October- First Coast Magazine
The word spirit originated from the Latin spiritus. Meaning breath of life, it evolved through the centuries, winding its way into the vocabulary of alchemy in the late 1300s. It was defined as a volatile substance; distillate to describe vapor emitted during the alchemic process that included the use of alcohol. By the 1670s its definition morphed into a strong alcoholic liquor.
Recently, three men who craft spirits locally at their business, The St. Augustine Distillery, discussed the history of liquor in this region with First Coast Magazine, as well as its promising future. Brendan Wheatley, Ryan Dettra and Philip McDaniel spoke about cocktail history and lore, the preservation of quality products and the science of craft spirits.
Wheatley is St. Augustine Distillery’s Head Distiller. They decided to open a distillery on the First Coast, he says, because “the seasonal variations bring nice change. We’re as much tied to the seasons as farmers are. The weather, the climate, humidity and salt air due to the proximity to the ocean all contribute to an exceptional product.”
The Distillery’s Florida Cane Vodka recently earned TheFiftyBest.com’s highest award, “Double Gold.” And while the team is forging new roads by crafting premium spirits in a time where craft distilleries are just emerging, they say the First Coast’s past is guiding many of their steps.
“We’re using local history to inspire what we’re doing today,” Director of Marketing Ryan Dettra says. “Jacksonville was cutting edge in the 1890s.” Jacksonville and St. Augustine’s booming tourism industries nutured a craft cocktail culture unusual in other parts of the South. “Jacksonville was a safe haven for distilleries as surrounding counties went dry. We had an influx of wholesalers and distributers through 1910. Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Miami were the last three.”
After years of researching “spirit lore” on the First Coast, Dettra can discuss centuries of history with the familiarity of one who lived through it, because the distillery has a museum exhibit on the premises. He points out artifacts in the museum while recalling tales from St. Augustine’s British occupation and of early rum production.
“There was a character, Jesse Fish, who imported spirits in the 1700s,” he says. Fish somehow thrived under both Spanish and British rule – his rum imports appear to have made him more desirable to the new British government.
The British loved the rum that was processed in the area while they were in control during the mid to late 1700s, he says. North Florida’s climate was and still is tropical enough for sugar cane.
“The first sugar cane was brought here from Barbados in the British period along with indigo – between 1763-1783,” CEO McDaniel says. The Three Chimneys Sugar Works Site is the oldest British rum distillery in Florida, and possibly the United States, according to the Ormond Beach Historical Society.
“Some of the first rums in America were produced here,” McDaniel says. “These rums were created directly from cane juice that grows here, not from molasses, the byproduct of making sugar, as commercial rums are today.” The Distillery’s Agricole Rum is crafted in the old ways from heirloom sugar cane.
Wheatly explains that while Agricole Rum is intensely flavorful, the process to make it is time consuming. “We do everything by hand, the hard way,” he says. “Sometimes the old methods are inefficient, but produce the best product. Sugar cane has a long history in Florida. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, crops were bred for flavor. It wasn’t about the shape of the produce – it was about how it tasted.” Centuries later, since Genetically Modified Organisms were introduced, about seventy five percent of genetic diversity has been lost, he says.
Cane today is desired for high sugar content to be processed into table sugar. Richly nuanced flavors, formerly prized, are largely lost. When developing the St. Augustine Distillery, the team realized the opportunity to preserve these heritage strains.
“We bought six to eight heirloom varieties from a preservationist farmer in Marianna,” Wheatly says. “If there wasn’t a commercial use for these strains, it would just be a few hobby farmers raising them and eventually they’d be lost.”
“Our mission is to make the best spirits we can by supporting local farmers,” McDaniel says. “They are part of who we are as a company. They are on our bottles – we really are paying homage to our partners.”
“The relationship goes both ways,” Wheatly adds. “They’re taking our bagasse” – the fibrous material that remains after distillers press the juice- “and using it to feed their cattle. These farmers are actually bringing in more heads of cattle.”
“Part of the objective as I see it is to build rich earth back into St. Johns County,” Wheatly says. By composting The Distillery’s discarded grains along with the nitrogen-rich manure of cattle, farmers build nutrient rich earth. “We can actually grow soil. It’s amazing to think that as you sit with a drink, you’re healing the earth. Sounds cheesy but its true.”
A nod to the past, eyes to the future
In past centuries, “locally sourced” was typically the only option. Today, it’s a choice to keep money in the local economy. Sugar cane, grains, bottles, labels and even casks are regionally sourced.
No one finds it ironic that looking to the late 1800s for direction is considered progressive. “All spirits were ‘craft’ back then,” Dettra says. And while he expects a resurgence of craft spirits nationwide to continue building, Dettra believes it will be a slower growth than the regional craft beer movement saw due to aging times and greater initial investment.
One distinction he is quick to point out: there is no comparison between backyard moonshine and their craft spirits. “Moonshine is generally a high proof, low quality alcohol made with primitive equipment. Moonshine is not about the drink, it’s about getting drunk. We don’t do that here. We’re all about a unique, locally sourced, high quality product.”
The Distillery is currently producing gin, vodka, rum and bourbon, but only currently selling Florida Cane Vodka and New World Gin because the dark spirits are aging in large casks.
Old world cocktails – plus new dreams of a local community producing exceptional product – equals perfection in a glass.