Craft Alcohol in St. Augustine
Monday, November 2, 2015 by Benjamin Tier
It's no secret – St. Augustine loves to drink, and probably so do you. More recently, however, the town has been captivated by the fanciful desire to drink fancier beverages. It's called craft alcohol, and it's trending in St. Augustine just as much as everywhere else. In fact, St. Augustine may be able to claim pride of place when it comes to expertise with alcoholic concoctions. It's in our history – Pedro Menéndez brought a brewmaster with him when he arrived here back in 1565 from Spain, and the town's namesake, St. Augustine of Hippo, is the patron saint of brewers.
Be it beer, wine, or spirits, locals and tourists alike are increasingly seeking handcrafted iterations of their preferred libations. Whether you want to see how local alcohols are made, explore the more artistic side of artisanal inebriation, or enjoy the best possible version of a cocktail classic, St. Augustine is the finest city for fine drinking endeavors.
What is craft alcohol?
“Craft” is short for “handcrafted,” which itself implies that something is made with love and care. Not only is craft alcohol made with love and care, it is typically produced in small batches, thus allowing for a higher degree of quality control, and a greater emphasis on flavor. Human intuition and artistic expression play just as much, if not more of a role than the scientific processes that explain how alcohol is actually made. Large corporations typically employ tried and true methods in the manufacturing of their wines, beers, and spirits, and more power to them. They make a lot of money and make us customers happy by producing affordable, recognizable products (that get us intoxicated). This leaves an awful lot of room for experimentation, which is where craft brewers, distillers, and vintners find the space to create. That creative space in the marketplace is growing, and St. Augustine is leading the charge in Florida.
The creative output of craft distillers is in step with the resurgence of the craft cocktail. While anyone can pour cheap rum into a cup of cola, a mixologist will blend alcohol with a variety of sours, sweets, bitters, shrubs (vinegar-based fruit juice mixers), and garnishes to precise measurements. The resulting concoction intoxicates not only because of the alcohol, but for sheer flavorful joy. St. Augustine has its own distillery, winery, and brewery, but is also home to a variety of bars and restaurants willing to take their time and mix things up (to the proper, precise measurements, of course).
St. Augustine Distillery
The St. Augustine Distillery offers free tours daily. Access to the museum is open to tour-goers and passers-by alike. The tour details the history of the building itself (a former ice plant), prohibition laws and how they affected Florida, and the basics of distillation and barrel aging. Beginning with a six-and-a-half-minute intro video outlining the history of the distillery's inception, the tour also introduces guests to the local farming and business communities that the distillery works with. From there, guests are taken onto the production floor, where they are given a brief description of how spirits are made, and have an opportunity to witness the very process itself, including copper pot stills and white oak barrels. The tour concludes with a tasting of the spirits in cocktails (the most popular method of consumption of alcoholic spirits), as well as neat samples (without mixers or ice), and, in true Florida fashion, an exit through the gift shop.
In addition to its distinctive vodka, gin, and rum, the St. Augustine Distillery is producing the first ever (legal) bourbon in the state of Florida since prohibition. The production floor doubles as a warehouse, and as the distillery strives to imbue their spirits with a “terroir” (sense of place), there are no climate control mechanisms. What this means for the average guest is that it can get very hot in the summer, or on any hot day, as we tend to have a lot of them. Dress accordingly, and as with any alcohol outing, STAY HYDRATED.
Ancient City Brewing
Ancient City Brewing picks up where Mile Marker, St. Augustine's now defunct craft brewery, left off. Located off of County Road 16 in Mile Marker's old digs, Ancient City not only brews delicious local beer, but hosts a variety of fun events, including poker, corn hole tournaments, and standup comedy. The brew lineup so far includes Ponce's Pale Ale, Galleons Golden Ale, Castillo Coconut Porter, and Matanzas River Red Ale. An Anastasia Island IPA is forthcoming. My personal favorite is their coconut porter, but I don't believe my research has been as thorough as I would like it to have been. Then again, I guess it never really is. What I'm saying is I want more Ancient City beer. If you can't make it out to the brewery, their beers are popping up at craft beer bars all around town.
San Sebastian Winery
The San Sebastian Winery offers free tours and tastings, and educates guests by not only demonstrating to them the process of winemaking, but introducing them to the unique history of wine in Florida. The tour begins with a ten-minute video that summarizes the winery's history. European settlers planted vineyards and fermented muscadine wine in Florida long before the advent of vineyards in California, or anywhere else in the United States. The tour shows guests where San Sebastian's unique ports and sherries are aged and bottled, and concludes with a tasting of a variety of whites and reds. San Sebastian specializes in ports and sherries, whereas their other wines are fermented and aged at their sister winery, Lakeridge, in Clermont, Florida. In addition to the tours and wine shop, San Sebastian also features a rooftop bar, with (obviously) wine, twenty different beers, appetizers, and live music on weekend evenings.
