St. Augustine Distillery Infuses Spirits With Florida Flavors

By Janet K. Keeler

There’s something about toasting a vibrant Florida sunset with a cocktail. It could be fruity, it’s likely made with rum and it could have an umbrella. It might also be straight-up spirits with a single large ice cube. So on trend.

These days, the spirits in those toasting glasses could easily come from one of the many Florida distilleries popping up all over the state. Gin, rum, vodka, bourbon, whiskey, heck even white lightning, are being created by Florida distillers using local ingredients and plenty of hometown lore in both name and origin story. A 2021 state law allowing distilleries to serve cocktails with their own spirits on site has spurred business growth. The state has 50 distilleries now with more on the horizon.

Florida distilleries may be new to the spirits game, but they are making their marks. Big Storm Distillery in Clearwater—Big Storm also has a craft brewery— took home 11 medals in the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The honors came mostly for its flavored vodkas. Clementine martini, anyone?

Distillery 98 in Santa Rosa Beach is making environmental news by using recycled cardboard instead of glass for its bottles. Distillery 98 also repurposes oyster shells to filter its Half Shell Vodka, giving it a hint of the briney Gulf of Mexico.

Many of the spirits distilled in Florida can be found in big-box liquor stores and most distilleries offer tours of their facilities. As you travel about the state, consider stopping for a tasting or even a handcrafted cocktail.
 

Tampa Bay Area

Tampa Bay area distilleries are producing a variety of spirits, often using rye and sugar cane grown in the Sunshine State. The following two distilleries have interesting stories to go with their unique spirits.

Kozuba & Sons Distillery, St. Petersburg

The story of Kozuba & Sons Distillery is a true immigrant tale. Zbigniew “Papa” Kozuba brought his dream from small-town Poland to St. Petersburg in 2014, where Kozuba is now producing flavored vodkas, whiskeys, gin, cordials and even agave, the plant that tequila comes from. Imagine Kozuba’s quince liquor in a sparkler with prosecco and lemon juice. Kozuba’s store is open Monday through Friday but no tours yet.

Gamblers Bay Distillery, Tampa

Florida-centric gin, rum and vodka made by Gamblers Bay Distillery got a big thumbs up at the  2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including a unanimous vote from judges for its Florida Farm Vodka to get a double gold. It’s made from 100% Florida corn. The names of the other four medalists leave no doubt they are Florida-born, among them Florapina Guava Rum and Citrus Tree Floridian Gin. Gamblers offers tours, tastings and cocktails. Consider the rum old fashioned.
 

South Florida

Rum is the most prevalent spirit being created by South Florida distilleries, which makes perfect sense considering the southern state’s relationship with Caribbean rum runners. Rum originated in the West Indies, where records show it was being crafted as far back as 1650.

The rums of Cuba and Puerto Rico were typically light bodied while Jamaica was the home of heavier, spiced rums. Today, all manners are being distilled in Florida, most makers using locally grown sugar cane. Florida is the nation’s top grower of sugar cane.

If you are doing your own rum running around, check out these producers:

Key West Legal Rum, Key West

Celebrating the notorious history and rebellious spirit of Key West with every batch of their top shelf, salt-cured rum, Key West Legal Rum offers concoctions like Key West Legend, a 140 proof, pure white rum that knows how to kick; tropical-inspired Green Coconut and Glazed Pineapple Rums; and their famous Bad Bitch Rum, boasting an utterly unique and delicious flavor thanks to being aged in French oak barrels that once held Pinot Noir wine. Here, you can enjoy a free tour that includes sampling spirits right from the still; pop into the bar for a Cuban Mojito or Pina Colada; or pick up the perfect souvenir at the store, offering rum, spirits, T-shirts and sauces.

Papa’s Pilar Rum, Key West

Before there was a cruise ship port, before there were rowdy bachelorette parties and national broadcasts of New Year’s Eve revelry in Key West, there was Ernest Hemingway. And stories of Caribbean rum runners and smugglers of other treasure. Papa’s Pilar pays homage to Hemingway, combining his nickname with the name of his boat. The rum distillery is in the heart of Key West offering tours, mixology classes and a variety of rums from light to dark.

Islamorada Distilling, Islamorada

Located right on the Overseas Highway, Islamorada Distilling is open seven days a week to catch locals after work and visitors enjoying Florida’s tropics. Islamorada is doing the rum thing, naturally, but add to that vodka and gin. Some of the offerings are barrel aged, and how can you even say you’ve been to a Florida Keys distillery if you don’t bring home a bottle of hibiscus gin. Pair it with club soda and strawberry lemonade. Really.
 

Central Florida

Moonshine? Yes, moonshine. A couple of Central Florida distilleries are making moonshine, which is simply un-aged whiskey. It’s smart to market some of the unaged whiskey while the rest of it sits in barrels getting buttery, caramel-y, and delicious. That process can take time and for a new distillery needing to bring in some cash, moonshine makes sense.

