MIAMI (AP) — The unaged whiskey that DJ Noel crafts from an industrial park in Miami-Dade County takes about a week to go from still to bottle. But the process of getting his Alchemist Distilleries up and running took far longer.
"The idea of opening a distillery in Dade is still a very new concept, so no one really knew what to do with the new kids on the block," Noel said recently over sips — neat — of his Rye Whiskey.
Noel said the county put him through a permitting wringer, making him prove, for example, that his distillery's roof was explosion-proof and his wastewater was safe before he could fire up his German-made still. He moved into the space last year but didn't start making whiskey until fall.
The lag time worked to Noel's advantage. For starters, it gave him a chance to dial in Alchemist's recipes.
"Working with rye can be hell," he said of the grain he uses evan in one of his two initial brands; the other calls for wheat, in addition to Florida-grown corn. "The first time I tried to ferment it, I wound up with mash all over the floor. That sight almost made me cry."
While Noel navigated arduous federal, state and local regulations, Florida passed a law aimed at helping Alchemist and the state's 20 other craft distilleries.
Those businesses, defined as producing fewer than 75,000 gallons of spirits a year, are now allowed to sell small quantities of their products directly to consumers. Previously, the state's three-tier alcohol system required producers to sell only to wholesale distributors, which would then sell the products to retailers like bars and liquor stores.
But the change is minor, said Noel and other craft distillers. The new rule lets distilleries sell no more than two bottles a year to any particular customer.
"Florida's approach is absurdly restrictive," said John Paul Garzaniti, who is hoping to open Florida Craft Distillery in Miami-Dade or Broward. "If you look at states where microdistilleries are thriving — places like Oregon, Colorado, Michigan — they have much more liberal laws that put craft distilleries on equal footing with breweries or wineries."
Licensing fees also are pricier here than in states with more-robust craft distilling scenes. Florida craft distilleries must pay about $4,000 a year in fees, compared to $100 a year in Oregon, according to the Institute for Justice .
Rum and brandy will be the focus of Florida Craft Distillery, with brands that emphasize locally grown ingredients like passionfruit and carambola.
"Florida has put significant money behind the Fresh From Florida program that promotes local products," Garzaniti said. "There is no reason we can't have a Fresh From Florida rum."
Garzaniti, 61, of Coral Springs, is a chemical engineer with an MBA. He and two of his adult children — an accountant and a logistics specialist — have pledged $100,000 and are seeking to raise another $100,000 from investors, according to their business plan.
They brought in about $5,000 through a Kickstarter campaign last year and are hoping that new federal regulations will allow them to use similar crowdfunding sites for investment capital.
The SEC may be close to adapting a mandate set by the federal JOBS Act that allows small businesses to seek investments from the general public through crowdfunding sites. Presently, crowdfunding can only be accepted as donations, not in exchange for an ownership stake.
"That change will create a dramatically different and streamlined process that could give us a fighting chance at realizing this dream," Garzaniti said.
Matt Malone has been living his distilling dream for about a year. His Destileria Caneca produces Miami Club Rum in Wynwood, where he plays Latin music to infuse his spirits with a bit of Miami.
"We have this local artist, Lucy Grau , who plays the most beautiful music that's sort of a cross between classic salsa and Donna Summer disco," Malone said. "I'm playing her CD to the rum nonstop, and it loves her."
In his distillery's first year, Malone said, it has shipped to its distributor more than $100,000 worth of Miami Club Rum, which is available in about 250 bars, restaurants and retail shops in South Florida. He exports his rum to Switzerland and is finalizing contracts in England and Spain, as well as with the Duty Free shops in Miami International Airport.
The distillery's only full-time employees are Malone and his brother, but he said he expects to hire about a dozen people this year to fulfill demand.
"About 70 percent of the places that have ordered Miami Club Rum have made multiple reorders," Malone said. "That means that people really liked the product and are coming back for more. That's a really good feeling."
Miami Club Rum, which won a gold medal at this year's San Francisco World Spirits Competition, is a white rum that has been aged for a year in barrels, then filtered to remove its color. That's Malone's flagship product, but he recently bought 50 oak barrels from Wisconsin that he will use to age Miami Club Rum Anejo.
Malone recently began taking advantage of the ability to sell those two bottles per person per year directly to customers. He opened up his distillery to tours during Art Basel week and will continue to host them for tour groups and by appointment.
"We're seeing about a 50 percent rate of people who come in for a tour going home with a bottle or two," Malone said. "It goes a long way in terms of brand loyalty. People who come here, see our setup, hear our story and buy a bottle, they'll be more likely to buy us again next time they go to their local liquor store."
While Alchemist and Destileria Caneca are paving the way for craft distillers in Miami-Dade, a new producer called Chef Distilled opened over the weekend in a 2,500-square-foot warehouse space in Key West.
Paul Menta, a 47-year-old professional kiteboarder and chef , said he's been working around the clock to bottle his first two spirits: Key West Raw & Unfiltered and Key West Legal Rum. Both white rums use Florida sugar, and the latter is aged in barrels that Menta presoaks in seawater, "so the rum picks up that subtle salinity and the ocean minerals," he said.
He has other varieties, including infusions with Florida sea salt, Key limes and other indigenous ingredients, that are awaiting federal label approval.
"The government shutdown really pushed us back," Menta said. "I've got, like, eight brands that I'm ready to roll with, but we're just waiting for the backlog of label approvals to come through."
Menta, who said he and his partners poured about $300,000 into getting the distillery off the ground, created Chef Distilled as a way to reconnect with the island city's rum-running past. For the opening party, he invited U.S. Coast Guard and other law enforcement leaders to raise a toast.
"Here are guys who have been busting rum-smugglers and illegal outfits for decades, and now they get a chance to drink rum made in Key West, legally, for the first time," Menta said. "How cool is that?"
By crafting their products with Florida ingredients and other subtropical touches, South Florida's fledgling distillers are hoping to put the region on the national spirits map.
But they know they have a ways to go: There are about 350 small distilleries nationwide, filling consumers' increasing desire for small-batch whiskey, vodka, rum, gin and more.
While Americans who drink alcoholic beverages have historically preferred beer or wine instead of liquor, a Gallup poll this year showed that spirits have made gains in certain demographics.
The percentage of people between the ages of 30 and 49 who said they preferred liquor increased between 1992 and 2013, but beer and wine both decreased as preferred alcoholic beverages for that age group, according to the poll.
"More and more people know what quality spirits taste like," said Alchemist owner Noel. "We can't hide behind subpar products with cute labels. The only way we'll succeed is if we're making the best spirits we can."
Noel, 39, has his eyes trained on success. He's a Miami native — and graduate of North Miami Senior High — who sold several New York wine bars that he owned with wife Marisol in order to open Alchemist.
Noel hopes to produce 5,000 cases of whiskey next year, and his 3,500-square-foot distillery in unincorporated Miami-Dade has capacity for Alchemist to scale up to 15,000 cases a year.
"I've had friends say, 'A distillery in Miami? Are you nuts?'" Noel said. "But Miami is sometimes a bit behind the curve when it comes to certain trends. Look at the craft beer trend that has been huge elsewhere in the country and is really just taking off here.
"I'm looking 10, 15 years down the road, and I know that craft distilleries won't seem like such a rarity in Miami then. We'll be there, saying, 'Remember when you asked if we were nuts?'"
Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com