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)
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.
“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.
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.