By Bruce Collier
There seem to be somewhere between 12 and 20 distilleries in Florida, from small craft operations with very limited output to major producers. I am focusing on the full service Florida operations, those who distill in-house.
I sampled seven spirits from six operating distilleries—two in Crestview, one in Umatilla, one in St. Petersburg, one in St. Augustine, and one in Auburndale. All were purchased locally. Each was sampled neat.
ST. AUGUSTINE DISTILLERY SUGAR CANE VODKA
80 Proof – $29.99/750 ml
Built in a former ice plant, St. Augustine offers whiskey, rum, gin and vodka, distilled from area-grown grains and citrus. Their bottles look like props from Boardwalk Empire. This was my first cane vodka, which I drank chilled from the refrigerator. The nose is bright and fresh, fruity and green. It’s medium-bodied, with low-key warmth rather than alcohol burn. The finish gives a hint of cane juice.
FLORIDA CARIBBEAN DISTILLERS FLORIDA OLD RESERVE RUM
84 Proof – $22.99/750 ml
Florida Caribbean’s website states that they have distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale, storage and rum aging facilities in Winter Haven, and a distillery in Puerto Rico. They offer an extensive line of rum, vodka, liqueurs, cordials, wine-based drinks and whiskey, some of which come from sourced spirits. The Florida Old Reserve two-year-old is Florida-distilled and aged in sherry casks, from cane molasses and water “deep within the Florida aquifer.” The color is like a light whiskey or “eye of the partridge” wine. The nose is vanilla, waffle cones, eggnog and custard. The taste is dry sherry, nuts and rum raisin ice cream on a long finish.
OLD ST. PETE TROPICAL GIN
90 Proof – $39.99/750 ml
One of the prettiest labels I’ve ever seen. This small-batch, pot still gin is distilled from grain, flavored with juniper and peels of lemon, orange and grapefruit. The nose confirms all the above. Along with juniper, I caught hints of fennel and sage. The juniper moves aside and the citrus oils come forward. The taste shows off the citrus—there’s a Trix “orange-orange” hit that lets you know that this is truly Florida gin. The oils cling to the palate for a grapefruit-led finish. Old St. Pete also makes vodka, rum, mead and orange liqueur.
PALM RIDGE RESERVE MICRO BATCH FLORIDA WHISKEY
90 Proof – $55-55.99/750 ml
This comes from a small distillery in Umatilla, in Lake County, between Ocala and Orlando. This is orange country, and this young whiskey (reportedly around eight months old) ages briefly in orange wood as well as oak. It’s unfiltered. The nose is fresh, young grain, pepper and honeycomb, which smoothes into toasted orange peel and orange oil. The taste is orange honey, cinnamon toast, with a nutty finish.
PALM RIDGE RESERVE MICRO BATCH RYE WHISKEY
100 Proof – $51.99/750 ml
Also eight months old, with a 70-percent rye mashbill. That’s evident from the nose, which is intense rye grain, growing stronger with airing. The taste is fruity, brandy-like, and delivers on what the nose promises. Palm Ridge also makes a “Virgin” lightly aged whiskey that I have not tried. The distillery reportedly releases only 6,000 bottles annually, so if you see it, buy it.
PEADEN BROTHERS R.W. ELLIS OLE 615 BOURBON
80 Proof – $35/375 ml, $70/750 ml
Crestview is on its way to becoming a distillers’ Mecca, and Peaden Brothers got it started, offering fresh corn liquor and flavored spirits. Years ago they took the plunge into distilling bourbon, rye and malt whiskey. It’s ready to taste. The small-batch, pot still, bourbon is aged under four years. It looks unfiltered, though the label doesn’t say. The nose starts off with earth and freshly sawed wood, followed by sharp grains and berries. After some time in the glass there’s toasted maple, butterscotch, Heath Bar toffee and salted caramel. The taste is drier than I expected, with a hint of sweetness at the end. I’d love to sample this at 90 or 100 proof, though it’s very flavorful at 80. Peaden’s stock varies. I’m told they’re embarking on rum.
TIMBER CREEK HANDCRAFTED FLORIDA BLACK RYE
93 Proof – $43-49.99/750 ml
Also located in Crestview, Timber Creek is distilling vodka, rums, coffee rum, an “apple pie” molasses spirit, two bourbons, and this rye, which has a 100-percent black rye grain mashbill. It’s unfiltered, and aged a minimum of nine months. Timber Creek distills its grains (rye, corn, wheat, barley) separately, then blends the pure spirits in various combinations. The nose is proudly and uncompromisingly rye—tangy, brittle, sharp and peppery, just the thing to test whether you like rye or not. The taste starts nutty, but with air mellows and fattens into a grain-lover’s whiskey. The finish reminded me of the tart, toasty aftertaste of molasses or cane syrup.
Let’s drink to what I hope will become a thriving industry in Florida, one both noble and tourist-proof. May they distill long and prosper.
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