Two notable Central Florida distilleries:

Loggerhead Distillery, Sanford

Inland Sanford isn’t loggerhead turtle nesting ground, but that doesn’t mean the owners of Loggerhead Distillery don’t have all sorts of love for the threatened species. A portion of Loggerhead’s bottle sales goes to non-profit groups working to keep the ocean and beaches clean. Loggerhead makes Sweet Tea Vodka and Key Lime Gin, among other spirits, but you may just want to try the moonshine—Florida Lightning, apple pie or watermelon. Stop by the distillery in the historic downtown just blocks from Lake Monroe to see what the mixologists are stirring up.

Fish Hawk Spirits, Ocala

At about a dozen years old, Fish Hawk Spirits might just be the grand-daddy of Florida distilleries. They craft 27 spirits including whiskey, rum and vodka on a farm where they grow their own botanicals, plus use water from the Rainbow River. Also among their spirits are three brands of absinthe and another three of brandy. Citrus flavors figure heavily and the distillers are generous enough to offer a full slate of cocktail recipes so you can get the most of the bottle you just bought. Their award-winning farm-to-bottle spirits are available in stores all over the state.

  The Wicked Dolphin Distillery boasts several awards, including several from the American Distilling Institute.
- Wicked Dolphin Distillery

 

South West Florida

Among South West Florida distilleries, three of the five are crafting nothing but rum. And the other two are also distilling rum, along with vodka, gin and whiskey. It’s unclear what the draw to rum is, other than the proximity to Florida’s sugar cane fields. No matter, hop on the bandwagon—or maybe a fast rum runner boat—to taste what these distilleries are creating.

Drum Circle Distilling, Sarasota

Forget what you think you know about the barrier island Siesta Key if MTV’s 2017 Siesta Key reality show is your only exposure. Drum Circle Distilling is reclaiming the name with its line of small-batch rums. Drum Circle focuses all its efforts on rum, including varieties infused with toasted coconut and coffee. Can’t get to the distillery for a tour, tasting or cocktail? Make the shaken pina colada at your own tiki bar.

Wicked Dolphin Distillery, Cape Coral

Whoever heard of a wicked dolphin, the spirit guide of sea lovers everywhere? The name is something of an inside joke between the owners of Wicked Dolphin Distillery, but there’s no joke about their small–batch artisan rums. They distill in Florida’s largest copper pot still and then age in American oak. The fun comes with the flavors—vanilla, coconut, coffee. Reserve a slot for one of the many hourlong tours every day but Sunday. Maybe “wicked” refers to wicked good.

If you want a true farm-to-bottle experience, Timber Creek Distillery should be on the top of your must-visit list.
-Timber Creek Distillery

 

Panhandle

There are five distilleries spread out across the Panhandle, which is the most western region of the state but also the most Southern in attitude and accent. Of the Panhandle distilleries, four offer tours and three have tastings. Here are two that do both:

Timber Creek Distillery, Crestview

If you want a true farm-to-bottle experience, Timber Creek Distillery should be on the top of your must-visit list. The distillery is on a family farm surrounded by fields of crops that fuel handcrafted rye, rum, whiskey and vodka. When we say it’s in the middle of nowhere, it sort of is. It’s between Interstate 10 and the Alabama border and though the address says Timber Creek is in Crestview, it’s just near there. Go for the tour and tastes and stay for the axe throwing and disc golf.

Rollins Distillery, Gulf Breeze

The family-run Rollins Distillery might be in Florida but it’s physically much closer to New Orleans than it is to Tallahassee. So, it makes sense that the spirits have a Mardi Gras carnival feel, including the skeleton scalawags on the bottles. Rollins’ Esprit de Krewe rums and vodka are letting the good times roll, for sure. The Krewe of Jean Lafitte Gunpowder Rum continues the theme and medals of honor confirm that the booty is the real deal. There are multiple tours and tastings each week. You might want to dig out your Mardi Gras parade beads.

If you’re planning a distillery road trip, you might want to put St. Augustine Distillery at the top of the list.
-St. Augustine Distillery

 

North Florida

All four North Florida distilleries are making vodka and then branch off into the other popular spirits—gin, rum, whiskey and rye. They have something other than vodka in common and that’s a commitment to local ingredients, including citrus, sugar cane and molasses.

Here are two that weave those flavors into their spirits:

St. Augustine Distillery, St. Augustine

If you’re planning a distillery road trip, you might want to put St. Augustine Distillery at the top of the list. St. Augustine won six awards in the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including a gold medal for its Florida Straight Bourbon. There’s so much happening at this distillery built in a 1907 power and ice plant that an educational, guided tour is in order, though you can poke around on your own. Besides spirits, St. Augustine has created a line of mixers including old fashioned, mule, grapefruit hibiscus and tropical tiki.

Manifest Distillery, Jacksonville

In a sea of distilleries it can be hard to stand out but Manifest Distilling made a move that put them in the lead. Manifest was the first in the state to put its spirits into canned cocktails, including Classic Daiquiri, Vodka Mule and Vodka Spritz. All of Manifest’s spirits, except the potato and citrus vodkas, are organic. There’s a 30-minute tour and another that’s 2½ hours. That’ll work up a thirst for a little something-something in the Cocktail Room. Or maybe a straight pour of the barreled gin.

 

For more information, check out the Florida Distillery Trail.

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