The St. Augustine Distillery is relatively new in name, but their ethos, practices, and location have roots that reach far into the area’s past. The business operates with a tenacious sense of place, an exacting emphasis on quality, and a circuitous conscience that results in their distillers grains getting turned into soil or when they are fresh, fed to livestock. The concept is multifaceted and is one that is meeting the challenge of creating a celebrated entity among locals and a sought-after attraction for tourists.
The only thing that Philip McDaniel, Co-Founder and CEO, talks about as glowingly as the distillery, is St. Augustine. “I feel like St. Augustine is such an amazing city, it’s been so great to my family. My wife and I raised our four children here,” he said. McDaniel, along with Co-Founder and CFO, Mike Diaz, wanted to start a business that exists at the “intersection of social good and commercial development.” He continued, “If we can do social and local community good and leave St. Augustine a little bit better than how we found it, that’s a good thing.” Along with McDaniel and Diaz, 28 community investors helped bring the project to fruition.
McDaniel told me that he and Diaz saw the distillery project as a chance to “save an amazing historic building and preserve it, create a manufacturing facility that uses local agriculture for ingredients, and put St. Augustine on the map as a place that makes great spirits.” In order to achieve this, they had to make quality paramount in every decision. The attention to detail is evident in the facility, the historic FP&L Ice Plant in the Lincolnville neighborhood, and the product, currently vodka and gin. Whether it was bringing in David Pickerell, former VP of Operations from Maker’s Mark, to help conceptualize the distillery or Brendan Wheatley, former distiller for Germain-Robin, to “make the juice” as the Director of Production and Head Distiller, the St. Augustine Distillery Co. is in it to win it.
In talking to Wheatley, it quickly makes sense why McDaniel and Diaz found him to be the right fit. In addition to 15 years and several industry accolades, he shares their strong sense of place and not only wants to make a great product that reflects the innumerable qualities of the area, but to do his part to “make St. Augustine the best small city in the United States.”
These types of sentiments can be taken with a healthy air of skepticism when considering we’re talking about a business. But the fact is, they make several tough decisions in selecting ingredients and methods to support the region’s farmers. They could opt to procure less expensive ingredients and participate in practices that many “craft distilleries” have embraced, such as purchasing pre-made bourbon and simply bottling it at their facility. Furthermore, everything sold there is made locally or in America with the exception of one item in the gift shop. This is a long-term strategy that shows them “banking on the future” as McDaniel said.
Even projecting 120,000 to 130,000 visitors to tour the distillery and onsite museum this year, they are still operating in the red. Vodka and gin can be turned around almost immediately. Bourbon, on the other hand, is their big investment, and when done right, takes a matter of years to be consumer ready. The good news is that the bourbon is in the barrels; the bad news is that it won’t be available until some time in 2016. Don’t fret, the distillery is gearing up to release their first ever rum to coincide with the 450th celebration in September.
They are taking a unique approach to the release of the rum, allowing consumers to experience the clarifying exercise of process and effect that it takes to realize a spirit from concept to completion. “We’re being transparent and showing the underworking of how we’re going to assemble and develop our rum. It’s through a series of four releases. Each release is going to be a window into the decision making process as we go towards the final product, as our flagship syrup and molasses based rum,” Wheatley told me. Look for that first limited release in September of this year―it’ll go quickly! As with their other products, they are maintaining their regional, as well as high-quality proclivities.
While Wheatley wasn’t interested in stating a differentiator for the spirits he orchestrates, he told me that the most important thing is that “our product is going to be unique because it comes from a place and it emphasizes regional ingredients from that place. So if we do our job right, there will be a thumbprint of Northeastern Florida in the product.”
You can currently purchase vodka and gin from the distillery gift shop, as well as several retail partners like Grape and Grain, Orsay, ABC, and of course, the Ice Plant.