Ice Plant Bar & Restaurant
Above St. Augustine Distillery is an aptly named and gorgeously decorated bar and restaurant that takes both its food and its cocktails to the next level. Everything in this farm-to-table establishment is as fresh and as carefully prepared as it could possibly be. Both the food and drink menus are seasonal, keeping things fresh, and keeping you (and me) coming back over and over again for the sake of trying new things.
The Ice Plant's mixologists are experts at crafting classic cocktails. For example, they make the best Old Fashioned to ever grace my lips. It's so good, it has effectively ruined the Old Fashioned for me everywhere else I go (and yes, let that serve as a challenge to every other bar on this list).
All of that being said, however, the real fun begins when you delve into their signature cocktails. That's where the expert balance of flavors demonstrated through their approach to the classics is perfectly matched by sheer creativity.
From the moment you enter Cellar 6, the atmosphere makes you want to party, but in a tasteful manner. Even more specifically, when it's day time, it feels like night time, but a young night at that. You get anything other than an “Oh my god, I'm trapped in a cellar” vibe. I was worried the lighting would be too dim for the pictures of my utterly perfect cocktails, but I was pleasantly surprised.
I was also pleasantly surprised not to spill my Manhattan, considering it was served quite elegantly in a martini glass, and I am the opposite of elegant (especially when I've had a few) and can be quite twitchy. The Manhattan (another classic) gave me the courage to order a signature cocktail called “The Conquistador,” which managed to conquer both my taste buds and my eternal affection. Featuring St. Augustine New World Gin, The Conquistador was mixed with agave and basil. The agave provided just the right amount of sweetness, while the basil complemented the floral botanicals of the gin.
Disappointingly, there were no felines present when I entered Dos Gatos. There was, however, a giant drink menu, and an abundance of necessary cocktail crafting peripherals in full view on the other side of the bar. I forgot about my disappointment at the lack of cats, and ordered a Gin Basil Smash (because, as I realized, gin and basil are pretty awesome together). My bartender thought I was ordering something incorrectly, or just altogether making stuff up. I distinctly recall the Gin Basil Smash being an actual cocktail, but if I fell out of an alternate universe and landed in this one, a universe where this cocktail is not yet a thing, SURPRISE!, it's now a thing. Because, despite his apparent lack of familiarity with whatever the heck I was talking about, he still managed to make exactly what I wanted:
Dos Gatos is also where the party is at, especially at night, when if there isn't a live band playing, there is a DJ spinning. They keep things fresh by offering a seasonal drink menu, thus making Dos Gatos another joint to keep returning to.
Odd Birds is a relatively new establishment, owned and operated by some local folks who are not at all new or unfamiliar with the craft cocktail scene. Located behind Frida on Charlotte Street, Odd Birds has a rotating drink menu, and bills itself as a gastropub. A “gastropub” is any bar that serves high end drinks and food. While I can only attest to the quality of their drinks (high end doesn't seem fitting enough, “highest possible end, if there is an end at all” perhaps?), their Venezuelan arepas look incredible. As Odd Bird's changes things frequently, they're worth following on social media. They frequently feature guest bartenders, or “gypsies,” from other high end establishments around the state on select nights who bring their own personal style and artistry to the bar for the evening.
Brewz n' Dawgz
On the beer and food side of things, we have another relatively new establishment, Brewz 'N' Dawgz. The name is very much on the nose, as the focus is on craft beer and gourmet hot dogs. Every beer on their rotating tap is from Florida, including several from St. Augustine's very own Ancient City Brewing. Their bottle list is also huge, and vast enough to compel my mother (who only drinks Stella Artois and Corona) to try something new and obscure. If you've ever wondered if it were possible to eat completely organic loaded fries and chili cheese dogs, you now have your answer, and it's a resounding “YES!” In addition to the organic-everything food menu, Brewz n' Dawgz has gluten-free options.
PLOT TWIST! The Floridian now has a full bar in their new location on Spanish Street. I tried the Radical Root, because I had “Roots Radical” by Rancid stuck in my head for two days prior, and because I like the sound of an “earthy” cocktail.
You can see here that it is made with beet shrub, and is appropriately beet red. I'd never had a cocktail made with beet anything up until this point, but The Floridian has proven to me that it is not only possible, but optimal. My eyes and my mouth have been opened, and yours will be too, if you could just find a good excuse to break from your shell and try something different.
The Wine Bar and Social Lounge
Located on Cuna Street, I never knew this place actually had a bar, as I thought it just served as a hub for tasting tours. Not only does it have a bar, it has a bar loaded with Florida craft beer. My bartender was equally knowledgeable with wine as he was with beer, as he and I chatted about beer for a good long while, before a huge group of people came in wanting to know more about wine. Don't pass this place up. Just because they advertise their tours extensively doesn't mean it's not a quaint and relaxing place to down a pint or a glass and chat with friendly, intelligent people.
This is just a sampling of the many fine cocktail lounges and pubs in St. Augustine. For a complete listing, visit here.