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Philip McDaniel, Mike Diaz and Ryan Dettra

Folio Weekly “How the St. Augustine Distillery Put History on Ice”

by St. Augustine Distillery

The distillery and Ice Plant Bar recaptured a slice of a 20th-century history thanks to big money and even bigger passion
http://folioweekly.com/HOW-THE-ST-AUGUSTINE-DISTILLERY-PUT-HISTORY-ON-ICE,11290

Posted 10/22/14

In a rush to preserve its colonial past and Flagler-funded grandeur, the city of St. Augustine has notoriously neglected whole swaths of its more recent history. Nowhere is that more evident than in the 15,000-square-foot ice plant building on Riberia Street. A stately concrete structure built between 1905 and 1926, after a half-century in business, the ice plant went from being a critical part of St. Augustine’s infrastructure to a disused afterthought on the western edge of an already-neglected neighborhood.

Starting in 2010, four locals — retired businessmen Philip McDaniel and Mike Diaz, Café Eleven founder and former St. Augustine Amphitheatre general manager Ryan Dettra, and The Floridian co-founder Patricia McLemore — set out to the change that. They poured three years, nearly $3 million and immeasurable effort into their dream of turning the former ice plant into a historically specific, financially sound business venture. Today, a wildly popular distillery and bar/restaurant occupies this space, which sat empty or sorely underutilized for nearly 60 years. 

So it goes in The Ancient City, where it’s easy to take an illustrious past for granted. The 342-year-old Castillo de San Marcos? Nice place for a picnic. Tolomato Cemetery, which holds the remains of the first Minorcans in the New World and a leader of the 1791 Haitian slave uprising? Ooh, look at the Love Tree! Even the Ponce de Leon Hotel, once the finest winter resort ever constructed on the East Coast, is today best known as a home to Flagler College’s freshmen.

But while other Florida towns boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, St. Augustine maintained. Its lackadaisical pace of life — bemoaned in the 1880s by Henry Flagler and still a source of existential handwringing among residents today — allowed much of its history to be preserved. Flagler was the first to see tourist potential here, but it wasn’t until after World War II, when America’s booming economy and global exceptionalism kindled a nostalgic longing for simpler times, that St. Augustine was first marketed as the “Oldest City.” 

Of course, the city’s complicated, multicultural roots — and the fierce civil rights battles fought downtown in the early 1960s — didn’t help St. Augustine leap to the top of the tourism pile. The Castillo de San Marcos wasn’t even listed as a National Monument until 1966, one year after the quadricentennial. 

Such a roundabout history lesson helps to explain why it took so long for the ice plant to turn into a viable business venture. What it required was a leap of faith on the part of McDaniel, Diaz, Dettra and McLemore that craft distilling, a small but growing offshoot of the booming craft brewery business, could take hold in this dive bar-and-cover band paradise. Artisanal, locally sourced spirits were huge in hipster havens like Denver, Portland, Seattle and Brooklyn, where the group visited distilleries, attended conferences and sampled spirits. But translating that to the relatively small market of St. Augustine would prove difficult — even if its salty and humid climate was actually ideal for the aging and distilling process. 

“We’ve been programmed to take whiskey, add coke, and if you really want to go over the top, squeeze a little lime on top,” McDaniel says. “People think that’s a great drink. Well, that worked up until about five years ago. We recognized that the craft cocktail thing was happening all over the country — and that it could happen here, too.”

The group entertained a few buildings around town, but the former ice plant, which hadn’t been much of anything since being decommissioned and sold in the 1950s, was always their first choice. Its roots in manufacturing, its legacy as a contributing building to Lincolnville’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, and the challenge it presented — pink paint, modern carpet, acoustic ceiling tiles, vintage equipment either disassembled or entirely covered up — were all too appealing to ignore. 

“Preserving the character of the building while enhancing it to fit into the neighborhood felt like the right thing to do,” McDaniel says. “We just had to crack the code and figure out the magic of the project.”

That magic stretches back almost 110 years. Originally built as a power plant in 1905, the ice plant building was expanded in 1917 into the first Florida facility to generate commercial block ice. That business boomed alongside the city’s shrimping and fishing industries, so in 1926, the newly formed Florida Power & Light conglomerate purchased the complex and expanded again, increasing ice-making capacity from 65 to 125 tons. Four massive “cans” or “trays” set in the floor of the newly built two-story side of the building froze 325-pound blocks of pure, clean ice that were then transferred via overhead bridge crane to rail cars, boats and trucks out back — or broken up into smaller quantities and sold to residents out front. 

At its pinnacle, the U.S. ice trade accounted for 4,800 plants, 100,000 employees and 40 million tons of ice; in World Wars I and II, ice plant employees were even exempt from the draft. But by the 1950s, with a refrigerator and freezer in nearly every American home, the ice industry collapsed and FPL offloaded the now-cumbersome ice plant to a former employee for just $1 while retaining ownership of the land surrounding it. 

