails. They can consume them upstairs at The Ice Plant Bar, and we want them to know they can come here and learn how to make them on their own. We want this to be a center of education.
Carla Jean Whitley is the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music and managing editor of Birmingham magazine in Birmingham, Alabama. She is also writing a book about the history of beer in Birmingham, set for publication in spring 2015. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.