Craft Spirits Growing in Popularity

The booming trend in craft spirits has reached the Sunshine State. There are nearly two dozen small distillers operating in Florida, and their growth is spurred in part by consumer demand for local products.

While there’s no formal criteria for defining a craft distillery, most professional groups categorize one as making fewer than 40,000 cases annually. Most craft distillers produce far less. These small outfits face competition from familiar brands, such as Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams, that are approaching the two million case threshold in yearly sales.

Winter Park Distilling Co.’s Bear Gully Classic Reserve Bourbon is the first Florida-made bourbon. (Photo by Julie Little)

There are financial challenges, too, as making spirits is a capital-intensive industry on several levels. Costs for quality materials and equipment are high, but those expenditures pale in comparison to the process of aging whiskey in barrels. For example, the bourbon Maker’s Mark puts into casks this month will be bottled and released in 2023. That’s a long time for a startup to wait to make a profit.

Stillhouse, Maker’s Mark (Photo by John Lair)

For that reason, most craft distillers follow a familiar business plan and start by distilling vodka and gin, which can be sold to the public immediately. While relying on those products for cash flow, many then begin the process of aging their own whiskey in barrels. At the same time, some craft outfits purchase ready-made bourbon or rye from brokers such as MGP (Midwestern Grain Products, headquartered in Kansas), which are good enough to be marketed to consumers at a premium price.

Newcomer Manifest Distilling, the first distillery to open in downtown Jacksonville since Prohibition, is following all three of these strategies. It makes gin and organic vodka, and is also aging its own rye for future release. At the same time, its Manifest Whiskey Project is selling a 10-year-old bourbon purchased from MGP. Former wine industry veteran Tom Johnson is spearheading the sales efforts.

The Florida craft spirits scene has grown in recent years, thanks to distillers like Manifest (above) and South Florida Distillers (below). (Photo by Severine Wider)

“We’re passionate about making world-class spirits and bringing them back to northern Florida,” he says. “Our focus is to be local first, then gradually go global.”

To augment bartender outreach and retail sales, Manifest offers tours and tastings in its Jacksonville facility. A recent law that allows breweries and distilleries to sell bottles to consumers on a takeaway basis is also helping Manifest’s bottom line.

Given Florida’s proximity to Cuba and the Caribbean, rum is a priority for many emerging craft distillers. The Key West Legal Rum Distillery, which advertises its products as “chef distilled,” produces a wide range, such as Raw and Unfiltered, Spiced, Real Key Lime, Mojito Mint, Vanilla Brulée Dark, and Green Coconut, among others. The Winter Park Distilling Co., founded in 2010 by three residents, makes Dog Island White Rum as well as Beer Barrel Aged Rum. And South Florida Distillers, the brainchild of two young musicians from Fort Lauderdale, produces three varieties including the Single Barrel Fwaygo Rum.

Palm Beach Reserve, located on a cattle farm near Umatilla, defies conventional wisdom. Owners Marti and Dick Waters turn out 500 cases each year of handmade, micro-batch Florida whiskey in the bourbon style. They host open houses twice a month to introduce consumers to the craft distilling experience. Despite its size, this boutique distiller has significant retail exposure.

“The mom-and-pop model is difficult for a distiller,” says Dick Waters. “I’ve been in better businesses from a financial standpoint, but making and crafting the whiskey is very rewarding.”

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