After decades of disuse, local company Mega Systems took over the ice plant in the 1990s, manufacturing movie projectors in the cavernous space. But they covered most of the building’s original features with drywall and carpet, installed drop ceilings and fluorescent lights, and even boarded up the soaring two-story steel windows to create a “blackout” room for testing. Uninterested in sinking millions into the building’s renovation, they left the rest of it to slowly rot. 

The distillery group secured a lease for the ice plant building at the end of 2011, but while performing due diligence, they discovered what Dettra calls that “depressing and shocking” interior. That was only the tip of the challenging iceberg, though; for 18 months, McDaniel led negotiations with FPL over parking and other property rights; spent months explaining the distillery’s vision to Lincolnville residents; and enlisted St. Augustine officials like city manager John Regan and historical preservation planner Jenny Wolfe to help grant Planning and Zoning Board permission requests, code enforcement variances and Historical Architectural Review Board approvals. Basic utility services even had to be restored to the building.

Wolfe says the city was thrilled to help. “For many years, the building’s uses didn’t pay attention to its history,” she says. “But because it’s in the Lincolnville historic district, the distillery voluntarily committed itself to more regulation than we normally apply. Everything about their approach to the interpretation of history was a breath of fresh air.” 

McDaniel says that was their hook: bringing history back to life by presenting a genuine experience to tourists suffused with a local’s sense of pride. “We’re longtime locals,” he adds. “Once the city, the neighborhood and FPL saw that we weren’t just out-of-town investors trying to fleece a quick buck, everyone lined up to help us out.”


 

Obstacles still arose, though. Due to Florida laws governing the production, distribution and sales of spirits, the St. Augustine Distillery and The Ice Plant Bar had to be established as separate business entities. In 2012, McDaniel and Diaz purchased the southern half of the building for $437,500; McLemore, joined by her parents and Dettra’s parents, bought the northern half for $450,000. McLemore was one of Dettra’s longest-tenured employees at Café Eleven, and her experience co-founding and running popular downtown restaurant The Floridian made her a perfect candidate to add sustainably sourced, locally focused food to the mix. 

Next came the down and dirty: digging into the guts of the building. “That remodel was rough,” Dettra says. “Everything was covered up and we really had to start from scratch — all knowing that we risked finding things that were too old or decrepit. But our goal was to expose as many original elements as possible, even if it meant grinding rust off a steel beam by hand for six weeks. And if we were going to remove anything, we had to honor the building’s original history and repurpose it.” 

The task was Herculean, especially in the older distillery portion of the building. Workers discovered a dilapidated overhead bridge crane, and a crumbling brick archway that faces Riberia Street had to be reengineered and tied back into to the adjoining walls — including the only one left from the original 1905 construction. 

On the 1926 Ice Plant Bar side, a larger Euclid bridge crane was still exposed and in good shape, but the walls required soda blasting — exploding away surface material by pressure washing with sodium bicarbonate — to return them to their original state. The steel trays that once contained the 325-pound blocks of ice were converted into The Ice Plant Bar’s first-floor ceiling, while the building’s electrical cage was repurposed into an elegant liquor cabinet. 

Once the crew knew what was inside, they set out to procure other period-appropriate artifacts. Dettra and McLemore embarked on an architectural salvage trip to New York and New Jersey, where they found steel windows similar to the ice plant’s original ones, a bar top dating from the 1880s, work tables from the 1870s and benches from the original Hershey’s Chocolate factory — perfect for the distillery’s tasting room. From its original 1900s location, they unbolted a 5-foot cast-iron trough sink — great for the ladies’ lavatory. Steel factory doors from the 1930s were strong enough to be used as exterior entrances. 

Working their way home in a packed U-Haul, Dettra and McLemore stopped in Georgia for reclaimed wood from historic 1860s homes — floorboards and the bar’s grand entrance staircase, check. A movie screen and bench ends from a 1920s Jacksonville theater went into the distillery’s screening room. Salvaged beams from Burkhardt Sales & Service were combined with reclaimed bricks to create a towering 16-foot-tall divider that splits the cavernous Ice Plant space into two distinct bar areas.

The Ice Plant Bar opened in September 2013, while the more extensive engineering work required on the distillery pushed its opening date to March 2014. But today, both sides of the property deliver a coherent trip back in time. In the distillery, visitors punch an antique time clock to begin their tour before entering a museum containing a 2.5-ton cast-iron sugar mill from 1883, a copper still from the 1890s, an ammonia compressor from the 1940s, and other carefully curated relics of Florida’s ice-making, distilling and agricultural history. 

