Locally owned, locally made: The growing craft spirits scene in Tampa Bay

Inside a small warehouse just off Air Cargo Road near Tampa International Airport, Matt Allen and his partners at Dark Door Spirits are brewing up unique, artisanal spirits like a whiskey blended with an IPA beer from Safety Harbor’s Crooked Thumb craft brewery. And gin infused with lavender and rose hips.

“We’re focused on small-batch, unique products that are very drinkable,” says Allen.

Around the country, small craft spirit distilleries are springing up, and Tampa Bay is no exception. There’s a demand for artisanal rum, vodka, whiskey, and gin, often mixed with unusual extra ingredients like citrus, herbs and spices, even craft beer and coffee. 

According to the American Craft Spirits Association, there were just 195 small distillers in the U.S. in 2010. Eight years later, there were 1,835. Craft breweries may be more numerous and get more attention, but craft spirit distilleries represent the next wave of opportunity. 

“Both craft breweries and craft distilleries are like the pioneers in experimentation with ingredients and products,” says Matthias Kozuba, VP of Kozuba & Sons in St. Petersburg. “People want something new, fresh, big, and bold that the larger standardized brands aren’t releasing. You go to a liquor store, it’s all the same.” 

Florida has a reported 56 craft distilleries. St. Augustine Distillery is one of the largest and best-known in the state. Located in a restored century-old ice plant, its tasting room accommodates thousands of visitors a month.  

Tampa Bay’s craft distilleries are much smaller in size, but they’re ramping up and gaining momentum. Here’s a look at a few of them:

Dark Door Spirits, Tampa 

“Be careful, don’t touch the stills,” says Matt Allen, steering a visitor away from the 26-gallon copper tanks that Dark Door Spirits uses to brew its unique blends of gin, vodka, and whiskey.  

They’ve been operating out of a warehouse near the Tampa International Airport. But they’re anticipating their next move, which includes acquiring a 1,000-liter still to increase production and scouting locations for a public face where they can open a tasting room, host tours, and offer sales through a retail shop.

Allen says it hasn’t been easy getting to this point.

“Spirits are a highly regulated business,” he says. Allen is a founding member of the Florida Craft Distillery Association, which has been lobbying to change some of the state and federal laws that make it challenging for small craft distillers to thrive.

“Many of the regulations were enacted during Prohibition and are very outdated,” says Allen. “We’re asking to be licensed in the same way as a restaurant, bar, or brewery.”

Kozuba & Sons, St. Petersburg

The Kozuba family launched their craft distillery in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District five years ago. Zbigniew Kozuba and his sons, Matthias and Jacob, had initially opened a distillery in Poland in 2005, but the future didn’t look very promising.

“We were the only privately owned microdistillery and there wasn’t really a market for it at the time,” says Matthias Kozuba. “We had to look for an evacuation route for our business.”

They considered several different European cities, before deciding to relocate to the United States.

“My brother and I spoke English pretty well and we saw the renaissance underway in the American craft distilling industry,” says Kozuba. 

After thinking about California and Texas, they narrowed their search to Florida, and then St. Pete.

“We liked the smaller community and loved the vibe of the city right away,” says Kozuba. “We liked seeing all the people out on the streets. It reminded us of a small European city.”

They purchased and renovated an old seafood storage facility, taking Kozuba & Sons fully operational in 2016 with a combination production facility and tasting room. Now there’s a line of vodkas, rye malt whiskeys, and both cranberry and quince cordials. 

Last year, they completed the final phase of a capital investment project and are moving forward on a major expansion to add more special event space.  

“An area for special events wasn’t part of our initial business plan, but more and more people want to rent the distillery for special events and weddings. It’s a unique venue and they love seeing the barrels,” says Kozuba. “We’ve also annexed a small building next door and hope to create a Tiki bar as a destination for people to come, relax, have a cocktail and enjoy themselves.”

Tampa Bay Rum Company, Ybor City

During the week, Sam Meyers is a chiropractic physician and owner of Bay Injury & Rehab in St. Petersburg. On the weekends, he’s at the Tampa Bay Rum Company, a craft spirit distillery he founded two years ago in Ybor City.

“A good friend from high school had a successful distillery in Seattle and when I went back for my 20th high school reunion, I spent some time there,” says Meyers. “They were producing whiskey but I felt that rum was a better choice for Tampa Bay. Then I discovered no one had ever trademarked the name Gasparilla Rum. I couldn’t believe that the city with the biggest pirate festival in the world didn’t have a rum named after it.”

He and his partners converted an old motorcycle repair shop near the Columbia Restaurant into a production facility and tasting room for Gasparilla rum with flavors ranging from coconut, key lime, and butterscotch to apple spice.

Last year, they released two new products -- Blunderbuss Cane Vodka and a Gasparilla Reserve barrel-aged rum. Sometime in the future, they also hope to add a craft brewery inside the distillery.

“Our head distiller is a brewmaster by trade and we’ll be producing a Gasparilla craft beer,” says Meyers.

In the meantime, Meyers and his distiller, Brad Bunn, are focused on cooking up their craft spirits from scratch, including driving to South Florida’s sugar cane fields to get the supplies they need.

“We drive to a mill and they load me up with about five tons of molasses,” says Meyers. “Then we get back and transfer it into 250-gallon totes with a pump so we can store and use it inside the distillery.” Definitely a home-grown, locally owned operation.

Florida Cane Distillery, Ybor City

In 2002, Lee Nelson and his wife wanted to bring a wedding gift to friends in Denmark -- something that would represent Florida. They couldn’t bring citrus because of customs restrictions, Nelson says. And they didn’t want to bring cigars since not everyone smokes. 

“We just had a really difficult time thinking about what would best capture the spirit of Florida and Hillsborough County,” says Nelson. “That got us thinking about starting our own business.”

For years he’d been brewing craft beer at home and was wondering what he could do to take it to the next level. One of those options was to move into distilling craft spirits.

“I started experimenting and bringing some samples to my hockey buddy Pat O’Brien. It was really just an excuse to schedule some drinking time,’’ Nelson jokes. Eventually, the idea of launching a craft spirit business caught on.  

“We said, yes, let’s do this,” says Nelson. Rather than asking for a traditional bank loan, he went online and pitched the idea in a “peer-to-peer” lending approach. “People were giving us anywhere from $15 to $85. It gave us the capital to start the business,” says Nelson.   

In 2012 Florida Cane Distillery officially launched in what Nelson calls a glorified storage unit in Brandon. The next step was to acquire a more permanent location. Like other Tampa Bay craft distillers, he bumped up against restrictive rules and regulations. He also had to confront Tampa zoning laws, which at the time, prohibited a distillery from opening in a commercially zoned area.

The city was very supportive, says Nelson, and within a short time, Florida Cane opened up shop in Ybor City. Today the microdistillery produces more than 32 spirits with some intriguing flavor profiles, including 11 different vodkas (one with jalapeno). There are also three different types of rum, whiskey, gin, and moonshine.

“I feel unbelievably blessed,” says Nelson. “I still have a day job and my partner and co-founder Pat O’Brien is a sales director for a medical device company. But we’re now at the point where we have three full-time people and seven part-time people. We’re constantly collaborating on new unique taste blends. The fun part is in the creating.”

For more information on these and additional Tampa Bay craft spirit distilleries, follow the links below:

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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