Information is everywhere, and for business owners, this means a customer can be reading about your company from down the road or across the globe.
Younger generations are immersed in this knowledge and demand a high-level of transparency, not just from politicians or leaders, but also from the products they consume. This presents a problem for legacy brands, according to David Cohen.
Cohen is the founder and co-owner of Manifest Distilling, Jacksonville’s only organic distillery, nestled in the downtown area near the baseball grounds and the Veterans Memorial Arena. Older companies, not only in the alcohol industry, had a habit of creating elaborate tales that provided a fantastic, yet often fabricated, background for their brand.
“People don’t want that anymore,” Cohen said. “At Manifest, we have a hyper-focus on transparency because [consumers] want real stories.”
The story for Manifest begins in part with Cohen’s father and grandfather who worked in the hospitality business, providing the younger Cohen with a background for the industry. After spending years in film and publishing, Cohen knew he wanted to build something that was sustainable and could grow.
While living in Chicago, he attended the acclaimed brewing school “The Siebel Institute” and interned, for lack of a better word, at distilleries around the Windy City and in Kentucky.
“I’d go to distilleries and just work for a couple weeks at a time,” Cohen said. “I’d get there and say, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I’ll shovel grains all day, I don’t care.’”
Through this work and his training, he learned the art of distilling — a craft he brought back with him to his hometown of Jacksonville. With Manifest, he wanted to do something that wasn’t being done and play a role in the revitalization of the downtown area.
Craft is more than just a word to Cohen, it’s a passionate calling.
“We’re experiencing this resurgence of American craftsmanship,” Cohen said. “A resurgence in that these older skills that were once commonplace here have now risen from the ashes. We’re making, creating, doing things with our hands.”
And with Manifest, it’s more than just making a product to be consumed.
“We’re producing an experience,” he said. “When we take people on [distillery] tours or converse with them, it’s part of our responsibility to educate consumers.”
That’s how Cohen said he can convince people why they should opt for a craft product rather than a mass-produced item that lacks quality. But, just because something is mass-produced doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks craft, Cohen stressed.
“Craft isn’t a matter of gallonage,” Cohen said. “It’s not like, ‘If you make more than 75,000 gallons per year, you’re not craft anymore.’ You can still produce large quantities and have a really good product. The issue becomes when you sacrifice your quality for the quantity.”
And going big is something Cohen said he wants Manifest to do in the long-term, but without sacrificing the craft he’s worked to establish. For now, the distillery continues to be an extremely hands-on operation, right down to the capping and packaging of bottles.
Once a product moves through the 7,000-square-foot distilling area, it goes to an air-conditioned station the size of an apartment hallway. Two crew members will then spend between eight and 10 hours corking, labeling and packaging about 800 bottles of the gin or vodka.
Cohen focuses on sourcing the best ingredients possible for Manifest’s products, which he says contributes heavily to the creation of a craft product. While he believes local is best for sustainability, he admits that sometimes the best ingredient might not be readily available in the immediate area. Still, he focuses on high-quality and only uses equipment made in the U.S.
Having the ability to source superior ingredients across the country Cohen attributes to the openness of the distilling community. Much like when he was volunteering his time to help in Kentucky distilleries, owners and those in the industry are willing to give recommendations and advice.
“They can be open because all it does is help the industry,” Cohen said. “I could give you my exact recipe right now and if you followed it, your spirit would taste completely different because there’s so many variables that go into it.”
But where the industry does fall short is knowledge of properly aging whiskey in the hot, humid conditions of Florida. This is a challenge Cohen has gladly accepted.
“So, if you notice we have a bunch of different size and style barrels over there,” Cohen said as he pointed out an array of whiskey-filled barrels in the distilling area. “There’s not really any historical data on proper aging here in Florida so, we’re working with people like St. Augustine Distillery to figure out the best method for the best product.”
Manifest has plenty of time to find the best method for aging, with a long future planned for their brick-walled location at 960 E. Forsyth St.
Beyond those walls, Manifest can be found throughout Jacksonville and there are plans to distribute to areas throughout the state in the near future. Customers can also purchase boxed kits that include all the ingredients and tools necessary to craft select cocktails. Since the distillery is located in one of Jacksonville’s many wet zones, patrons can mix their drinks and wander to the neighboring event venues or tailgate lots.
Jacksonville, much like the concept of craftsmanship that Cohen described, is experiencing resurgence. Bold City residences are no longer satisfied with mass-produced products from distilleries that are too afraid to push boundaries or innovate. Manifest stands out as one of the emerging businesses that is willing to change this mindset and the way people think about, and drink, their favorite spirits.