Being the first distillery to bottle bourbon in one of the oldest cities in America is one thing, but add a building busting with history, a dedication to local agriculture, and a commitment to local small businesses, and you have a recipe for becoming one of the most sought-after craft distillery tours in the country.
Chilled speaks to Philip McDaniel, co-founder and CEO of St. Augustine Distillery about founding one of the most successful tourist destinations in the small coastal town of St. Augustine, Florida.
Tell us about your craft distillery and what you produce there.
We designed our distillery with three main goals: one, to make world-class spirits using local agriculture; two, to have enough production capacity for growth (100,000 cases annually); and three, to create an amazing, content-rich experience that transforms visitors into customers.
Since March of 2014, we’ve hosted over 500,000 guests. This year, we will host about 25% of all visitors of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It’s a pretty powerful marketing tool and is working well to build the brand.
We currently distill and bottle four primary spirits: Florida Cane Vodka (distilled from Florida sugar cane), New World Gin (cane neutral spirit macerated with Florida-inspired botanicals, whole juniper berries, and other botanicals), Pot Distilled Rum (made from Florida premium grade molasses and Georgia cane syrup, then aged in our bourbon barrels) and Florida Double Cask Bourbon (local sweet corn, red winter wheat, and malted barley).
The history of St. Augustine is extensive. Talk to us about the historic value of your area and distillery.
St. Augustine is the oldest, continually occupied European settlement in America. The city hosts over 8 million visitors who come for the history, culture, food, and ambiance. There is no other city in Florida remotely close to us in terms of feel and vibe. We have an amazing array of live music venues, locally owned farm-to-table restaurants, and a vibrant visual arts community all in the backdrop of one of the most beautiful small port towns in America.
We are committed to making world-class spirits using Florida agriculture, in combination with our unique, maritime environment. In addition, we believe that we can combine both social good and economic development in a single project. We repurposed one of the city’s most beloved buildings, the historic Florida Power and Light Ice Plant, into a vibrant destination and bartender’s candy store.
Every day, we host industry members for a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we make our spirits. It’s a great way to answer questions and build relationships with the people who help promote our brands. Aside from the tour, there is nothing more important to building our brand than working with the Florida USBG members to help develop and (proudly) promote Florida spirits.
Where there any obstacles opening a distillery in this area?
Absolutely. We wanted to preserve the history of the Ice Plant facility. We had to get approvals from the city’s Historical Architectural Board, City Commission, Planning and Zoning, and Fire Marshal, followed by the Federal DSP (Distilled Spirits Permit) and a Florida distilling license. Turns out, we ended splitting the building with friends who wanted to open a craft cocktail bar, calling it the Ice Plant Bar (IPB). So we while we were building out the distillery, they were opening up IPB. It was a wild two years, but totally worth it.
Now, guests can come to the distillery, learn how spirits are made-from farm to bottle-shop in a one-of-a-kind craft spirit, craft cocktail gift shop, then go upstairs to the Ice Plant and have a spectacular cocktail. It’s a unique guest experience, for sure. We are all super proud of what we’ve built.
Your newly released Florida Double Cask Bourbon is a first for Florida. Talk to us about this new launch.
Double Cask was the result of an unexpected find in our ongoing barrel / spirit research. We worked with Kelvin Cooperage to develop a matrix of 25 and 53 gallon barrels, using wood from different states and different char / toast profiles. Northeast Florida’s year-round heat and humidity is remarkable.We underestimated the speed at which the spirit in our 25g barrels would extract oak and color. To prevent over extraction, we secured used bourbon barrels from Woodford, Maker’s and Beam.
We transferred the spirit from the 25g barrels to the 53s, so the bourbon could continue to develop the esters and fruity notes we wanted, without over-oaking. The result was our fall 2016 release, Florida Double Cask Bourbon. Dave Pickerell helped our team select the first barrels and put the blends together. We are extremely happy with the results. In its first review, Anthony Dias Blue (The Tasting Panel) awarded Double Cask a score of 93 points.
St. Augustine Distillery prides itself on using local, small farm ingredients. Talk to us about the sustainability of your products.
We founded St. Augustine Distillery with several aspirations. Before opening, we traveled to upstate New York, Portland, and Denver. We were impressed with the work being done by the industry’s early pioneers: Tuthilltown, House Spirits, and Stranahan’s. Their vision and amazing work inspired us to want to do for Florida, what they were doing for their home states.
