The St. Augustine Distillery is officially the first in Florida to produce barrel-aged bourbon since the Prohibition. Founded in 2016 by Mike Diaz and Philip McDaniel, the distillery now looks to shake up the world of creating bourbon.
Head distiller, Lucas Smith, is being described as an “interesting” character. Born in Gainesville, Florida, Smith loves to go fishing and doesn’t see himself living anywhere other than Florida.
He plays and sings in St. Augustine’s favorite rocking country band, the Rivernecks (all original songs), but he would rather be fishing. “Florida is a greatest state, and I’ll never leave,” Smith laughed. “I love fishing. You can’t do it the way you can here.”
Smith lived in New England at one point and didn’t enjoy the great mounds of snow. He even visited Jamaica a few times and loved it. Now, Key West is on his list of must-see places. If Smith were to leave Florida, the only other place he can see himself going to is the islands.
Smith’s love for Florida has lead him to his current job as head distiller. He directs production and manages the schedule, handles the legal paperwork and monitors where every drop of bourbon goes and comes from. Alongside his manager role, he also joins the team in blending the barrels to enhance the texture and the flavor of the concoction.
Smith experienced what it was like to live paycheck-to-paycheck and thought it was time to find something more stable.
“I’ve been a cook and a commercial fisherman. I’ve had a lot of other jobs since I was 15. Previously, I worked for Southern Horticulture, a local plant nursery and landscape company that specialized in native plants,” Smith added.
When he was presented with the opportunity to work as a distiller, he saw huge potential in making Floridian bourbon. It motivated him to want to be a part of something special — to see Florida, his home state, produce its first bourbon since Prohibition.
Being a distiller isn’t all fun and games. For about eight months out of the year, they are working in 100-plus-degree heat, milling and grinding their grain mixture so the starch from the grain can cook and the developing sugar extracts properly. From there, it is mashed, cooked, fermented and distilled it into two copper stills to make a full-bodied, complex blend of caramel, dark fruit, oak and dark chocolate notes.
They must also manage their time wisely in-between the tours where people come in and watch the bourbon during its processing state. During the downtime between tours, they move barrels and work hard to make sure production stays on track.
“Production is all about efficiency,” Smith said.
The distillery has what they call the “Bourbon Program,” which is when they produce 40 barrels of bourbon a month. They double cask their bourbon, which means the bourbon was aged in one type of barrel for a certain amount of time, then drained from that cask into another type of cask for the remainder of the aging process. From there, they will watch it to see what will happen next, as far as flavor goes. They pull samples throughout the year to taste and check the progress.
Their overall goal is to create the greatest bourbon in the country.
“I love that my job is making something with my hands and senses. It’s tangible. It is also enjoyed by tons of people. If I work hard enough, there will be bourbon I made enjoyed by people long after I’m dead,” Smith said.
The distillery ferments their own bourbon instead of just buying it from places like Indiana. According to Smith, the bourbon being produced in Florida gets a lot of movement — it doesn’t rest. Smith mentions that their two-year-old barrels get a lot of flavor, but the oldest barrel they have being processed is from December 2013.
Despite that, something Smith loves is working with his best friend Daniel Joslin, assistant distiller, and working with his other co-workers sweating, laughing and feeling good after a long day’s worth of work.
“We crack each other up. I drink coffee in the morning with the crew, sharing fish tales with Danny and Daniel and stories of all stupid things we did as kids,” Smith said.
Coming up in 2017, they just want to see how much they can produce in the year.
“We will be bottling our Spring 2017 Florida Double Cask Bourbon. It has some of our oldest spirit in it. While there are still a couple barrels 16 months of age, there are more two to three-year-old barrels in the batch,” Smith said. “It’s about quality over quantity.”
They aren’t trying to be greedy about their production levels. They aim to carefully craft each barrel to ensure their bourbon gets all the flavor and is properly crafted.
“We expect to continue to learn how our heat, humidity and high and low pressure shifts affect the aging of our bourbon. How many bourbon barrels experience the extreme low pressures of a category 4 hurricane,” Smith said. But only time will tell …