The Sun­shine State’s 35 craft dis­til­leries stretch from the Pan­han­dle to Key West.

The state’s new dis­tillery trail is full of spirit(s)

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY PAUL ABERCROMBIE travel@wash­post.com Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa. His web­site is paula­ber­crom­bie.com; find him on Twit­ter: @paula­ber­crom­bie.

If not for the small sign and fes­tively at­tired crowd out front, I’d worry that I’ve goofed up the ad­dress and wound up at a weld­ing shop or plumb­ing sup­ply de­pot.

We’re wel­comed in­side by an ami­able guy with a salt-and­pep­per beard who in­tro­duces him­self as Troy Roberts, Drum Cir­cle Dis­till­ing’s founder and head dis­tiller. I soon re­al­ize that I’m hardly the first vis­i­tor to have such thoughts.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­one who came out to­day to the scary in­dus­trial park,” Roberts says and winks. “How many of you thought you were lost when you saw this place?”

Most of us sev­eral dozen vis­i­tors raise our hands.

Just north of down­town Sara­sota, Fla., Drum Cir­cle’s fa­cil­i­ties may not have the ad-wor­thy looks of a liquor dis­tillery in the Scot­tish High­lands or hills of Ken­tucky. But what this lit­tle Florida rum maker lacks in pic­turesque digs, it more than makes up for in the qual­ity of its hooch and hos­pi­tal­ity. Doesn’t hurt that it’s barely an hour’s drive from my home in Tampa.

De­spite its thriv­ing craft-beer scene, the Sun­shine State is a rel­a­tive new­comer to the na­tion’s craft-dis­tillery boom. A hand­ful of li­censed dis­tillers a dozen years ago have grown to 35, stretch­ing from the Pan­han­dle to Key West. What’s more, some are win­ning big-time ac­co­lades. Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Craft Spir­its As­so­ci­a­tion, as of 2016, there were 1,315 craft dis­tillers na­tion­wide. Cal­i­for­nia led the way with 118.

Ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence my state’s spir­its be­yond just buy­ing a bot­tle or two at the lo­cal liquor store, I de­cided to hit Florida’s nascent dis­tillery trail.

Tampa has sev­eral dis­tillers, though I chose to start with Drum Cir­cle af­ter hear­ing booze-geek pals gush about its Siesta Key rums.

Un­like many dis­til­leries that open their doors to vis­i­tors, Drum Cir­cle mer­ci­fully be­gins hour­long tours with a trip to the tast­ing room.

“It makes the tour so much more en­joy­able to drink some first, don’t you think?” Roberts says, as if read­ing my mind.

From be­hind a Tiki-style bar in a cramped tast­ing room, Roberts, joined by his step­mom, wife and mother-in-law, pours sips of var­i­ous rums and shares sto­ries about them. His teenage son, he tells me, is the as­sis­tant dis­tiller. His dad has built much of the dis­tillery’s in­sides.

“It’s re­ally a fam­ily af­fair,” Roberts says.

Like many Florida dis­tillers I’ll meet in the com­ing weeks, Roberts came to it af­ter other ca­reers. Fol­low­ing stints as a com­put­er­soft­ware exec in Cal­i­for­nia and most re­cently as a builder of web­sites for car afi­ciona­dos, the Sara­sota na­tive han­kered to make “more tan­gi­ble prod­ucts.” A long­time rum fan, he be­gan toy­ing with home stills. Sev­eral years later, he launched Drum Cir­cle. Now a decade old, it’s some­thing of the grand­dad of Florida craft dis­till­ing.

As I join my fel­low Satur­day morn­ing tour mem­bers in tast­ing a hand­ful of rums, I dis­cover why his spir­its are win­ning ad­mir­ers — and a grow­ing num­ber of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional awards.

The sil­ver rum, typ­i­cally lit­tle more than an in­gre­di­ent in my beloved daiquiris, is won­der­ful on its own. Dou­bly so for the gold rum, which has just the right hint of vanilla.

More sur­pris­ing are the fla­vored rums, a cat­e­gory I’ve avoid- since col­lege be­cause I overindulged on cheap stuff such as Cap­tain Mor­gan. I cau­tiously sip the toasted co­conut rum, ex­pect­ing some­thing like al­co­holic sun­tan lo­tion. Un­sure my tongue is func­tion­ing cor­rectly, I taste again. It’s de­li­cious. Roberts smiles know­ingly. The trick, he ex­plains, is in­fus­ing the rum with in-house-toasted co­conut.

I have a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with the spiced rum. An­tic­i­pat­ing boozy pot­pourri, I in­stead find a rum with del­i­cate and com­plex spici­ness. In­fus­ing the rum with spices and adding a lit­tle honey makes all the dif­fer­ence, Roberts says.

