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Rum, Vodka

The St. Augustine Distillery Cane Harvest Story

by St. Augustine Distillery


The harvest is exciting for a number of reasons: it’s when the farm smells likes fresh pressed sugar cane, the crush pad is abuzz from sunrise to twilight and a year’s worth of rain, shine and wind culminate into several weeks of long hours and hard work.

I first experienced a harvest two years ago in the cane fields of Marianna, Florida. Machete in hand, Richard Harrison, owner of the small backyard farm cut a stalk of nearly every heirloom variety of cane in his one-acre cane collection. With the blade, he stripped the outer layer and handed us a juicy twelve inch piece of cane. The memory of biting into fresh heirloom cane is something I will never forget, each heirloom variety from his collection had completely different flavors, and a select few were stunning.

These varieties were once the pride of North Florida farmers; it took many generations of selecting the best seed cane and replanting. Richard explained that if it were not for a small number of private individuals that replant each year the varieties would be lost. The sugar industry has no use for such cane and the government collections do not have them. Richard grows sugar cane year after year for no other reason than to keep them alive.

We returned to St. Augustine with the dream of planting 6 varieties of the exceptional tasting heirloom canes from Richard’s farm. We were confident it would grow well as each cane selected were canes that were historically grown in North Florida. Distilling each variety from freshly pressed cane juice was something that had not been done.  The dream was the beginning of a rigorous adventure for our little company.

After several months and an exhaustive search to find a farm willing to grow both organic and heirloom, we met Richard Villadoniga of Slow Food First Coast. He understood the type of farmer we were looking for and introduced us to Francisco at KYV, the only true organic farmer in St. Johns County.

Sugar cane takes close to a full year to mature and freezing temperatures can kill the crop. Richard called to let us know there was a freeze in the weather forecast and if we wanted to plant this year we would need to harvest the seed cane in the next few days. On December 13th, 2012 at 3:00 AM, Francisco, myself and a harvest crew of one, hauled 2 trailers to Richard’s farm in Marianna, Florida. Richard greeted us with a single work glove and a modified weed-whacker with a carbide tipped saw blade. The contraption allowed him to cut the bottoms of the cane without much effort. We preferred the safety of old fashioned machetes.

I was enamored with sugar cane and the people, places and traditions. During harvest season it’s a North Florida tradition to mill cane and boil it down to cane syrup. We visited as many harvest events as we could and learned that each farmer takes great pride in their cast iron mills. After a 2 year search for an antique commercial sugar mill we found a beautiful 2.5 ton cast iron sugar mill built in 1883 in what used to be a sugar cane farm in Winter Garden, Florida. We carefully restored the mill.

We wanted to give the community the chance to experience the magic of harvest for a day. The community was invited to participate in the first annual Sugar Cane Harvest and Cane Boil event December 13th-15th, 2013 in preparation for the distillery’s first run of rum.

For us to have the ability, within 15 minutes of our distillery, to grow the sugar cane and start fermenting that to make rum is really, really important. We want everyone to be a part of the agricultural process that we have fallen in love with.