For drinkers, good news from Tallahassee: Florida lawmakers have passed a bill granting more freedom to craft distilleries and breweries.
Small-scale beer and spirit producers are seeing more opportunities for growth and exposure.
The St. Augustine Distillery occupies the bottom floor of a 1920s-era ice plant that once produced huge frozen slabs for shrimp boats and homes. Amid the steampunk-looking copper stills and barrels of aging bourbon, co-founder and Chief Financial Officer Mike Diaz says business has blossomed since its grand opening just over a year ago.
Diaz said, “We have about 9,000 people through here each month. We sell product to about 35 percent of those.”
Diaz says he expects to extend the distillery’s reach thanks to a bill just passed by the Florida Legislature. Soon craft distilleries will be able to sell four bottles to consumers on site, up from the previous two-bottle allotment. For Diaz, this is big news.
Diaz said on a scale of one to ten, “it’s about a nine and a half. It’s a very significant change for us.”
He added that, “The law as it initially was drafted from the whole time since Prohibition says we could offer a tour. We could offer people a sample. And then we could shake their hand and send them down the street to a retailer to buy product if they wanted it. We were precluded from selling any product.”
Diaz says it’s taken lobbying lawmakers in Tallahassee to change restrictive laws for small producers. Local distilleries have fought pushback by retail groups representing large beverage distributors and manufacturers.
“We’re pioneering ground,” he said. “Quite candidly, a lot of Florida distilleries that come after us will benefit from the work we’re doing. All these legal changes are not specific to this distillery, they’re specific to our entire industry.”
Distilleries aren’t the only ones benefiting from the recent legislation. Jacksonville native Ben Davis opened his craft brewery, Intuition Ale Works, five years ago.
“Jacksonville — I think we’ve got seven breweries, with another on the way,” Davis said. “That’s all happened in the last four years. And I think we could support many more.”
Soon breweries like Intuition will be able sell industry standard half-gallon containers of beer called “growlers,” and a legal change clarifies they can serve beer in on-site tap rooms.
“Unfortunately, it was a pretty frustrating process because we in our mind as an industry were asking for something very common sense,” said Davis.
Davis says despite the obstacles, the future is bright for craft brewing in Florida. The law is one step in making craft, small-batch and local products more accessible to consumers.
“It’s just going to grow and I think we’re going to have a lot more clout and respect within the state as a legitimate industry and not this cute little cottage industry that’s making fun little beers for hipsters,” Davis said. “It’s a legitimate industry that pays a lot of taxes, employs people and invests a considerable amount.”
Craft brewers and distillers hope this law gives them a leg up in a complex and competitive industry. The new mandate will become effective with Governor Scott’s signature.
You can follow Anna Hamilton @annawham.