In Florida, an emerging boutique industry is offering distinctive versions of gin, vodka and whiskey.
Micro-distilleries are quietly revolutionizing the spirits business. By hand-crafting small batches of spirits with space-age technology and old-fashioned know-how, they’re giving “buy local” a new and intoxicating meaning.
Farmers in the Midwest and vintners in California, strapped for cash and overburdened with crops, are making brandy and rum from unsold grapes and grain. Artisan craftspeople here in Florida, using regional ingredients and a bit of ingenuity, are also part of this movement.
Consumers have encountered beers from Florida micro-breweries and wine from one of the Sunshine State’s small vineyards, but most aren’t aware of Tampa gin, Lake County whiskey or Palm Beach vodka.
Bottles are showing up at Orlando purveyors such as Total Wine Warehouse and the bar at Timpano Italian Chophouse.
Here are four Florida-produced spirits that make a special impact:
4 Orange Vodka, Imperial Brands | $25, 4orangevodka.com
Unlike the plethora of vodkas that add fruit flavoring to grain alcohol, 4 Orange is distilled in Palm Beach Gardens entirely from Peace River oranges. The smell hits you: orange, the aroma you get from scratching fingernails over a ripe Valencia. There’s an almost liqueur-like quality to the taste of this potable, which is filled with citrus oil and good enough to sip straight or as the start of something slushy. There’s also a great recycling story: Peels that would otherwise be discarded from juice processing are fermented for the spirit base; the fibers left over are fed to local cattle.
Nicholas Gin | $35, fatdogspirits.com
The scent of lavender fills the room the moment a bottle of Nicholas Gin is uncorked, like an air freshener for cocktail drinkers. All gins are created from multifaceted (and often secret) recipes. This one, also made in Nick Carbone’s plant (along with absinthe, but that’s another story), uses organic rose hips, hibiscus leaves and other botanicals to flavor an American-style spirit that makes for a crisp and aromatic martini.
Touch Vodka | $35, fatdogspirits.com
Another uniquely Florida product. Made from local wildflower honey gathered near distiller Nick Carbone’s tiny Tampa facility, and fermented with champagne yeast, Touch is smoother and rounder than a typical vodka. The high sugar content of honey leads to a simple fermenting process, and leaves a lot of the character that’s usually stripped out of potato vodkas. Don’t expect it to taste like alcoholic Sue Bee, but do anticipate a mellow, almost brandy-like flavor; the silkiness of the honey is more prominent than the actual taste.
Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey | $50, palmridgereserve.com
Take a struggling Umatilla cattle farmer, add a convenient supply of local grains, stir in an economy that sparks crazy ideas, and you get the only whiskey distilled and bottled in Florida. Using Florida corn, barley malt, toasted flaked rye and rye malt, owner Dick Waters performs every part of the whiskey-making process on his farm, from fermentation to labeling the beautiful bottles. With a smell reminiscent of a young Speyside Scotch whisky crossed with bourbon, this drink has a taste that is oak-aged but not smoky, full of the essence of the grains. The first case of Palm Ridge Reserve shipped in January, and there’s no mistaking that this is a young, feisty, corn-fed malt. It’s good for sipping or mixing now; it will be interesting to see how Palm Ridge matures.