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Waiting for Florida Bourbon

Feb 20, 2015

If you've spent much time around places where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed, you may have heard the following: "Tequila has to come from Mexico. Champagne has to come from France and bourbon has to come from Kentucky."

St Augustine's old electric and ice plant is now The St Augustine Distillery
Credit Marc Haze / WUSF news

That last one is not true.

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, as long as strict rules are followed.

No one has made or sold bourbon legally, using Florida-grown ingredients since before Prohibition.

Now a craft distillery in St Augustine is investing millions in trying to be the first.

The St. Augustine Distillery has been open for just over a year. The place was designed with tourism in mind. It has a movie theater, restaurant and bar and a gift shop. The building in which it operates used to be the city's electric and ice plants and is on the trolley routes that take visitors through America's oldest city.

The building may be old, but everything inside it is brand new.

They make artisan vodka and gin and will soon roll out their rum. Almost everything in the bottle is grown on Florida family farms.

Philip McDaniel is one of the investors and is the CEO. He says the tours are his biggest selling point.

Head distiller Brendan Wheatley and CEO Philip McDaniel
Credit Marc Haze / WUSF news

"If people can see how the product is made they will want to buy it"

The plan is working. Sales at the gift shop are good and the products are making their way into groceries, liquor stores and bars throughout the state. The distillery might be considered an economic success, except for this. Virtually every dollar raised through sales of their clear spirits is being invested in making a brown one.

Making bourbon takes money and patience. It has to age in white oak barrels for two to four years. Sometimes longer.

Several steps along the journey to becoming bourbon.
Credit Marc Haze / WUSF news

McDaniel says that's hard on the bottom line.

"The challenge to this business is that you're going to make bourbon today but you can't sell it for 24, and in some cases 48 months. From a P and L ( profit and loss) standpoint it's a pretty rough road, so we decided to make some clear products we could generate some cash flow on."

Another reason Florida bourbon has been so long in coming is the difficulty in using local ingredients.

Brendan Wheatley is the head distiller.

"Corn, wheat and barley are hard to grow here in Florida to the specs we need. That doesn't mean it's impossible, we get very good corn from this area," he said. "But it's a narrower window in which we can get that corn and keep that corn and the harvest season is at a different time than it is in most places."

Bourbon ages in barrels that have been set on fire. It is the char on those barrels that give the product it's smoky flavor. The distillery is experimenting with different chars, each giving the product a different taste. At some point the distillers will have to decide on the house style.

Some of the 200 barrels of bourbon, waiting to be born.
Credit Marc Haze / WUSF news

Not knowing what the finished product will taste like doesn't worry McDaniel.

"We have an overall sense it's going to be excellent," he says. "It's the old adage 'If it's good going into the barrel it will be good coming out of the barrel. We're very confident it's going to be a delicious product that people will welcome."

By the time the first bottle of Florida bourbon goes on sale almost $4 million will have been invested. It will be sometime in 2017 when we learn if McDaniel was right.

There is no specific date for the rollout for their Florida bourbon. Wheatley says they won't keep it a secret.

"We're going to make a big deal about it."