Feel like doing some corn-grinding, mash-making or botanical-tasting? These are just a few of the interactive ways Fish Hawk Spirits will introduce itself to Ybor City next month.
As CL reported June 23, the Ocala craft distiller, founded on a farm in 2012 by two guys in a shed (no, really), is converting a former Pita’s Republic into a tasting room, retail gift shop and distillery at 1600 E. Eighth Ave. While Fish Hawk’s first storefront in Gainesville has a speakeasy style going on, this latest offshoot will focus on bringing what it calls the “farm-to-bottle experience” to Centro Ybor.
“Everything we do is Florida-grown,” said Fish Hawk CEO David Molyneaux, who walked CL through the 1,500-square-foot space last week. “If we can get it in Florida, we buy it in Florida. If we can grow it ourselves, we grow it in Florida. Wherever possible, we get everything from Florida.”
The distillery’s line of premium spirits consists of vodka, absinthe, rum and tangerine brandy, with nine whiskeys and seven more citrus-based vodkas on the way.
South Florida supplies the watermelons. Tangerines are sourced from Orlando and Central Florida. And the oats come from Lake City. The distillery has a co-operative with Island Grove Wine Company for strawberries, plus the blueberries used in its Island Grove Blueberry Vodka. When it comes to corn, Fish Hawk either buys what it needs from Ocala farmers or grows its own. Its Silver Queen corn, for instance, will go into what is essentially a special version of the whiskey that’s set to hit the market (alongside the new vodkas) in three months. For this particular batch, the distillery ferments the whole plant, everything from kernels to cob to stem to leaves.
A year and a half ago, Fish Hawk produced 150 bottles from its Silver Queen crop. Three times as much corn was planted last year for the whiskey that’s aging now, and Molyneaux says he’ll probably get 1,000 bottles this time around. Instead of distribution, limited-edition spirits like these will only be sold at the Tampa and downtown Gainesville tasting rooms, as well as its headquarters.
“There’s no sense in entering distribution with such a low quantity. Also — it’s really damn good,” he said.
Fish Hawk SpiritsThough some ingredients , like the Absinthia Rubra liqueur’s California ginseng, do come from out of state, the distillery’s farm-to-bottle philosophy will also be incorporated into the design of its Ybor location.
Reclaimed and pallet woods are planned to create a rustic-looking space. A big window will give visitors a peek into the back room, where an operating still will eventually be used to create some signature small-batch products on-site. The large bar (Molyneaux’s ripping out the old one and starting from scratch), which will offer complimentary samples to customers, is set to be made from sheet metal and four 55-gallon whiskey barrels. And the bar top could end up being cork, but it’s still up in the air.
“Because we’re a craft distillery and not a craft brewery or a craft winery, we’re not allowed to sell the drinks,” Molyneaux said. “I can give you a sample, you can taste it. I can make you a cocktail for free; hopefully you like it, and you’ll buy the bottles directly from me as the manufacturer.”
Elsewhere, the retail section will sell branded mugs, T-shirts, shot glasses and the like, while a museum area showcases how the distillery fashions its products. Interactive demonstrations aim to give visitors a hands-on look into spirits-making, too.
Expect an exhibit that will educate people about absinthe through “a grow closet,” featuring eight grown-in-house herbs and botanicals found in the spirit — wormwood, fennel and anise seed among them. Here, customers will grind up the ingredients, mix them with water and taste the result sans alcohol. In a similar vein, other demonstration areas will allow folks to crush corn or make the wash that goes into a still.
There will even be opportunities to blend your own whiskey. However, the laws that govern Florida distilleries are a bit “tricky,” as the CEO puts it; in this case, Fish Hawk has to sell the bottle first, then a customer can alter it however they desire. He says a fun alternative, which plays into the “experience” factor further, would be for a group of 10 or so to visit the distillery eight miles from Rainbow Springs, then have their creations shipped to Ybor a few months later for bottling.
Retirement boredom prompted Molyneaux to venture into the world of craft distilling. With a 25-year background in medical imaging rather than spirits-making, he was on the road to opening his own distillery before switching gears to acquire Fish Hawk in November 2015. All this — opening two storefronts, launching 15 new spirits and expanding the distillery’s home base — has been going nonstop for six months, according to Molyneaux. He’s excited about the two businesses joining him at Centro Ybor (The Hyppo and Thai Asiatic) and the synergy the distillery will have with neighboring drinking and dining spots, including Florida Cane Distillery at 15th Street and Eighth Avenue.
Aiming to collaborate on some kind of tasting tour/hop from Florida Cane to microbreweries to additional establishments that fit the bill, Fish Hawk plans to “be part of a kind of craft movement in Ybor.” A partnership with nearby cigar shops to sell rum- or whiskey-infused cigars in the gift shop is in the works. And since places like Bernini and Gaspar’s Grotto already carry the company’s spirits, the distillery will align the cocktails it highlights during sampling with drinks served at other restaurants or bars. If you try a Black Pearl with Twisted Sun Rum at the distillery, for instance, you’ll be able to stop into Gaspar’s for the cocktail; same goes for a margarita made with Fish Hawk vodka at Hamburger Mary's, which is located right upstairs from the distillery.
Tourists who visit the neighborhood via cruise ships, hotels and the Tampa Convention Center — the ones Molyneaux says are willing to splurge on a $50 or $100 bottle of whiskey — are the distillery’s target audience, as are residents.
“I think the tourist part of what we can do here is immense. Then we have the locals,” he said. “When they learn the farm-to-bottle experience, when they go to a bar, hopefully they say, I want Island Grove vodka from Fish Hawk Spirits. I don’t want a Smirnoff flavored vodka.”
Fish Hawk, aiming for an Aug. 1 opening, will mark the second craft distillery for Ybor, bringing the Bay area’s distiller count to seven.
Molyneaux says there’s more legislation coming for Fish Hawk to piggyback onto. He thinks that Florida will eventually ease up on its distillery regulations, which include the law that limits bottle purchases to two per person, per brand, per year.
“One day when we’re just like a craft winery or a craft brewery, where we can actually sell the mixed drink, then we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “They’re popping up all over the place.”