An Afternoon at St. Augustine Distillery

It took me far too long to get there, but I finally paid a visit to the St. Augustine Distillery in, surprise, St. Augustine, Florida. Purported to be the first bourbon distilled, aged, and bottled in Florida, it seems almost too fortuitous that they waited for me to move to Florida to put some in a bottle. I started my afternoon with the free tour available to everyone before having a great sit down conversation with the CEO, Philip McDaniel, so we’ll start there.

The first thing you notice about the distillery is the amazing location. The whole operation, aside from some aging facilities, resides in the first commercial ice plant in the state of Florida. Opened in 1917, this was a crucial service providing the seafood and produce industries with ice need to ship their wares across the southeast. The building itself has a very appealing historic look and the restoration fits right in with that aesthetic. The waiting room has a series of informational displays about the history of the building as well as a great deal of space devoted to their relationships with local farmers. They clearly pride themselves on using anything they can from local, small famers, and utilize small businesses when they have to go outside of Florida.

After a brief wait, we were escorted into a video presentation room. Oh great, another video. I waited with baited breath for the Florida equivalent of the disappearing Indian in Buffalo Trace’s epically sappy intro. Oh glorious day, they didn’t actually show a video! Instead a very cheerful tour guide gave some history and introduced us as “workers”, complete with workplace safety rules. The company takes a great deal of pride in the creation of jobs in the area, so this was actually a nice touch. What came next was interesting. The crowd cheered at every mention of alcohol, and was significantly more interested in ethanol itself rather than the forms it came in. Being used to the Bourbon Trail, I have come to expect throngs of whiskey nerds wanting to drink every last drop of knowledge they can about differences in distillation, mash bills, aging practices, and the like. This crowd was obviously here to drink. And the more I paid attention, reminded me more of a cruise ship shore expedition than whiskey travelers.

The tour itself was remarkably brief with little detail, but this is exactly what the crowd wanted. These were tourists who happened to come to a distillery. In a move of pure genius by St. Augustine, the tour was about 15 minutes of going through the facility and then another 20 minutes of instruction on how to mix cocktails with their various spirits, complete with a taste of each. Samples of the straight spirits were never served. By the end of the tour, you got to try 4 cocktails, all of which had branded mixers available for sale so you can do it at home. As much as it pained me to try 3 cocktails made with clear spirits, I played along, and you know what, they weren’t bad. I found out later that they have a nearly 50% conversion rate to sales from the tour, which is remarkable. They’ve figured out their audience and played directly to it; I can’t argue with that.

It was at this point I broke away from the tour and went to talk with Philip, the co-founder and CEO. His passion for supporting the local community was instantly apparent, and this permeates every aspect of the operation. The building itself had been completely run down, and he worked with a group of local families who wanted to restore it and bring additional jobs to the area. They work with Florida farmers and companies whenever possible, and when sourcing other materials, such as barrels, they choose companies which are independently owned, like Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville. Everything they use is produced entirely in the United States, even the bottles. They have an interesting zero waste water system in production that recycles the water within their steam heating system. Sustainability, a focus on the local community, and job creation are the pillars of their operation.

The bourbon itself is interesting in many ways. Philip says he was inspired by Stranhan’s in Colorado and Maker’s Mark, and he wanted to create a spirit somewhere in the middle. This resulted in the first high barley bourbon recipe I have ever seen: 60% corn, 22% barley, and 18% red winter wheat. The barreling process was also unique, and partly due to unexpected results. The Double Barrel bourbon was originally in a 25 gallon barrel for 16-18 months. Soon it became clear that the small barrel and the Florida heat were making what would become black barrel tea. With advice from Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark, they put the young bourbon into used 53 gallon barrels for about another year. While technically this sounds to me like a bourbon barrel finished bourbon, Philip was confident that using the younger age statement makes the labeling correct. We here at BOTB are sticklers for semantics in bourbon, so for now we’ll just agree to disagree. The bourbon is not chill filtered. Cheers to that as we happen to love non-filtered bourbons.

The process of getting here was not easy for Philip and his crew. Initially he was not allowed to serve samples of any kind, and there was a limit on sales of two bottles per customer, per year, per label. To fix the first issue, he helped start the Florida Distillers Guild and campaigned to allow for the serving of samples. To solve the sales issue, he created 3 different labels for each type of spirit they distill. Genius. Stick it to the man.

You may have realized by now that I haven’t talked much about how the bourbon actually tastes, and I’m not going to say a whole lot here. We’ll taste it on the upcoming cast for those of you that are dying to hear more. Briefly, it has nice cinnamon/clove notes but tastes young and somewhat scotchy/irish whiskey-y (that’s definitely not a word) from the high barley. I’m not a big fan of young bourbons or barley based spirits, so this on isn’t on my favorites list, but may hit the spot for some Crusaders. That said, I still want you to buy something from St. Augustine, be it the bourbon for cocktails, or perhaps the gin, which is phenomenal. Off the still at 160 proof the gin was unbelievably epic, and I would buy that all day. I want you to buy something to support what these guys are doing with the knowledge that their goal is a quality brown spirit and they are bound-damn-determined to make one. They have the motivation, the sense to seek out experts to help with what they don’t yet know, and are committed to bettering their community. Think of it kind of like a Kickstarter contribution, but one where you actually get to purchase an existing product that you can make a tasty cocktail with. If you can find the port finished bourbon, that one is actually darn tasty. One that I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on a bottle of unfortunately.

If you’re in the area definitely stop by and see for yourself, the difference in experience from the Bourbon Trail is worth the (free) price of admission by itself. And make sure to check out the Ice Plant next door to get some of their spirits in a carefully crafted cocktail. We didn’t have time on this trip, but will definitely put that on our docket next time we’re down. Cheers to you Philip for an excellent afternoon and your efforts to spread the bourbon gospel to Florida. We at BOTB salute you!

As a bonus, here’s my recipe for making an Old Fashioned with St. Augustine Double Cask Bourbon:

2 oz Double Cask Bourbon

Half-dropper Beehive Spiced Orange Bitters

Splash of Water

Slice of orange

2 tsp Brown sugar

Muddle the orange slice (sans peel) with brown sugar, bitters, splash of water and splash of bourbon. Top with remainder of bourbon and stir. Add ice and stir to chill. I serve mine on the rocks with a flamed orange peel and homemade maraschino-ish cherry.

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