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Mullins: Tampa area distillers have drink scene all abuzz

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Published:   |   Updated: February 9, 2014 at 08:44 PM

Jeff Langmaid was sitting at The Independent bar in Seminole Heights, sipping a local craft beer, and wondered. “Hey, can I start making and selling my own liquor? Would people drink local booze?” We're about to find out.

A string of startups around Florida are tackling a long and tangled gauntlet of bureaucracy to try and open up their own liquor distilling operations, and open their own tasting rooms if possible, too. If successful, Florida might start catching up with several other states that have opened their markets to local makers of whiskey, rum, vodka and other spirits.

Langmaid and two partners are now trying to launch Devilfish distilling, named after the nickname of the octopus, and their first brand might be “Black Ink Vodka.” Another company, Fish Hawk Spirits in Ocala, is close to opening a tasting room in Seminole Heights for its craft-made absinthe and brandy.

Both groups have some serious cultural and economic momentum behind them that says “Why not indeed?”

For one, large liquor companies are launching all sorts of niche brands and flavors in a drive to reach drinkers continually curious for the next big thing. Cotton-candy flavored vodka, anyone? It's out there.

Two, there's a powerful desire among many consumers to know where their food comes from, and many of the most popular new restaurants are strongly focused on “local” or “farm to table” ingredients.

Three, the craft cocktail revolution is in full swing, with “speakeasy” bars popping up all over and handlebar-mustached bartenders shaking up classic drink recipes from the Prohibition era. The annual Repeal Day Party in Tampa has become one of the hottest tickets of the year, taking over an entire hotel in Ybor City for a night.

Four, there's a growing cultural fascination with illicit liquor making. Just look at Discovery Channel shows like Moonshiners, which follow the oft-bumbling exploits of Appalachian backwoodsmen. What they lack in teeth they make up for in devotion to maintaining the heritage of moonshining, all while evading the lawman and making lots of untaxed bucks in the meantime. I count at least 18 how-to books on Amazon about “urban moonshining.” Stores like Total Wine stock all kinds of “moonshine” made by legal distillers. Websites like homedistiller.org have whole Q/A forums. The still manufacturer Clawhammer Supply has hilarious don't-try-this-at-home-style articles titled “10 Reasons to Not Make Moonshine.” If inclined, one can even buy a copper still via Amazon for a mere $295. Ebay has far more stills for sale, the legality of which I will not touch with a 10-foot pole.

If I may point out one fact here to would-be home distillers. An alcohol still with just a tiny pinhole leak can blow up your whole house in an explosion that Jerry Bruckheimer might call “pretty good.” And for the love of God, be careful with the ingredients. Wood alcohol will literally blind you, and the wrong chemical strain of alcohol will turn to formaldehyde in your blood and kill you dead. (Pop quiz: What's the difference between methanol and ethanol? If you don't know, you might already be dead from drinking the wrong one.) Those grizzled backwoodsmen know to toss out the first liter or so of “head,” lest they kill their customers.

But do it right, and you've got booze that retails for $10 to $20 a shot and $50 a bottle.

Back to Jeff Langmaid. He's good at research. When he's not working in a chiropractor office, he conducts market studies and writes papers on regulations for medical clinics. He turned the same research methods on liquor rules — and boy did he find a lot.

The challenge is that many liquor regulations trace their roots back to Prohibition, with each passing decade adding a few more tweaks and additions to the rules. Here's the short, vastly oversimplified version: You need a license from the feds — part of the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms division. You'll also need a license from the state of Florida. You can't get a state or federal license without a physical address where you'll do production and sales. You can't get that address without the blessing of the zoning unit of the city of Tampa, and city fire safety officials take a particular interest in anything that might explode. Companies that manufacture stills won't even ship you the machinery until you have a physical address, which means you might have to sign a lease on a space that you might not be able to use for a year.

The ATF alone currently averages 109 days to process a distilling license application, which includes everything from the basic recipe to the bottle label. That's one reason Langmaid estimates that once they have their physical address, they'll be 12 to 18 months away from a first legal pour.

One irony is that making liquor is very similar to making far less regulated drinks. Making beer is complex, but it has many similarities to making a stew. Take a pot, throw in the right grains, add heat, let it ferment, strain out the debris. Poof, you have beer. Might not be good, but you can do this at home any day of the week.

