The powerful sugar cane plant, grown in more than 100 countries, holds the “potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diversify energy supplies and create jobs,” according to sugarcane.org. And, luckily for Northeast Floridians, this ancient crop also helps create alcohol.
That’s what St. Augustine-based entrepreneur and community advocate Philip McDaniel wants do with his latest venture, the St. Augustine Distillery. McDaniel has sunk blood, sweat, tears and a whole bunch of money into creating the area’s first craft spirits distillery.
The 8,000-square-foot distillery is housed in half of the Ice Plant building on Riberia Street in the historic Lincolnville neighborhood in downtown St. Augustine and is slated to be “up and running” in eight to 10 months, according to McDaniel.
The St. Augustine Distillery plans to produce bourbon, rum, gin and vodka using an old-school approach. McDaniel and his team will, according to a press release, use the “best possible Florida agriculture and return to the tradition of making small-batch, craft-distilled spirits.”
Rather than rely on public relations buzzwords like “green,” “natural” or “local,” McDaniel searched far and wide for the real deal: heritage sugar cane.
“Many people don’t know this, but a sugar plantation in Ormond Beach had the first rum distillery in America,” he said.
Over the years, sugar cane production gradually moved south. Some of the varieties grown in the late 1800s are nearly impossible to track down — and virtually extinct in St. Johns County.
That is, until now. McDaniel found the mother lode of heritage sugar cane just a three-and-a-half-hour drive northwest of Jacksonville to Marianna, where a hobbyist farmer and his family still grow several near-extinct varieties. McDaniel purchased 4,000 canes, including German Green and Georgia Red. In order to grow sugar cane, one has to plant pieces of the cane; there are no “seeds,” so to speak.
With cane in hand, McDaniel then needed to find a farmer to grow, harvest and press the heritage crop as close to the distillery as possible. So he enlisted the help of folks at Slow Food First Coast and UF/IFAS Extension in St. Johns County, who put him in touch with Francisco Arroyo of KYV Farms.
“I don’t even drink alcohol,” Arroyo said as he showed off the sugar cane planted at KYV, one of the few all-organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organism crops that have had changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques) farms in the region. “Sugar cane is a pretty sturdy crop, but if you don’t fertilize it heavily, you are going to have a small cane. You need to feed it with a lot of nitrogen.”
KYV and McDaniel planted an acre-and-a-quarter of the heritage crop on the last day of 2012; it has a growing season to maturity of roughly one year. “This is really, in my mind, the way to bring sugar cane back to the area,” McDaniel said as he took a break from chewing on a stalk of German Green. “It’s a risk; we’ve spent thousands [of dollars] just on seeds.”
Born and raised in Greenwich, Conn., McDaniel, his wife and four kids relocated from South Florida, settling in St. Augustine in 1994. After years of building a successful sales and marketing company that produced and sold promotional materials for convenience stores (think collectable Hess Trucks), he sold it in 1998.
“I retired from the company in 2001 and became a full-time dad, making the kids breakfast and driving them to school,” McDaniel said. “I always wanted to get involved in the community; St. Augustine is an amazing place.”
McDaniel dived in head-first. He served as president of the St. Johns Cultural Council for five years, helped raise funds to save the former St. Augustine Beach City Hall on A1A, helped found Project SWING (a park and playground located behind St. Augustine Visitor’s Center, built in 1997 by volunteers) and was a driving force behind the establishment of Hamilton Upchurch Skate Park, as well as various other community campaigns and organizations.
“The last decade of my life has been about community betterment,” McDaniel said. “But I realized that I wanted to do something that invested in the community using private-sector funds to create jobs, but, at the same time, give back.”
Over the past decade, the craft brewery industry has exploded. McDaniel saw this, but wanted to do something a little different. So he started researching craft distilleries. “I think it’s important as a society to look at what we’re consuming and ask ourselves, ‘Is this viable to make here in America, to make locally?’ and I think alcohol is the perfect example.”
McDaniel set his sights on the former Ice Plant in downtown St. Augustine. Built in the early 1900s and once home to the St. Augustine Ice Company, the building takes you a step back in time. It’s the perfect setting for McDaniel, the building’s new owner, who is in the process of creating a craft distillery that will include guided tours, a museum and a tasting room.
“The museum will be a self-guided learning center with stations on how the four different spirits are made,” McDaniel said. “We’re going to show how it’s made from the ground to the glass.”