The craft spirits revolution has reached Northern Florida.
Roughly 450 years after the Spaniards first landed, friends Phillip McDaniel and Ryan Dettra put together a consortium of locals to found the St. Augustine Distillery. They set up shop in the town’s restored, historic FP & L Ice Plant with the goal of producing hand-crafted, super-premium spirits.
Along the way, they found help: the pair talked legendary distiller David Pickerell into becoming their mentor and consultant. Pickerell gained fame as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark for 15 years; since leaving Kentucky, he has become one of the godfathers of the craft distilling movement in America. He assisted McDaniel and Dettra with the design and engineering of the plant, and helped select the equipment as well.
As new as it is, the place has already become a popular tourist destination—due in large part to being one of the stops on the St. Augustine Old Town Trolley. Free tours of the distillery are given seven days a week, following by a spirits tasting; there is a gift shop and self-guided museum. Visitors who get hungry can stop at the Ice Plant Bar, located in the same building. The facility currently produces both vodka and gin. Rum is on the way, and bourbon ages patiently in oak barrels, waiting for its 2018 release.
The pot-distilled St. Augustine Florida Cane Vodka ($29, 80 proof/40% alcohol) displays fragrant citrus aromas on the nose. The mouth feel is distinctive, imbued with flavors of lemon zest, white pepper and a hint of sweetness from the sugar cane. This would make an excellent Mojito, and also serve as a noteworthy addition to a long drink. The New World Gin ($31, 94 proof/47% alcohol) announces its arrival in the glass with an array of botanicals highlighted by cassia bark, angelica and juniper. It is softer and more elegant in the mouth than the nose would lead you to expect, with the citrus and botanicals intertwining seamlessly. It would serve as the foundation for a memorable Martini, not to mention a classic gin and tonic.
Suddenly, 2018 seems very far away.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com