Smells Like Craft Spirits

The bumper stickers are everywhere in St. Augustine: “A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.”

In addition to being clichéd, the sentiment is outdated, since there’s nothing quaint about the city’s newest alcohol-related venture. St. Augustine Distillery Co. is the brainchild of marketing executive and former St. Johns County Cultural Council President Philip McDaniel. And by next year, he hopes Northeast Florida’s first craft distillery will be up and running in the historic Ice Plant building on Riberia Street. With $3.5 million in planned renovations and distilling legend Dave Pickerell of Maker’s Mark fame on board, booze fans can expect unique small batches of whiskey, rum, gin and vodka, created using corn from Hastings, wheat from the Panhandle and sugar cane from South Florida.

McDaniel, 54, says the business plan will ride a surge of national interest in craft distilling. “There’s phenomenal growth happening right now, similar to the wine industry in the ’70s and the craft beer industry in the ’80s,” he says. “People around the country are recognizing the opportunity to use local agriculture as the source ingredients to produce really fabulous craft spirits.”

McDaniel hopes the distillery will build a following through education and tourism, offering a 30-minute tour that will show visitors who the partner farmers are, demonstrate how craft spirits are made and ultimately allow them to taste the product.

Pickerell lends some bona fides to the venture, having worked in the beverage industry since 1989; he spent 14 years as vice president of operations and master distiller at Maker’s Mark Distillery. More recently, Pickerell has overseen WhistlePig Whiskey, the highest-rated rye in the world; George Washington’s Distillery, which faithfully replicates the first president’s 18th-century operation in Virginia; and several transcontinental Scotch and American whiskey experiments. But Pickerell, who lives in Louisville, Ky., insists that his work at St. Augustine Distillery, including equipment installation, hiring and recipe formulation, will be a distinctly local enterprise.

“Virtually all innovation in American spirits is happening at the craft level,” he says. “And since the barrier to innovation is so much smaller — craft distillers consider 100 cases a success versus 25,000 to 50,000 cases for conglomerate producers — we can add our own twist or degree of specialty by sustainably sourcing everything possible from local ingredients.”

So far, the city of St. Augustine has gone along with the distillery’s plans, both as part of its ongoing Riberia Street Improvement Plan and its 450th birthday in 2015. “From a tax standpoint, that nearly 100-year-old building has sat fallow for a long time, so our capital improvements will raise the property valuation, which means more revenue for the city,” says McDaniel. “I think they recognize that we’re trying to bring something cool to St. Augustine.”

Of course, plans are still tentative. McDaniel hopes to close on the property by July and is still waiting on a parking agreement with Florida Power & Light, which operates a substation west of the proposed distillery. Purchasing American-made craft stills could take another five to six months. And locals excited about a hip new downtown night spot might be disappointed to learn that state laws prohibit the on-site retail sale of distillery spirits. However, rumors of a complementary business located in the building — possibly a bar that could sell and serve alcohol — have been floating around. McDaniel left those rumors unconfirmed, though, and declined to reveal other principal investors in the business. (Ryan Dettra, owner of St. Augustine indie rock club Café Eleven, was originally a principal in the company, but resigned in December, according to documents filed with the Florida Division of Corporations.)

McDaniel and Pickerell are nothing but optimistic at this point. Pickerell insists it’s “a marvelously interesting time” to open a craft spirits distillery in St. Augustine, and adds, “So long as Philip will have me, I’ll be involved, if for no other reason than I’m a friend and I want to see the distillery succeed.”

For his part, McDaniel hopes that upwards of 100,000 people will visit the distillery in its first year, and he already has plans to develop distilling classes to complement the tasting and tours. “There’s so much creativity in this industry right now, which is full of people who are truly artisans,” he says. “It’s a wide-open field and we’re stoked to be first ones in the area to get in on it.”

Nick McGregor

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