A Fight for Legal Rights and the Pursuit of Local Quality at St. Augustine Distillery
By Ryan Winter
Imagine the crisp smells of juniper, cassia bark, and citrus coupled with the warm essence of smoldering sugarcane as they meld into a palatable aroma that permeates the air. A greeter in period-accurate garb welcomes you with a time card which you are to punch in an old time clock, reminiscent of the experience of an early 1900’s ice plant worker. This scene straight out of a snapshot of this very spot 100 years ago serves as your gateway into a different world. As you walk into the main foyer, an antiquities museum with relics from prohibition-age Florida, you prepare to embark on a journey through a building that once served as Northeast Florida’s premier ice block manufacturer, a much-needed service in a time when the refrigeration of today was not available. You see rustic iron fixtures, steampunk styling, and old-school cooperage tools that were once used to make oak barrels without the use of any nails. Your fascination runs wild in this hands-on history lesson that tells the story behind the building you are in and the history of the products that are now produced in it. Finally, two solid oak plank doors open. Your tour guide says, “Welcome to St. Augustine Distillery, the first of its kind in Northeast Florida.”
As visitors from around the world soak in all that St. Augustine, FL has to offer, they visit sites such as the Castillo de San Marcos – an old Spanish fort, St. George Street, and some of the oldest historical landmarks in the United States. One of the newest stops for visitors to the city is the St. Augustine Distillery, which makes it a point to educate and fascinate everyone who partakes in their daily, complimentary distillery tours. Tour participants have the chance to taste the small-batch distillery’s finest gin and vodka concoctions, like the Florida Mule, a unique take on the traditional Moscow Mule drink with a fresh minty flare. Guests also walk among the the huge copper stills, lovingly named Bessie and Ella, in honor of Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, and the massive oak casks where the first batch of fine bourbon is marinating before its Fall 2016 tapping. Daily tours are as much about delighting guests as they are an integral part of the distillery’s sales and marketing strategy. And beyond simply gaining new customers, the distillery has to gain faithful advocates who not only believe in the products that the distillery produces, but also the big vision that it has for its industry in Florida. Undoubtedly, the thing that guests remember most about their tour of St. Augustine Distillery is the story of its growth in a state where alcohol sales and production have been stimied by law for nearly 100 years and the dogged pursuit of locally derived ingredients that contribute to the unique flavorings crafted at the distillery.
Not Running from the Law
CEO and co-founder of St. Augustine Distillery, Philip McDaniel has been one of the loudest voices in Florida promoting the rights of small-batch distilleries like the one he helps run. Over the past three years, McDaniel has fought for the rights to simply sell the spirits that his distillery produces on site. While St. Augustine Distillery has always been able to sell its products wholesale to registered vendors, Florida law prohibited it from selling directly to consumers until 2014. McDaniel’s lobbying efforts in Tallahassee made enough of a splash to motivate a change to the prohibition-era law that affected his business. But that law was only a minor fix.
In late 2014, a new law that McDaniel directly influenced allowed distilleries in Florida to sell spirits directly to on site guests, but the law still prohibited distilleries from directly selling more than a total of two alcoholic products per person per year. So McDaniel fought against the law even more and won another small victory for his industry. In 2015, a revised law went into effect that allowed for the sale of two alcoholic products per brand (ex. Pot Distilled Rum, New World Gin, etc.) per person per year at the distilleries in Florida. That opened up the door for increased on site sales, which meant higher profits for St. Augustine Distillery. The ability to sell products on site is vitally important to small-batch distilleries because it cuts out the middle man. By selling directly to customers, small businesses, regardless of the industry, can usually benefit from higher margins – the lifeblood that St. Augustine Distillery needs to maintain its growth locally and beyond.
Additionally, distilleries in Florida are not allowed to sell individual drinks for immediate consumption to consumers on site, something that high-volume beer producers, for example, have been able to do for decades. Despite the legal challenges that his business and industry face, McDaniel remains optimistic that his efforts are paving the way for a brighter future. “We’ve pioneered legislation that has allowed our business and the 30 other craft distilleries in the state to operate profitably,” said McDaniel. “St. Augustine Distillery was and is proud to be a catalyst for change to provide Florida distillers equal rights as currently enjoyed by Florida wineries and breweries.”
McDaniel and his team of entrepreneurial, innovative employees have made a commitment to influence more than Florida laws. They are passionate about their products and keeping as much of their supply chain as locally sourced as possible. “We are proud to be the first true farm-to-bottle craft distillery in Northeast Florida,” said McDaniel. “I chose to do business here because it is my home. I have made a personal commitment to try and leave St. Augustine and Florida better than I found it for the next generations.”
The distillery brings in tourist dollars to St. Augustine. It hires locals. It sources most of its raw ingredients from local and regional producers. Heirloom sugar cane syrups and molasses, seasonal herbs, corn, wheat and the majority of the fresh ingredients used to produce the spirits at the distillery come from a variety of farms that rely on local businesses to stay afloat. Even the building that houses the distillery, an early 1900’s ice plant, is a local piece of history that was brought back to life when the St. Augustine Distillery refurbished the dilapidated building and turned it into an unmistakable gem in the nation’s oldest city.
The business strategy and culture that has shaped St. Augustine Distillery is marked by a focused determination to produce high-quality products that are derived from Floridian ingenuity, no matter what barriers stand in the way. Philip McDaniel and his team foster a culture of focus and passion that make a fledgling business work even when laws and an unexplored market present barriers. St. Augustine Distillery represents a growing movement of small businesses that have homegrown spirits, big dreams, and local influence. McDaniel said, “We have a deep commitment to putting Florida on the forefront of the craft distillery movement that’s sweeping the nation.”
St. Augustine Distillery is open daily for tours, tastings, and gift shop and spirits purchases. To learn more about St. Augustine Distillery or to view tour times, visit www.staugustinedistillery.com or call (904) 825-4962.