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Co-founders Mike Diaz and Philip McDaniel. Photo by Dennis Ho.

Cocktails & Dreams

by St. Augustine Distillery

Or maybe it’s the buzz.

Kicking back in their shared office, with glasses, a bowl of ice and a bottle of their soon-to-be-released bourbon gracing the space on the table between us, St. Augustine Distillery partners and co-managers Philip McDaniel and Mike Diaz take savoring sips — guests aren’t likely to drink alone here — as they spin a yarn about their shared history, core values and the philosophy that goes into every bottle they produce, which currently includes vodka, rum, gin and — their newest baby — bourbon. Cut from the same, well-oiled cloth that has a touch of Sam Elliot sheen, both believe wholeheartedly in the principles that set the exceptional apart from the pedestrian, those of quality over quantity, craft before speed. And now, five years after they started down this path, all that dedication, time, sweat and energy is paying off: They’ve become the first to craft and distill bourbon in Florida since Prohibition — and they’ve done it without sacrificing their principles.

The proof is in the glass; St. Augustine Distillery bourbon is everything they dreamed it could be.

“You’ll never see us release anything we wouldn’t be proud to serve in our house,” Diaz said.

It all starts with corn, malted barley and wheat. St. Augustine Distillery relies on local farms to the greatest extent possible; much of the corn that’s used is grown in the tri-county area. “We’ve demonstrated that you can make world-class spirits out of local agriculture,” McDaniel said.

Equal parts environmentalists and businessmen, they run zero percent waste on the bourbon, recycling cooling water instead of dumping it into the sewer, like more than 98 percent of all other distilleries do; and, rather than tossing the mash, McDaniel and Diaz allow local farmers to come collect the high-protein spent grains to feed to their cows, who’ve developed such a taste for the (non-alcoholic, don’t worry, PETA) stuff that they recognize the truck and follow it. Not only is this sustainability at its best, it’s also less expensive: They’re not paying to dump all that grain and water.

Creating small-batch bourbon that can stand up next to some of the biggest and most coveted names in the biz is more complicated than recycling and using local produce, however. So the entrepreneurs brought in the big gun: Dave Pickerell. Pickerell spent 14 years as master distiller for Maker’s Mark, and his name is synonymous with fine bourbons — prolly ’cause he trots the globe consulting distilleries about how they make them.

“He knows whiskey,” Diaz said.

Figuring out how to craft top-notch bourbon in the tropical heat of Florida was something of a challenge, they explain, in part because the requirements are so strict — for example, barrels must be brand-new, never used; anything aged less than four years in the barrel must be stamped to that effect on the label — and in part because today’s bourbon is typically made in colder climates, where the spirit spends far fewer months of the year being ‘active.’ That’s how the pros refer to the time period when the concoction gets imbued with flavor and color from the wood of the barrel. But McDaniel and Diaz were also on a bit of a time crunch, desiring to come to market with an extremely high-quality product without waiting the better part of a decade.

So to speed up the process, they initially aged the bourbon in half-sized barrels. Phil explained that they soon found the Floridian climate kept it active year-round (only when temperatures dip below 40°F does bourbon become inactive), which, had they let the wide-awake bourbon remain in 25-gallon barrels, would have led to what he described as an “oak bomb, where it’s all vanilla and coconut.” Sounds like a good rum, perhaps, but not a fine, small-batch bourbon.

They transferred it to 53-gallon barrels after the first summer.

And now, many, many moons, experiments and unexpected micro-crises after they dreamed of becoming the first small-batch distillers in the modern era of the Ancient City, their bourbon is ready to go out into the world.

A few weeks after our initial interview, the long-awaited day arrives. The bourbon release party saw a crew of a few hundred traipse through the distillery, delighting in nibbles from the onsite Ice Plant Bar and sipping, swilling and even shooting a bourbon years in the making. Two days earlier, when they’d started selling it, a crowd five times the expected size showed up; the line wrapped through the distillery and out the door. To accommodate the crowd, regular tours through the distillery (which, with 150,000-160,000 visitors annually, is the single most-visited craft distillery in the nation) had to be cancelled and drinks provided to keep people as cool and comfortable as possible while they waited in the summer swelter. It was a smashing success.

And now it’s time to get smashed — or, if one prefers to be proper, to slowly savor the flavor of a bourbon of which dreams are made.

“We make a spirit we’re proud to put up against anybody’s,” Diaz said.

Folio Weekly editor, Claire Goforth, wrote a great article about our recent Florida Double Cask Bourbon release. To read it in its entirety, click here.