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The man behind the St. Augustine Distillery hopes law will change

8:47 PM, Mar 19, 2013   |    comments
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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Distilleries across Florida are watching to see what happens with a bill before the legislature.

House Bill 347 would allow distilleries to sell their products at the distillery, just like wineries and breweries do.

The momentum behind the bill came from St. Augustine.

Construction has begun at the St. Augustine Distillery, a dream of Phil McDaniel's that has been a work in progress for more than a year.

When McDaniel had the idea of turning the old ice plant on Riberia Street into a distillery, he didn't know it was against state law to sell the product on site.

"We figured, we'll just make spirits and do just like the winery because it's doing it," he chuckled. "So we're going along and got the building and started looking into it, and realized the issue and said, 'uh oh.'"

McDaniel discussed the situation with Representative Doc Renuart of Ponte Vedra. Renuart said he'd already been approached by the chamber of commerce and tourism officials. Renuart has since proposed a bill. It would allow micro distilleries to sell their vodka, whiskey, rum and gin on site.

Brendan Wheatley has worked in distilleries across the country and was just hired to manage operations at the St. Augustine Distillery.

He said, "It's essential for small producers" to be able to sell their products at their facilities.

"As it takes time to grow the brand on a regional and national level, it's essential that you can sell directly to people," Wheatley explained, "and it makes a full connection to that customer too."

Glenn Hastings is the Executive Director of the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council. He said St. Augustine's first distillery will really resonate with tourists if they can buy a bottle after touring the facility.

"If you can produce local products, including cuisine and everything, that becomes more immersive and more memorable for the experience," Hastings said.

If the bill passes, there could be wide ranging impacts on the dozen or so distilleries in Florida.

"Every distillery in the state is watching [the bill]" McDaniel said.

Renuart said the bill failed in a subcommittee last week by a narrow margin. He said some alcohol distributors oppose the bill because they worry some large distilleries will then sell directly to the consumer, essentially decreasing business for the distributors and retailers.

However, Renuart said his original bill did not allow for that. Even so, he has made some changes before it heads back to a subcommittee Wednesday. One of those changes limits the number of bottles a consumer can buy at a distillery to two.

McDaniel says there's room for everyone to benefit.

"Put simply," he said, "we'll sell the first bottle, and [retailers] can sell the rest."

As construction continues inside the old ice plant, McDaniel noted that he'll still craft spirits even if the bill fails, but he sure would like to raise a glass to being able to sell inside his new business.

Contact Jessica Clark via Twitter: @JessicaFCN or on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/jessica.clark.fcn

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