In a Town Famous for History and Hauntings, This New Kid on the Block Holds Its Own
What comes to mind when you think of St. Augustine? Warm sandy beaches? Historical sites and museums? Haunted lighthouses? How about a modern distillery in a historic building that recently rolled out the first barrels of bourbon distilled in Florida since Prohibition?
Since 2012, St. Augustine Distillery has made itself at home in the state’s first Florida Power & Light Company and Ice Plant Complex, built in 1907. The original brick walls, and floor have been preserved lest the purpose of this structure be forgotten. After all, the products now produced within those historic walls are often served on ice.
When my husband and I first visited St. Augustine Distillery in 2015, only the vodka and gin were available for sampling and sale. Since then, the distillery has added rum and bourbon to its repertoire.
We joined several other curious tourists for the free distillery tour and tasting. During the tasting, we sampled a Florida Mule – like a Russian Mule only better – and tried the 80 proof Florida Cane Vodka by itself. Straight Vodka isn’t for everyone, but this had an unexpected smoothness that slid, instead of burned, its way down. The vodka was awarded a Double-Gold medal by ©TheFiftyBest.com in their “Best Domestic Vodka” contest.
Next came the 94 proof New World Gin, mixed with the distillery’s own tonic syrup. The fresh flavor lacks the piney bite many find unpleasant. This product is also an award-winner, receiving the Gold Medal from the San Francisco International Spirits Competition
In early 2016, St. Augustine Distillery debuted its 90 proof Pot Distilled Rum, fermented, distilled, and aged on-site. We sampled the rum on our second visit, and found it to be well suited for a variety of cocktails. Not to be left out, this rum won a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
What may be the diamond in the distillery’s crown is the 93.8 proof Florida Double Cask Bourbon, which was unveiled amid much fanfare in September, 2016. Did the long-awaited bourbon live up to all the hype? We found it smooth with a slight tingle at the front end. The flavor had notes of fruit and chocolate. When we added a single ice cube, the flavor opened up and the tingle disappeared. So our answer is ‘yes’. But you don’t have to take our word for it. This just-out-of-the-barrel bourbon already won a Triple Gold Medal – and so did its package design – in the 2016 MicroLiquor Awards.
The Distillery Tour
I highly recommend participating in a distillery tour and tasting. It’s more than an opportunity to score some free booze.
Your first stop is a small theater, where you’ll learn about the distillery’s locally-oriented business model. Partnerships with area growers enable St. Augustine Distillery to maintain its high standard of producing small-batch liquors in-state.
In the warehouse you will see first-hand the process used to make bourbon, beginning with the mash. A concoction of 60% regional corn, 22% malted barley and 18% regional wheat – milled and mashed, at the distillery – is then cooked for six to eight hours, until the mash resembles an enormous mound of grits. This unappetizing pile next goes into fermentation tanks to be fed yeast. Four to six days later, the necessary ethanol is present, and the mash is ready for the next step.
Bessie (for Bessie Smith) and Ella (for Ella Fitzgerald), are the two enormous stills. Between them they separate the ethanol from the solids, then refine it, ready for the aging barrels.
Handcrafted from strips of American white oak, the barrels are aged for three years before they can be used. Liquor made in the U.S., containing 51 percent corn in the mash and aged in newly made white oak barrels, becomes bourbon. Age the brew in reused barrels and it becomes whiskey.
This part of the tour takes less than 30 minutes, and understanding how a nasty-looking pile of goop is transformed into a world-class bourbon is fascinating.
Then it’s on to the tasting room and the gift shop. There you can purchase bottles of St. Augustine liquor, and such can’t-live-without items as copper mugs for the proper enjoyment of Florida Mules, tonic syrup, the ‘mule’ concoction and Bloody Mary mix.
St. Augustine Distillery – The Company
St. Augustine Distillery was the dream of Co-Founder and CEO, Philip McDaniels and 27 forward-thinking environmentally responsible individuals. Their goals were to keep it local, keep it clean and keep it profitable, while producing the finest small-batch craft spirits in the country.
Today, the company prides itself on doing good and doing well.
“What we love most about this building and this project”, Philip said, “is that we were able to save the oldest ice plant in the state of Florida. “We’ve also created 35 jobs at the distillery in the last 18 months, and 70 next door at the Ice Plant Bar.”
Conservation and recycling are also important aspects of how St. Augustine Distillery does business. Philip explained it this way: “We buy all our agricultural products locally. We cook the corn, wheat and barley, and return them to the farmers, so they can feed their cattle. The cattle fertilize the soil, and the soil grows the grains. It’s a beautiful sustainable model.”
“The best thing,” concluded Philip, “is we’re leaving St. Augustine a better place than it was when we found it.” St. Augustine Distillery is privately owned, and community conscious. There’s something uplifting about supporting an organization that supports its community. Add to this positive feeling an entertaining tour and some tasty samples, and this St. Augustine venue is absolutely well worth a visit.
If You Go
St. Augustine Distillery is open Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 6 PM, and Sunday 11 AM to 6 PM. Free distillery tours and tastings begin every half-hour until 5pm. Tours are first-come first-serve, so be sure to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before tour time.
St. Augustine distillery does not serve food, but the Ice Plant Bar next door serves lunch and dinner, along with beverages made from the distillery’s liquors.
Address: 112 Riberia Street
St. Augustine, FL 32084
Email: [email protected]