Craft Liquor 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 artisanal spirits 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.”

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

- St. Augustine Distillery

From rum in South Florida to vodka in Tampa, dozens of craft spirits distilleries have now been established in Florida, with more coming online seemingly every month. 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 The legislation repealed a Prohibition-era law that made it illegal for micro spirits distillers to sell and conduct tastings on premises.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 spirits 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.

The St. Augustine Distillery is located in a historic ice plant in St. Augustine, Florida.

- Mallory Brooks for VISIT 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 spirits 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 spirits-making in this state and cocktails were strong and simple.

“The terroir,” McDaniel said, is what distinguishes Florida’s craft spirits 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.

The Florida Craft Spirits Association

Located in Tampa, the FCSA serves as the voice for the Florida handcrafted distilled spirits industry, dedicated to the meticulous hand-crafting of every individual product. You’ll find member distilleries all over the Sunshine State, each promising utterly unique concoctions that you can sample in tastings or discover on tours.

One is Suncoast Loaded Cannon Distillery in Bradenton on Florida’s Central East Coast, welcoming visitors with premiere spirits that include Margoza’s Gin, a refreshing masterpiece that’s touched with a hint of citrus and finished in a hibiscus bath; Kaminari Rice Whiskey, which is a buttery pleasure that fittingly translates to “Thunder and Lightning” in Japanese; and a variety of rums, carefully balanced with just the right measure of dark sugar and molasses.
But these offerings are just the beginning. You can sample and purchase all of Loaded Cannon’s spirits in its Tasting Room, rugged and beautiful with a copper bar top and massive, reclaimed wood beams. While you’re there, make sure to peek into the large window of the production room. Tours and classes round out the attractions.

Another FCSA member is the Islamorada Brewery and Distillery, which holds bragging rights as the only brewery and distillery in the Florida Keys. You can sip free samples of its award-winning rums, vodka, and gins in the distillery, which provides a backdrop of a 100-gallon still and striking oak barrels brimming with aging spirits. Then make tracks for the bar for a cocktail showcasing your spirit of choice, from a Barrel Aged Rum on the rocks to the Distillery’s signature Perfect Key Lime Pie Martini. Food trucks, the brewery, a beer garden and swag shop add to the fun.

You’ll find Distillery 98 nestled in tranquil Santa Rosa Beach in Northwest Florida, established with the goal of connecting people to the place. Their distinctively distilled spirits are made by hand in small batches from locally-sourced, natural ingredients and crops from local farms – which, as they so elegantly state, “carry the spirit of the Panhandle from Santa Rosa Beach, Florida to wherever good times flow.”

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

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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