Next up for Seminole Heights in Tampa? Craft rum distillery, wine bar

A longtime automotive repair shop in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa is giving way to a new wine bar and a craft rum distillery, another step in North Florida Avenue’s transformation from automotive-related businesses to trendy eateries and watering holes.

The Wine Bar Seminole Heights and the Twisted Sun Rum Distillery plans to open next spring at 6428-6430 N. Florida Ave. For more than 35 years, Larry’s Automotive occupied the northern-most building, which is undergoing extensive renovations and will house the distillery.

The wine bar, owned and operated by Wes Miller, will be the first tenant of a new two-story building on the southern end of the property where Merino’s Deli served up Italian-flavored sandwiches and pasta dishes from 2007-2009. 

The second floor of the building will have two rental apartments. And Miller confirmed he has sublet the wine shop to Mikey’s Café and Bakery, which now operates at 6114 N. Central Ave., also in Seminole Heights. The café will do business from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the wine bar opening at 4.
 
Longtime dream comes true

For Greg Barnhill, who owns the property at 6428-30 N. Florida Ave., the project will fulfill his long-term dream to develop a mixed residential-commercial site in Seminole Heights.
 
“I had always wanted to do a mixed-use project, bringing apartments into a commercial component,” Barnhill says. “It took longer than I anticipated. It had been my goal to create a project like this in the neighborhood for 15 years.”

The project suffered a serious setback when a potential tenant backed out, causing the bank to withdraw financing. But Barnhill, who had a lease in hand from the distillery owners, self-funded the project. 

“When our current wine shop customer came into the picture, we were able to obtain funding to bring the apartments back into the equation,” he says.

In a salute to the auto repair shop’s long legacy in the neighborhood, Barnhill plans to use the original auto bays for a breezeway that will serve as an entryway from the parking area in the back. And he’s ordered roll-down steel doors for the bays that are like those used when Larry Jackson owned the business.

Wine bar to serve gourmet dinners once a week

Like Barnhill, Wes Miller and Kevin Casey are also seeing long-time dreams materialize in the new development.
 
Miller, who has a long background in the food business, says he has wanted to open a wine bar for years. He looked at several locations but kept returning to this one. Some of the things he likes about it: The site will have 27 spaces that will be shared with the distillery -- more parking than many of the businesses nearby, he says; and he liked being located next door to the Twisted Sun distillery.

“I think they go hand in hand: They will bring me business and I will bring them business,” he says. “There are a lot of things we can cross-market.”

Miller is quick to point out he’s not a wine “expert,” though he has gone to sommelier school, where he learned how much he didn’t know about wine.
 
“I can hire the expertise I don’t have,” he says.

The wine bar will serve “small plate” foods including some of Miller’s own recipes and flavored by herbs grown by a friend. The food will be paired with wines so customers can get an education about the provenance of the grapes and other wine facts.

On Tuesday nights, the bar will serve a three-course dinner with different wines for each course. The special event will be limited to 30 people who register ahead of time. Miller says he wants to keep the dinner in the $30 range.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of different food items that nobody else has,” he says.

‘Rum guys’ learn craft, change the law

Casey and his friend, Joey Boothby, were looking for a business to get into. Self-described “rum guys,” the friends saw the startling success of craft breweries in Tampa and wondered why there were few craft spirits shops.
 
The partners spent three years learning their craft and acquiring the right equipment. Along the way, Casey worked with the city to change Tampa’s zoning law to allow craft distilleries.

Their journey started with a partnership with Fish Hawk Spirits near Ocala, a licensed distillery that did not produce rum but had the necessary equipment. Casey and Boothby spent many weekends in Ocala learning and refining their product.

“We worked with them; they helped us figure it out,” Casey says. “It was an agreement they hoped would pay off.”

Fish Hawk benefited from the arrangement by marketing two rum products developed by Casey and Boothby: a traditional Jamaica-style gold rum, and a spiced rum, infused with smoked chili peppers. The bottle labels say Twisted Sun on the front and Fish Hawk on the back. The gold rum is featured on Fish Hawk’s website.

The duo searched on-line manufacturers and old distilleries for equipment. When needed, they modified equipment or built their own. 

“We found pieces and parts,” Casey says. “We found good equipment at good prices. … When we hit Tampa, we will be ready to go to work.” 

In 2014, Casey worked with city staff on zoning to allow craft distilleries. In 2015, the law changed with no pushback from the City Council. Fish Hawk Spirits took advantage of the change by opening a distillery, tasting room and retail gift shop at 1600 E. Eighth Ave. in Ybor City.

While the negotiations with the city were ongoing, the Twisted Sun partners opened Still in the Heights, a tasting house where they could build support for their brands and reinforce their belief that Seminole Heights was the right place for their business.

“We were giving away drinks, not selling,” Casey says. “We were bringing in people for small parties. That’s part of our neighborhood support.”

Twisted Sun’s still will run 240 gallons at a time, with three runs per fermentation. Each fermentation will yield 750 gallons or more of finished product in about four days, or up to 11 in cold weather.

Under Florida law, craft distilleries can sell bottles on site, but not cocktails -- at least not yet.

“Right now we’re going to focus on the bottles and spreading the word about local craft spirits,” Casey says.

Read more articles by Mike Salinero.

Mike Salinero is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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