In The Ice Plant Bar, vintage mosaic floor tiles front the electrical cage and a wooden staircase leads to low-slung tables and the elegantly lit bar and restaurant. Vintage ice tongs, lights, signs and other decorations dot the walls; every detail down to the menu and serving glasses are exquisite, and the bartenders even rock suspenders to complete the old-school aesthetic. All of it is meant to appeal to a new breed of enthusiast hungry for a more authentic and immersive experience.

“This whole project was a giant puzzle determined by the path the renovation of the building took,” Dettra says. “But it was worth it from an experiential marketing standpoint. We want visitors to have their first experience be the building and its heritage, not something fabricated. We could have built something new and tried to make it look old, but it wouldn’t have had the same feel. You can’t reproduce history.” 

“What’s so impressive about this project is how it still looks like an ice plant,” says Elli Morris, whose 2008 book Cooling the South detailed the ice industry’s golden age. “There’s maybe one other plant in the South that has retained so much of its character. And it’s the only one I know of where they’re actually manufacturing something again.” 

Even the new distilling and ice-making machinery inside the St. Augustine Distillery space evokes an artisanal ethos. Vendome Copper & Brass Works, one of the last companies still manufacturing copper stills in the United States, custom built the 750-gallon and 500-gallon beauties, along with a smaller botanical still. At The Ice Plant Bar, a nearly $10,000 Clinebell ice machine churns out two dense, pure 300-pound blocks every 52 hours, which are carved up into spheres and long rocks. A Kold-Draft machine produces solid, slow-melting cubed ice, while a Scotsman machine makes nugget ice intended to dilute drinks quickly. 

Florida agriculture is also treated with craft importance. The distillery’s gin and vodka, for sale since March, rely on citrus from the Rogers family in Indian River County, who’ve grown grapefruit since 1928. Wells Brothers Farm in northern St. Johns County supplied the non-GMO corn and wheat for the first batch of bourbon, currently aging in single-wood, single-char barrels, with a tentative release date of 2017. The crew collected rare heirloom sugarcane strains from Marianna farmer and Southern Syrup Makers Association president Richard Harrison, convincing KYV Farm owner Francisco Arroyo of Hastings to populate 40 empty acres of his land with it. The first cane harvest last December yielded three acres, which will, they hope, triple after the next open-to-the-public harvest on Dec. 6. By 2015, the distillery hopes to have enough fresh-pressed cane juice to produce clear, agricole-style rum. 

“That’s never been done before in Florida,” McDaniel says. “And it’s certainly never been done with historically significant sugarcane anywhere in the country.” 

Via his role as president of the Florida Craft Distillers Guild, McDaniel also influenced the Florida Legislature, lobbying lawmakers to loosen a Prohibition-era law preventing distilleries from directly selling their spirits. In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 347, which allows individuals to buy two bottles per year from the manufacturer. That was a major win for the St. Augustine Distillery, which has seen more than 40,000 visitors in its first seven months, with over 100,000 expected by year’s end. But many of the company’s decisions go beyond economic motivation; the distillery encourages participating farmers to recycle used grains back onto their land, and it has one of the only zero-waste water reclamation distilling systems in the country. 

“The growth potential in this industry is immense,” Dettra says. “But we’re trying to grow in a responsible way.”

Naturally, the accolades for such growth have piled up. National lifestyle publications like Garden & Gunand Southern Living added The Ice Plant Bar to their 2013 best-of lists, and the distillery’s St. Augustine Vodka won a Double-Gold medal in TheFiftyBest.com’s 2014 Best Domestic Vodka awards. 

But the top honors have come from the city and the state. In May, St. Augustine bestowed one of two inaugural Adelaide Sanchez Awards on the distillery and Ice Plant Bar, followed a week later by the highest award at the Florida Trust for Historical Preservation’s 36th Annual Preservation Conference. 

“Hopefully these awards, which provide an incentive to prevent buildings from being knocked down, can serve as a model for what a for-profit business can achieve in terms of historic preservation,” Dettra says.

McDaniel expects that the distillery and Ice Plant Bar, along with the neighboring San Sebastian Winery, will eventually serve as bookends of the San Sebastian Inland Harbor project, which sold in August for $4.5 million after sitting dormant since 2007; final plans for a boutique hotel and retail space are still up for approval. But for now, the crew is happy to anchor the city’s $3.4 million Riberia Street Rehabilitation Project, which was completed just before The Ice Plant Bar and St. Augustine Distillery opened. They’ve soaked up near-universal praise from out-of-town aficionados and eager local clientele. Anyone who’s endured a two-hour wait to be seated at The Ice Plant Bar on a weekend night — and then forgotten about it upon taking that first smooth sip of a Florida Mule or St. George Sour — recognizes the appeal of imbibing in such fascinating confines.

“Our goal was to give back to the community by making an investment that would have an economic impact,” McDaniel says. “It’s way cheaper to knock old buildings like these down, but bringing them back to life presents a good model of how to capitalize on the positives.”