What’s the oldest city in the United States? Jamestown? Wait, where did the Pilgrims land … Plymouth Rock? No, it’s St. Augustine, Florida, a Spanish colonial outpost dating to 1565. Located along the state’s northeast coast, St. Augustine is about an hour’s drive from Jacksonville. The city still displays its heritage via the brooding presence of the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century fortress built to protect the area. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the oldest city in the United States is now home to a distillery making the only spirit that must be made in the United States — bourbon.
St. Augustine Distillery was established in 2013 by Philip McDaniel and Michael Diaz. From the start the plan was to make a product that authentically spoke to their locale. “What we wanted to do was take Florida agriculture and make spectacular spirits,” Diaz says.
The duo also wanted to capitalize on their locale and become a cog of the local community. Prior to the pandemic, the distillery was pulling in over 160,000 visitors per year, thanks in part to its presence on the city’s tourist trail. It has its own stop on the hop-on trolley offering tours of Old Town St. Augustine, a factor which was very much by design and has proven to be a boon. “We want to bring visitors into our home,” Diaz says, offering them a memorable experience and of course a chance to buy a bottle or two. The on-site shop accounts for at least half of the distillery’s sales.
Sunshine State Bourbon
St. Augustine Distillery produces vodka, gin and rum, using sugarcane for its neutral spirits and Florida molasses for its rum. But the brand really wanted to plant a flag for Florida bourbon. “There’s no reason why Kentucky is the only place to ‘get’ bourbon!” Diaz says.
Florida Straight Bourbon, which is the base of the whiskey line, goes on to be finished for several different releases. It showcases a wheated mash bill with 60% Florida corn, 22% malted barley and 18% Florida wheat. Furthermore it’s aged for a minimum of three years and is moving in the direction of being a 4-year-old release in the near future. Signature notes of dark chocolate and cacao are found in the flagship expression.
The distillery’s Port Finished Bourbon uses port wine barrels from neighboring San Sebastian Winery. “Nobody in the country gets fresher port barrels than we do,” Diaz says. After three to six months of finishing, the bourbon delivers its chocolate in the form of dark chocolate covered raspberries, with a big hit of brandied cherries.
Then there’s The Saint, a cask strength bourbon finished for up to six months in re-charred barrels which previously held the distillery’s Old Fashioned Mix. Here, mulled wine and zesty citrus come to the forefront, with a viscous mouthfeel that belies its high proof.
The Florida Climate
Approaching an older age statement is trickier than you might expect when talking about a 3 or 4-year-old whiskey. That’s due to the intense maturation conditions that coastal Florida brings to the table. “We get a lot of extraction here,” Diaz says. “Our barrels never sleep.”
The barrel room /Photo Credit: St. Augustine Distillery
He estimates a loss of about 24% of a barrel to the angel’s share after just three years. You don’t need to be a scientist to figure this one out, just try stepping outside on a summer day in St. Augustine to see for yourself.
While it may be a losing battle to wage, the distillery is nevertheless working to mitigate those losses. In the early days, that was a switch from 25-gallon barrels to full-size barrels. “In Florida, with this heat, those small barrels extract too fast,” Diaz says. Today, those efforts have progressed towards changing the bungs used, raising barrel entry proof from 110 to 115, and experimenting with plus-sized casks, like trying 63-gallon barrels made by Independent Stave Company. “We figured let’s go up to a larger format if things are extracting so quickly.”
St. Augustine Distillery even selected oak sourced from particular places, comparing a range of different barrels made with different oak, before choosing a favorite. “For us, we get a more balanced spirit from the Missouri oak, it works for us and our climate,” Diaz says.
Elevating the Game
Operating a distillery comes with a learning curve. After initial consultation and system design work performed by the late Dave Pickerell, it still took time for the team to begin mastering the craft. Diaz believes that quality and consistency have improved by leaps and bounds since the early days. “We recognize that while we have a great young distillation team, we’ve only been doing this since the end of 2013,” Diaz says.
What helped St. Augustine Distillery take the next step forward was bringing in perhaps the most highly-regarded hired gun active in the business today: Nancy Fraley. Super taster and master of the arts of élevage, Fraley focused on fine-tuning maturation, blending and proofing. In short, this means everything that happens to a spirit in between distillation and bottling.
“She’s brilliant, and she’s been helping us with all of our blending and our whole élevage program,” Diaz says. It’s Fraley who has guided the evolution of the bourbon into an older, more mature product. At the same time, she was guarding against over-extraction from the climate, blending disparate barrels together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, she helps to select standout casks for single barrel releases, too.
From Pickerell to Fraley, and always with a Florida focus, St. Augustine Distillery has forged ahead and managed to improve along the way. “One of things I’m glad we did is we committed to doing it right,” Diaz says. “I cringe when I see somebody try to compete with a large, ‘factory spirit.’ We’re on a journey to make the best spirit we can from Florida ag[riculture].”
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