Winter Park Distilling Looks To Grow From Florida Growler Bill
Today is a big day for alcohol in Florida. Not only are Floridians now able to buy 64-ounce growlers of beer directly from breweries, but Florida distilleries will be able to sell you more of their liquor as well.
There’s a small industrial patch in Winter Park, jutting off a busy road near the railroad tracks. The buildings are squat, with blue awnings and glass fronts.
It’s home for the Winter Park Distilling Company. Co-founder Andrew Asher says they're on what's basically the last sliver of industrial land in Winter Park.
"When we upgrade our facility we’ll be in a bit more of a high profile location with foot traffic,” Asher said.
Trust me, the Winter Park Distillery isn’t setup for foot traffic and tours just yet. The building looks like a typical office, except for the chemistry gear where a computer and desk would go. Blue plastic 55-gallon drums are strewn about. Boxes of rum are stacked chest-high in the hallway.
Asher describes the Winter Park Distillery as a scrappy startup.
"We don’t have millions of dollars behind us, we don't big banks investing in us," Asher said. "We’ve done this from the start with the money in our pockets."
This year the local distiller is getting a shot in the arm from the Florida legislature. Distillers were limited to selling two bottles per person per year directly to consumers. But tucked in a growler bill passed this year, though, was an expansion: Now they can sell four bottles per person per label per year. That more than doubles what they can sell directly to a consumer.
And for the Winter Park Distillery, which makes rum, vodka, whisky and bourbon, that’s a big enough boost to sign a new lease and get a bigger location – with a tasting room.
So Asher does for me what he plans to do for the general public by the end of the year: Gives a tour.
“What you’re looking at here is local deer corn," Asher said. "This is the substrate and basis for making whiskey and vodka.”
Asher shows off the bags of grain and barley, which are made into a mash.
"And that’s perfect for our next stage, which is to throw it in one of these fermentors here like this," he says, knocking on the side of it with.
The key to making any alcohol is sugar. Yeast eat the sugar, and give off two byproducts: Carbon dioxide and alcohol.
"When we pitch the yeast, it sits in here and ferments, bubbles, makes a lot of smells," Asher said. "It looks like an evil porridge. Gets all bubbly and basically that’s the yeast going to work consuming that sugar."
If you stopped here, you’d have something about as strong as beer. But Asher walks us back into the final room. He points out the 50-gallon still. Here, the alcohol is boiled off from the mash and concentrated.
Once processed through the 50-gallon, copper still, the whisky takes another to become bourbon. It’s aged in charred white oak barrels, stacked floor to ceiling in the rackhouse.
Winter Park Distilling Company Cofounder Paul Twyford says the barrels give the bourbon its color and flavor, and the evaporation gives the air its musky smell.
Florida, and the U.S., is on the edge of a craft distilling wave.
“I would say craft spirits in the U.S. today is where craft beer was 15 or 20 years ago,” Twyford said.
Florida has some advantages: The heat cuts down on the time to mature bourbon. And Florida’s corn, wheat and sugarcane are staple crops for spirits.
But there are some legal roadblocks. Philip McDaniel is the CEO of St. Augustine Distillery and past president of the Florida Craft Distillers Guild.
McDaniel says other states are ahead of Florida in fostering a craft spirits industry.
“No one had really questioned or asked the legislature to help," McDaniel said. "So we were living under these 85-year-old prohibition era laws.”
The guild plans to come back to the Legislature in a few years and see if they can increase the caps on what can be sold to consumers, or allow the sale of cocktails by the glass at distilleries.
One possible result of a craft spirits boom? Tourism.
“So annually, we’ll get between 110,000 visitors and 125,000 guests,” McDaniel said.