St. Augustine is known for its rich history and sandy beaches, but if the folks at an up and coming distillery have their way, the making of quality bourbon, rum, vodka and gin may soon become the city’s new claim to fame.
Conceived three short years ago, St. Augustine Distillery is located in a historic 1907 building that housed the state’s first Florida Power & Light Company and Ice Plant Complex. Take the free tour, and you will see the original brick walls, as you walk across the original floor to the small theater. There you will learn about the business and agriculture partnerships that enable the distillery to produce its liquors without going out of state. Then brace yourself as you go through the door into the warehouse. This area is not air conditioned, but understanding the bourbon-making process will be well worth the mild discomfort.
You’ll learn what goes into the mash that begins the journey to smooth bourbon. The mash is cooked for six to eight hours, until it looks like a huge pile of grits. Then it is dumped into fermentation tanks, where yeast is added. The fermentation process takes four to six days and produces the necessary ethanol.
Next you’ll meet Bessie (for Bessie Smith) and Ella (for Ella Fitzgerald), the two enormous stills. Bessie separates the ethanol from the solids, and Ella, named for her refined voice, refines it, ready for the aging barrels.
The barrels are handcrafted from strips of American white oak, which are aged for three years before they can be assembled. According to our laws, for a liquor to be called bourbon, it must be made in the U.S., contain 51 percent corn in the mash and be aged in newly made white oak barrels. If the brew is aged in reused barrels, it’s just plain whiskey.
Now, on to the tasting room where samples of two cocktails are served: The first is a Florida Mule, made with the distillery’s vodka and a pre-mixed concoction of juiced ginger, lime juice and simple syrup. Club soda and crushed ice are added, and then the drink is garnished with mint. The cocktail goes down easily imparting distinct flavors from the ginger, lime and syrup. The kick from the ginger disguises any alcohol taste from the vodka.
The second cocktail was a simple gin and tonic, which doesn’t taste anything like your parents’ favorite tipple. The gin is made with other botanicals besides juniper berries, which are left whole. This may account for the lack of ‘pineyness’ in the flavor. The tonic syrup is another special mix, which, combined with the gin, bitters and club soda, gives the drink an unexpected gentleness.
But what about the bourbon and rum? Sadly the bourbon won’t be properly aged and ready for bottling until summer, 2016. The rum, however, will be released in four monthly editions, beginning in September. The December incarnation will be the version that will be produced going forward.
In order to exit, you must pass through the gift shop, where you can purchase such can’t-live-without items as copper mugs for creating Florida Mules, tonic syrup, the ‘mule’ concoction and, of course, vodka and gin.
St. Augustine Distillery is poised to produce the first bourbon in Florida. It is privately owned, community conscious and absolutely well worth a visit.
Open: Monday-Saturday 10 AM-6 PM and Sunday 11 AM-6 PM
Free distillery tours and tastings begin every half-hour until 5pm
112 Riberia Street, St. Augustine, FL 32084, 904-825-4962
By Contributing Author, Penny Zibula, Six Legs Will Travel