After my “heart-racing” climb up to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, I headed to my hotel to check-in. I charged my phone for a little bit (of the utmost importance when exploring) and made plans for my next move. I certainly was going to head to the Historic District. I had been wanting to do that for years. As I mentioned in earlier posts though, I didn’t have a clear plan prior to coming about what I wanted to see in the Historic District. This led to some last minute research (usually I like to do research well in advance of my trip) earlier during lunch on my phone (at Creative Juices Natural Cafe) and now on my computer while I waited for my phone to charge.
Interestingly the top sight on TripAdvisor was the St. Augustine Distillery. I certainly enjoy alcohol and I always have loved tours of wineries (along with wine tasting), so I thought “sure let’s do this.” Man am I glad I did, because this ended up being one of my favorite parts of St. Augustine (besides the Castillo de San Marcos and dinner at The Floridian). The last tour starts at 5 PM, so I decided to head to the distillery first and then go to the Historic District (luckily summer means sunlight late in the day).
I got there right at 4 PM, but the 4 PM tour was already full and I had to wait until the 4:30 PM tour. It wasn’t that big of a deal, because I got to walk around their museum. It’s only one room, but has some really interesting facts. I love to learn, so I was eating up (or should I say drinking up?) all the facts about the Distillery, the building, and alcohol-making in general.
The building was built in 1907 as the city’s power and ice plant. Back in the day before air conditioning and refrigerators, gigantic blocks of ice would be made at the ice plant and then the ice man would take a block out on the wagon and chip off big chunks for people to put into their ice chests. After the plant closed it went through a couple different businesses before becoming abandoned. For a little while it was going to become condos, but when the Distillery started they took over the building and completely renovated it. In fact they won three awards for the renovation of the building, including an international one.
The Distillery started with the idea of making small batches of premium spirits and taking advantage of all the agricultural richness that Florida has to offer. I believe most, if not all, of their main ingredients come from Florida (I think whatever is feasibly possible) and then they try to have everything else (including machines) be American. Check out the pic of the map below on where their ingredients come from. I learned on the tour that the Distillery was a big community effort and many St. Augustinians (is that right?) invested and helped make the Distillery a success. The Distillery also likes to have very strong partnerships with their farmer suppliers. In fact their bottles of spirits have pictures of their farmers on the labels.
A good amount of this info was in the museum, but the tour added onto it. Also in the museum I really enjoyed learning about the smugglers ham sack, which was a bag of bottles in the shape of a pyramid wrapped in burlap and stuffed with straw. It was an easier way to pass the alcohol between ships during Prohibition. There also was salt inside, so that if the boats were boarded, the sacks could be thrown overboard and they’d sink from the weight of the salt. This made me think of my great-grandfather, who (rumor has it) was a ‘bootlegger” of sorts during Prohibition. He was up north near the Washington State-Canadian border, so he didn’t have to deal with ships, but I still enjoyed learning with a bit more connection.
We started the tour by watching a movie about the Distillery- how it started, it’s philosophy around spirits, it’s partnership with farmers and suppliers (a lot of the facts I mentioned above). Our tour guide, who was great, then elaborated on a few things, especially the history of the building.
We then walked into the main part of the Distillery itself. Our tour guide shared the process for making bourbon, which was the alcohol of focus for this particular tour. Currently the Distillery has completed batches of vodka and gin. The rum is supposed to be ready later this year (according to the CFO at the end of the tour) and the first bourbon (aged in small barrels) will be ready either next year or in 2017 (CFO said next year at the end, tour guide said 2017 when we were near the barrels).
A few interesting things I learned about bourbon:
- Per U.S. law- bourbon has to be made in brand new oak barrels. St. Augustine Distillery’s barrels are made from white oak from Illinois.
- 60% of the flavor and color of bourbon comes from the charred inside of the barrels.
- At the St. Augustine Distillery it takes 2 years of aging for the small barrels and 4 years for the large
- This will be the first legal bourbon made in the state of Florida
We also got an overview of the machinery used, which includes their two stills- Bessie and Ella. Bessie is named after the singer Bessie Smith and Ella is named… can you guess it? (answer below before the pics). After the whole process the distillers use actually just their nose and taste buds to make sure the product is up to par.
After getting a close up of the barrels, we headed into the bar where we got to taste the vodka and gin. We also got some demonstrations in real bar tending (like the ice being pounded in a bag with a wooden mallet). The two drinks they made were a gin and tonic and a Moscow Mule. I forwent the gin of course as a celiac, but the Moscow Mule was delicious. Their vodka is actually made out of Florida sugarcane, which I found really interesting.
At this end of the tour we also heard from the CFO, who shared some very “frustrating” info (in my opinion). Originally when the Distillery was looking to open, the state told them that they couldn’t serve any alcohol on these tours (like tastings) AND couldn’t sell any alcohol directly to any visitors to the distillery… There was a law from Prohibition that forbid this, even though you can visit the winery down the street, do wine tasting, and then leave with as many cases of wine as you want. “Luckily” they got that law changed to where now you can leave the Distillery with two bottles of alcohol A YEAR (they have to record your name and address to stay compliant)… It’s looking like that might soon become two bottles per kind of alcohol a year (progress?), but it’s still quite ridiculous . The other ridiculous thing is that the profit sharing between the Distillery and it’s distributors and stores is set by law. So for all bottles sold elsewhere (you can buy unlimited bottles of their alcohol in stores like Publix)- $5 of the profit goes to the store, $5 goes to the distributor, and only $5 of the profit remains at the Distillery. So it’s a lot better to buy two bottles at the Distillery, where they get the full profit.
Unfortunately I was doing a carry on for my flight and I didn’t think trying to drink a fifth of vodka in 24 hours was a good idea… I did however ask the cashier what the profit sharing was like when I bought online (I had noticed the ability to purchase when looking up info for the tour). Unfortunately online you are still restricted to the two bottles, but more profit stays with the Distillery (I think just $5 would be taken out for the distributor). So I will definitely be getting some bottles of their vodka online, plus looking for them in Publix. In the store they also have a lot of different bar utensils and branded St. Augustine items/knick knacks to purchase (I went for some coasters).
I loved this visit to the St. Augustine Distillery and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting St. Augustine (as long as you like, or even just have an interest in, alcohol). The stories are great, the experience is fun, and it’s a really cool St. Augustine business. Also be on the lookout also for their products (especially if you’re in Florida)!
St. Augustine Distillery- 112 Riberia Street St. Augustine, FL
*Ella the still was named after Ella Fitzgerald