UMATILLA, FLA -- Dick Waters takes tiny sips from a small cup of the pure whiskey dripping out of his still -- an 8-foot-high copper contraption with a long tube jutting off the side and dipping into a large measuring container. "It has to have a particular taste," Waters said in his barn just outside of Umatilla. "And you have to be patient when you do this; there's no two ways around it."
He will later pour the strong, clear liquid into white-oak barrels to age for several months and smooth the taste, a process of distilling and bottling spirits that is usually associated with the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Waters and his wife, Marti, are the only legal micro-distillers of whiskey in Central Florida and one of only a handful in the state.
Since producing their first case of their Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey in January, they have sold more than 35 cases and hope to up that number to 500 by the end of the year. Each bottle of their "handcrafted whiskey" retails for about $50 and can be found at more than two dozen liquor stores around the state, including 11 in Central Florida. The 90-proof spirit also is poured at about a dozen bars and restaurants in the area.
"It's exploding," said Andrew Faulkner, a vice president of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Calif., about the number of new micro-distilleries creating high-end spirits, including whiskey, vodka, rum and specialty liqueurs. He compares it to the micro-brewing trend of a few decades ago, when gourmet foodies started cooking up their own concoctions of beer and wine at home.
"People are finding out that it's legal -- with the right permits -- and it's something that can be done," Faulkner said about micro-distilling spirits.
'Fun thing to do'
Today, there are about 186 private micro-distilleries across the country, opening at a rate of about a dozen a year. Most are located on farms and distill spirits using locally grown grains, fruits and vegetables. Waters, for example, uses Florida-grown corn, along with barley malt, toasted flaked rye and rye malt to produce the mash for his whiskey.
Some micro-distillers have even started experimenting with their products, including creating gins and vodkas infused with pumpkin, wild berries and oranges.
"It goes hand in hand with the current locally grown food movement," Faulkner said. "People are becoming more aware of what they are putting in their mouths, and that includes spirits."
In Florida, there are about half a dozen licensed micro-distillers. Among them, Empire Winery and Distillery in New Port Richey produces vodka and liqueurs; Fat Dog Spirits in Tampa distills vodka using Florida honey and gin with juniper berries; and Drum Circle Distilling in Tampa manufactures Siesta Key Rum.
In Palm Coast, James Day distills rum, vodka and whiskey at his Flagler Spirits distillery. The 47-year-old former funeral director is "a fourth-generation distiller" who learned how to make whiskey when he was 9 years old.
"It's a fun thing to do. And it's amazing how people get excited about their product once they start," Day said.
"But a lot of people get into it as a hobby, looking it at from the romantic aspect: 'Hey, I'm a whiskey-maker,' " he said. "But it's a hot, dirty job. You don't want to see whiskey one-third of the way into the process."
For the Umatilla-area couple, it has become a full-time job, and they have yet to turn a profit.
"At our scale, we're probably not going to get rich," Marti Waters said. "But we're just trying to produce a good whiskey and hopefully make some money at it."
About two years ago, the Waterses were struggling cattle ranchers when they decided to get permits to distill their own brand of whiskey on their 80 acres. They spent close to $100,000 modifying their old barn and horse stalls, dropping in a custom-made copper still, obtaining the proper licenses and purchasing dozens of small white-oak barrels with charred insides.
'It's worth it'
A retired plumber and construction worker, Dick Waters said he had to obtain federal and state licenses before he could distill his first drop of whiskey. There is no charge for the federal license, but his Florida license costs $4,000 annually.
Waters also has to keep meticulous records, including accounting "for every single drop" of whiskey he distills, for state and federal inspectors. He also is required to pay federal and state taxes for each gallon of whiskey he produces.
Waters also cannot sell or distribute bottles of his own whiskey himself. For example, if he opens a bottle of his whiskey in his house to relax, he has to account for it.
"It's a labor of love, but it's worth it," he said. "I work on it every day. ... We want a smooth whiskey with taste."
After Waters' still pours out the last of the pure clear whiskey -- nearly 60 gallons -- he pours it into 5-gallon charred barrels made of white oak and then plugs the bungholes. He will let the whiskey age for up to eight months.
He then bottles the whiskey and ships it to a local distributor who sells it to stores, restaurants and bars across Florida. On weekends, the couple travel around the state marketing their whiskey at wine and liquor stores. Today, they plan to do a tasting from noon to 4 p.m. at Total Wine & More, 2712 E. Colonial Drive, in Orlando.
John Prudhomme, a Leesburg, Fla., resident who recently purchased a case and a half of the whiskey, said he enjoys it.
"One reason I like it is that it doesn't have that harsh taste of the more popular bourbons," Prudhomme said. "It's got the taste of a real whiskey, and because it's a Florida whiskey, it's a great item. ... To me, it's something special."
Orlando Sentinel Food Editor and restaurant critic
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