So we reached out to IFAS (University of Florida) who put us in direct contact with local and regional farmers. Once we knew we could get quality grains and cane, we decided to move ahead with the project. Buying local helps these families stay in business and keep their farms. And we love being a new, sustainable part of their business.
We now buy from local farmers and cooperatives throughout the state (and even into southern Georgia at certain times of the year). After we mash, ferment and distill the grains, we donate the spent (distiller’s) grains back to a local farm here in St. Augustine. The spent grains supplement their feed stock and enable them to raise an extra 125+ head of cattle, annually. We feel pretty good about that. Once a year, they reciprocate with a butchered cow that we share with our local USBG in an annual event at the distillery. It’s pretty cool to think that the burgers and steaks we eat that day come from the cows that ate the grains that made our bourbon.
As one of the most visited craft distilleries in the area, what sets your distillery apart? What attracts such a large following there?
It’s the entire experience. Our building, museum, fermenters, stills, bottling line, barrel room, tasting room, and gift shop are unlike anything in the United States. We wanted to create an engaging and entertaining experience that would educate our guests about how spirits are made, from farm to bottle. From there, we wanted to teach them how to make, serve, and enjoy signature cocktails using fresh ingredients made by professional bartenders, with simple instruction and real bar tools.
What really sets us apart and makes the experience are our people: We have a staff of over 25 full- and part-time tour guides and retail docents who are truly passionate about what we do. They love to tell our story, educate our guests, and inspire those who are interested in becoming informed, loyal consumers of our spirits.
What inspired you to open St. Augustine Distillery?
My love of St. Augustine, passion to develop a unique line of spirits that would put Florida on the map as a state respected by bartenders, and no BS, a genuine desire to leave the world a better place before I die.
Talk to us a bit about your packaging.
We have two different styles. Our vodka, gin and rum bottles were designed to honor the people who we first worked with in the development of our spirits. We are proud to showcase the individuals who helped us get started and inspired us to make amazing spirits using Florida agriculture.
Our Double Cask bourbon was designed to reflect more of a traditional bourbon package. We always loved the look of Bulleit Bourbon. We wanted to feature our building in the packaging. When you hold and look through our bottle, you can see our home, the historic Ice Plant. We hoped this element would help us do two things: remind those who visited the distillery of their visit and trip to St. Augustine, and for those who haven’t taken a tour, encourage them to come for a visit. It also was a chance for us to pay homage to one of our favorite brands, Hangar 1 Vodka and St. George Spirits. We’ve always felt a connection with them since their distillery is housed in a vintage WW II-era hangar and ours is in one of the last remaining historic ice plants in Florida. We hope that one day we can do for Florida’s craft distilling industry, what they’ve done for California and the rest of the world. They are an inspiration to us on so many levels.
What would you like bartenders to know about your brands?
We encourage them to taste and try our spirits. They are different because of our ingredients and location. They are also extremely versatile, have a great story, and make excellent cocktails.
Our spirits are (truly) made by hand, with passion and pride by real people. We invite anyone from the industry to come up to St. Augustine for a private tour and meet our distillers. They are amazing people who care deeply about making the best spirits in Florida.
Florida Cane Vodka is not “distilled 10 times and filtered in diamonds.” No hype, no flavors, no fancy packaging. It’s just made right the first time, keeping the integrity of the spirit.
New World Gin kills it. Made to be a bartender’s Swiss Army knife, tested in all traditional gin cocktails before finalizing (it was recently voted best craft gin in America by USA Today).
Our Pot Distilled Rum is not a white and not an añejo. We take the distillate off the still and finish with just enough wood (using 25g bourbon barrels from our Double Cask project) to round out your cocktails or drink by itself.
Double Cask Bourbon is made from a unique barrel matrix for complexity and finished with a little bit of port. Add a few drops of water and it makes for an amazing, full-flavored sipping bourbon.
What’s next for St. Augustine Distillery?
We love working with industry members and taking the time to understand what is working for them, developing new products that will give them more tools to innovate behind the bar. We have several barrel finish projects in the works for both our gin and bourbon, so stay tuned. We will continue to drive the stake deep in Florida and plan to enter neighboring markets: Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, and points beyond. We want to develop meaningful, long-term relationships with industry members who believe in what we are doing and want to be part of the history we are making here for the great state of Florida.
For more information, visit StAugustineDistillery.com