Gleaming pot-bellied copper stills work their alchemy-like magic at the St. Augustine Distillery, housed in St. Augustine’s historic Florida Power & Light Ice Plant. Dating back to 1907, the former electric power and ice complex sat dormant for years until Phillip McDaniel and his wife decided it was time to do something with the space. That something turned into an investment in their city’s cultural legacy that has united townspeople. The results include a restored historic building, the creation of over 100 jobs and, of course, the production of some of the finest handcrafted, small-batch spirits in the state.
On a sunny December day, my husband and I begin our spirits discovery by lunching at the Ice Plant Bar, which sits atop the distillery. With towering ceilings, distressed putty-hued walls and Restoration Hardware-like accents, the restaurant and bar at St. Augustine’s Ice Plant (which has different owners than the distillery) might pass for a modern interpretation of an industrial chic hot-spot. But this gem, which used to make commercial ice blocks more than 100 years ago, still has the original bridge crane hanging on rails over the bar. With prehistoric-like claws, the crane would pick up huge ice blocks before being broken down and sold to locals or shrimp boats. My husband and I settle in for a Florida Mule, which incorporates the downstairs distillery’s Florida sugar cane vodka, ginger and lime. The cocktail is served in a frosty, copper mug with chipped ice. It’s fresh and bright, with just enough heat from the ginger to round it off.
One of the first things you’ll notice about a St. Augustine-crafted spirit is its pride of place. Regional wheat, corn, sugar cane, barley and citrus fruits are sourced from surrounding farms, which creates unique flavour profiles. Farmers are, by nature, cautious business people who understand the fickle tendencies of Mother Nature. When McDaniel and his head distiller Brendan Wheatley approached them, it took a bit of convincing, but “we showed them what we were doing, and little by little, we won their trust,” says McDaniel.
‘The essence of Florida is in that gin bottle: citrus and sunshine. It’s unlike anything people have ever tasted’
The distillery project, McDaniel says, is a learn-as-you-go endeavour. Originally, the idea was to grow heirloom sugar cane in the area, harvest and juice it onsite before arriving at the distillery for fermentation. They soon realized that the equipment needed to do this was extremely expensive, and that their local farmer wasn’t able to make the investment. After regrouping, they found a farmer in nearby Georgia who could harvest and press heirloom strains of red, green, tail ribbon and chewing cane. In a couple of years, they hope to have enough to cut and press using fresh cane juices (called agricole), a Caribbean style of rum making. Right now, they’re using the molasses in sugar making from south Florida, distilling it into a neutral cane spirit and redistilling in St. Augustine. It also makes its ways into their gin.
The St. Augustine Distillery gin is, coincidentally, McDaniel’s favourite. “The quality and the care that goes into the production and development of our gin has a lot of people talking about it. Brendan achieved the essence of Florida in that bottle: citrus and sunshine,” he says. “It’s unlike anything people have ever tasted.” It doesn’t hurt that the team hand grinds whole, fresh herbs with an old-school burr mill to preserve the vibrancy of those ingredients. In 2015, their New World Gin won gold at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition and at Austin’s American Craft Distilling Association.
Rum, along with the soon-to-be-released small-batch bourbon (the state’s only) round out the menu. With an annual production of 80,000 bottles a year, St. Augustine is considered a small operation, and that’s the way McDaniel and the distillery’s stakeholders like it. “We have an opportunity to make a superior product because we can control flavour, make tiny batches and experiment with the way that beer brew masters do with seasonal beers,” he says. When it comes to articulating the craftsmanship of making quality spirits, this little distillery that could has the big boys, which have to be concerned with meeting quarterly returns and meeting shareholder expectations, beat.