An Inside Look at the Top Craft Distilleries in Florida

    By Nicole Hutcheson

    Dick Waters stood in a dimly lit barn on a grassy cattle farm just outside of Ocala, explaining the difference between Florida whiskey and Irish whiskey.

    “Florida whiskey is full of flavor and oaky,” he said. “Irish whiskey is sweeter and milder in comparison.”

    Dick should know.

    Since 2009, he and his wife, Marti, have produced Palm Ridge Reserve, an award-winning small batch of young Florida Bourbon-style whiskey with simple ingredients from their farm.

    Craft liquor distilling has long been viable in states California, New York and other states. But increasingly Florida is joining the fold with artesian liquor distillers popping up across the state over the last few years. The industry is being propelled by new legislation making it easier for them to prosper and a public embracing the movement.

    “For us, we like to visit wineries across the country,” said David Nant, who drove from Titusville, Fla. on a recent day to tour the Palm Ridge Reserve distillery. “So this is a similar experience. We appreciate people doing things like this.”

    Florida distillery in St. Augustine

    Spirits are made with Florida ingredients at the St. Augustine Distillery. ~ VISIT FLORIDA

    From rum in South Florida to vodka in Tampa, about 15 craft liquor distilleries in Florida have now been established. Phillip McDaniel, owner of St. Augustine Distillery, founded the non-profit Florida Craft Distillers Guild in 2012 to advocate for the young industry.

    The guild’s first victory came with the passage of House Bill 347. The legislation repealed a Prohibition-era law that made it illegal for micro liquor distillers to sell and conduct tastings on premises.

    “We recognized if Florida was going to be competitive in craft distilling we needed to enjoy the rights of other craft wineries and craft breweries,” McDaniel said.

    Craft distillers can now sell two bottles per year to each customer on site. Many have begun adding on-site tasting rooms, gift shops and providing craft liquor tours of their operations.

    The result? A new style of Florida tourism.

    “The new trend for tourism is personal growth, an educational vacation,” said McDaniel, who spent 35 years in sales and marketing before opening St. Augustine Distillery, located in a century-old ice plant turned into a cutting edge distillery producing a crowd-pleasing vodka. The Florida distillery gets more than 5,000 visitors per month.

    St. Augustine Florida Distillery

    The St. Augustine Distillery is located in a historic ice plant in St. Augustine, Florida. ~ Mallory Brooks for VISIT FLORIDA

    distilleries in florida

    St. Augustine Distillery specializes in handcrafted, small-batch spirits. ~ VISIT FLORIDA

    Entering St. Augustine Distillery is a neo-vintage experience of sorts. Old farming tools adorn exposed brick walls along the entrance, providing for visitors a glimpse into the agricultural origins of the craft.

    Visitors then watch an intro video, then take a craft liquor tour. Gleaming earthen floors and state-of-the-art copper distilling equipment serve as modern contrast. The distilleries in Florida make vodka from the state's sugar cane. A small-batch bourbon, gin and rum are in the works. McDaniel works with local farmers for his ingredients.

    After the tour visitors are served samples at an old-timey bar by a gent in suspenders, heralding to a bygone time when farmers drove much of the liquor-making in this state and cocktails were strong and simple.

    “The terroir,” McDaniel said, is what distinguishes Florida’s craft liquor from other regions. “The terroir is the combination of the geographic elements that dictate how things will taste.”

    “We have so many things that make fantastic spirits,” he said. “Great corn, sugar cane…”

    Sugar cane is king at Florida Cane Vodka in Tampa.

    Pat O'Brien, owner of Florida Cane Vodka and his partner Lee Nelson utilize the crop to make their small-batch artisanal vodka, which comes in about a dozen flavors, including Miami Mango to Key West Lemon. 

    “We're surrounded by all these great resources in Florida,” O’Brien said. “We decided to use sugar cane. Most vodka is made from grain or potatoes. We sourced our sugar cane from South Florida and keep it local.”

    Cane Vodka has a sweet finish, and is smooth enough to drink straight. 

    All the Cane Vodka flavors are made with natural fruit from nearby locales, including strawberries come from Plant City and blueberries from Hernando.

    “We're trying to market something that when people go on vacation down here they can take a part of Florida back with them,” O’Brien said.

    O’Brien and his group offer tours twice a week at their Brandon, Fla. distillery. You can see the vodka being made from the adjoining tasting room.  

    Back at Palm Ridge Reserve, Dick passed around a sampling of corn, rye and barley found right here in Florida to explain his ingredients. He dumped a heap of the blend into a 60-gallon copper still heated by propane. When done the whiskey will go into oak barrels to age for about 9 months and then be bottled by hand.

    It’s a very slow and old-fashioned way of distilling, Dick said.

    “Everything old is new again,” he said.

    Here’s a list of some of best craft distilleries in Florida. For more information, visit Florida Craft Distillers Guild.

    On a complimentary tour of Timber Creek Distillery, you’ll meet their master distiller, learn about the process of creating their spirits…and best of all, sample them.

    On a complimentary tour of Timber Creek Distillery, you’ll meet their master distiller, learn about the process of creating their spirits…and best of all, sample them.

    - - David Barfield

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