However, add just one more step to the beer-making process — distilling — and you're in a whole new world of rules. Heat that pancake mix to 150 to 200 degrees, and the alcohol boils off into a vapor. Channel that steaming-hot vapor through cool tubes, and it will condense back into a fluid, like a cool morning mist on your windshield. Poof, you've got liquor. Very, very high alcohol content liquor that resembles moonshine from the back woods, which is merely unaged whiskey and is potent enough to sterilize a wound or light a barbecue. The ethanol in your gasoline comes by the same process. (Yes, your car is burning a blend of gasoline and moonshine, and the federal government significantly subsidizes it.)

To oversimplify:

Use molasses in the mix, you get rum. Use a mix of corn, then age it for a long time in barrels, you get aged whiskey or bourbon. Use wheat or potatoes, you get vodka. Use the heart of a certain Mexican plant, you get tequila. Use any of this without a license, you get prison.

For a long time, Florida basically considered all distillers the same, whether they were Bacardi or Joe Bob's Garage Whiskey. Meanwhile, states like Oregon have a thriving local liquor scene, as does New York state, home to Iron Smoke Whiskey, started by a long-ago source of mine named Tommy Brunett in Rochester.

A few cracks started to emerge in the Liquor Industrial Complex in 2012 when Tampa-based Cane Vodka started up production. Then, after years of pressure on the state Legislature, Florida passed a law that went into effect last summer and created a category of “craft distillers,” which the state defined as producing fewer than 75,000 gallons a year. Sounds like a lot, eh?

Since then, at least 10 distillers have applied for state licenses, roughly doubling the number for the entire state, and we have a nascent liquor distilling industry that's taking the “local” ethos very seriously, in their ingredient sourcing and marketing. “We're doing a couple hundred cases a month now,” said Pat O'Brian, one of Cane Vodka's owners. They'll soon launch an unaged whiskey. “We're calling it 'Sunshine Moonshine.'” A gin may be next. They're getting a good reception from local bars, but don't feel bad if you haven't heard from them yet. Liquor laws mean they can only have a “tasting room” on their production site, tucked into an industrial area of east Brandon.

“It would be great if we could open a bar next to production, like the breweries can,” O'Brian said. “We only get customers coming in who are looking for us. We just don't have a nice streetside location.” What they do have is growing distribution. At least 60 stores and bars now stock Cane liquors.

Others are coming along. Langmaid had hoped to open a production/tasting site on Florida Avenue, smack in the middle of the hippest part of Seminole Heights, but the zoning didn't work out with the city of Tampa, so they're scouting production space in Ybor City. Fish Hawk Spirits took a slightly different route. It produces small batches with a 50-gallon still near Ocala, and it's turning a bungalow on Florida Avenue into a bottling/tasting room and gift shop to promote its “Absinthia Rubra” and tangerine brandy — both at 106 proof, said Kevin Casey, a partner who is leading the promotion of the site in Tampa called “Still in the Heights.”

At 106 proof, that's more than half pure alcohol. Chuckling, Casey said, “It's a real drink.” Some of the bottles retail at liquor stores for $70 apiece, but you can order drinks with the spirits at Domani Bistro & Lounge. He hastens to add that the site in Seminole Heights won't be a bar, rather a spot for small events and samples — i.e., quiet.

“Most people know to ask for local beer at a bar,” Casey said. “But people don't know yet about asking for local spirits. There are just so few of us in the whole state.” That's a symbol of the whole trend: Entrepreneurs trying to carve out some space for their own local products in a market very much dominated by rules and giants. But those giants need only look at the explosive popularity of local craft beer to see what the future holds for liquor. And that future is likely to be very, very local.

Meanwhile, here's other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Look to Amazon for some of the cooler TV projects lately, most notably a string of pilot episodes from the creative types behind “X-Files,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Six Feet Under.” We take particular note of Michael Connelly's series “Bosch,” based on the detective by that name, starring Titus Welliver of Argo. To watch, just follow instructions on Amazon.com and on its Kindle app for iPad.

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We celebrate the expansion of the lovely Piquant restaurant in Hyde Park Village, with its new opening for dinner. The French-themed bistro will have Braised Beuf Short Ribs, a French Jambon Pork Chop and desserts like Pear TartTatin and Chocolate Maxine Torte. Call for hours: (813) 251-1777.

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Last week, I wrote about shrinking packages at the grocery store, and wow did I hit a nerve. Piles of people wrote in with their examples. V-8 juice bottles, cookie packages and the most galling of them all: Ice cream tubs that are no longer a half gallon. Is such shrinkage a felony? Perhaps not. Should it be?

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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