As our tour wraps up, the next group gath­ers out­side in the park­ing lot.

“It’s amaz­ing that so many peo­ple will come out to the mid­dle of nowhere,” Roberts says with a shrug.

For those with a taste for tours with more pizazz — and a broader menu — there’s St. Au­gus­tine Dis­tillery, lo­cated in its name­sake city in the state’s north­east cor­ner.

A fam­ily road trip to the city one week­end dou­bles as a chance to visit the dis­tillery. In a place sat­u­rated with his­tory, it seems only fit­ting that it’s housed in a cen­tury-old for­mer power plant and ice fac­tory.

As cheer­ful as our af­ter­noon tour group is when we ar­rive, by the time we’ve made our way through a breezy but in­for­ma­tive talk and short video pre­sen­ta­tion and landed in the tast­ing room for a trio of sam­ple-size cock­tails, we’re down­right chummy.

Al­though tours may be geared to­ward tourists, staff mem­bers are happy to nerd out with more hard­core en­thu­si­asts. When co­founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Philip McDaniel hap­pens by the gift shop, I pester him about his bour­bons and gins, my pre­ferred poi­sons, in what soon turns into an im­promptu sec­ond tast­ing.

Florida, I learn, can be a source of in­spi­ra­tion and frus­tra­tion for dis­tillers. As with most bet­ter pro­duc­ers in the state, St. Au­gus­tine fa­vors lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, and that ex­plains the bright notes of citrus in its won­der­ful New World Gin.

“We’re let­ting Florida make the spir­its it wants to make,” McDaniel says.

With spir­its such as bour­bon, that can mean fresh chal­lenges. The cave­like room where St. Au­gus­tine ages its 2,000-odd boured bon casks may look like any­where else, but Florida’s year-round heat and hu­mid­ity ac­cel­er­ate the ag­ing process.

“We joke that our bour­bon ages in dog years,” McDaniel says.

Tin­ker­ing with dif­fer­ent types of bar­rels and grain recipes seems to have fixed any ill-ef­fects of su­per­an­nu­a­tion. The re­sult is a dis­tinctly rich and spicy Florida Dou­ble Cask Bour­bon.

Florida’s cli­mate has even been a mo­ti­va­tion for at least one dis­tillery. Weary of long win­ters in their na­tive Poland, Ja­cob Kobuza and his brother Matthias con­vinced their mas­ter-dis­tiller dad to move to St. Peters­burg, where they soon started Kozuba & Sons Dis­tillery.

That it’s barely half an hour’s drive from my home makes a mid­week visit crim­i­nally easy. In a tast­ing room decked out in a kind of car­toon-speakeasy mo­tif, I start with a sip of vodka. Made from wheat, it’s cu­ri­ously com­plex.

An aged vodka, named Starkus, is more in­ter­est­ing. It’s whiskey-like at first sip be­fore seem­ing to van­ish on my tongue.

“We use this one as train­ing wheels to in­tro­duce folks to whiskeys,” ex­plains my en­thu­si­as­tic tast­ing com­pan­ion, Katie Hale, the dis­tillery’s mar­ket­ing and events di­rec­tor, who has since left the com­pany.

Which re­minds me how ea­ger I am to get to the brown spir­its. With a sip of the rye malt whiskey, dubbed Mr. Rye, I’ve found what I was af­ter. Spicy, with hints of orange and cin­na­mon, it’s good stuff. The Kozuba clan is also ex­per­i­ment­ing with bour­bon and a sin­gle-malt whiskey, which they hope to un­veil in a cou­ple of years.

When Hale in­vites me to taste their cor­dials, I hes­i­tate, imag­in­ing trea­cly liqueur. Of course, I’m dead wrong. The quince cor­dial turns out to be de­li­cious, with lip-puck­er­ing tart­ness and warm spice. Ditto for the cranberry cor­dial, a nice bal­ance of sweet and tart. Other fla­vors are be­ing con­sid­ered, in­clud­ing Florida fruits such as or­anges, lemons and grape­fruit.

“I’m push­ing for ginger,” Hale says.

Me, too.

“We joke that our bour­bon ages in dog years.” Philip McDaniel, co-founder of St. Au­gus­tine Dis­tillery, on how the Florida cli­mate ac­cel­er­ates the ag­ing process for craft liquors.

PHO­TOS BY PAUL ABERCROMBIE

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Am­ber At­te­berry serves a Florida mule at St. Au­gus­tine Dis­tillery; Troy Roberts, head dis­tiller at Drum Cir­cle Dis­till­ing, shows off bar­rels of rum to a Sara­sota tour group; St. Au­gus­tine Dis­tillery’s wares; the afore­men­tioned mule.

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