KEY WEST -- For good karma, what better place for a kiteboarding chef to launch the Keys’ first legal rum distillery than one of Coca-Cola’s earliest bottling plants?
Inside the 2,500-square-foot warehouse on Simonton Street, the island chain’s soon-to-be first federally licensed distiller, Paul Menta, discovered decades-old Coke bottles and bottle caps under the cement floor as it was being dug up for plumbing.
With all the rum running and bootlegging in its colorful past, it’s surprising that this island city is just now getting its first legitimate spirits manufacturer: Chef Distilled.
During Prohibition, “Spanish Marie” Waite, Willie “Twisteye” Demeritt and others made boatloads of money smuggling rum the 105 miles from Havana to Key West and on to South Florida. Other entrepreneurs made their own contraband rum, trying to stay a step ahead of federal raids and local busts.
Prohibition “was not too strictly enforced here,” says Key West historian Tom Hambright. “Most of the arrests that showed up in the papers were done at sea by the Coast Guard.”
Menta wants his product to capture the spirit of the island.
“Some of my rum is going to be raw and unfiltered like the people of Key West,” he says. “We’re not concerned about age. Down here, it’s kind of a timeless place.”
Menta, 47, may seem an unlikely CEO. His usual attire is board shorts and a T-shirt, his curly, shoulder-length hair tucked under a red Key West High baseball cap. On windy days, he’s at Smathers Beach, performing trick jumps high above the waves. He has been a professional kiteboarder for 14 years, and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest kiteboard crossing from Havana to Key West.
By night, he’s a chef who has cooked at swanky places such as Grand Café on Duval Street and now is turning out Mexican favorites as chef-partner at Amigos Tortilla Bar on Greene Street.
Menta learned how to make beer and liquor in 10th-grade science class at a tiny Quaker school, Media-Providence Friends, near Philadelphia. The chemistry of it fascinated him. Though not much of a drinker, he says his interest grew as he encountered brewing and winemaking in Europe and homemade hootch production in South America during his travels as a chef.
Three years ago, he began kicking around the idea of starting a distillery in Key West, where he has lived since 1984. He got serious when he found the perfect location to lease: The warehouse where Coca-Cola was bottled from 1903 to 1984.
The labels on his main product, Legal Rum, will bear mug shots of people arrested in Key West for bootlegging during Prohibition. “We want to use everything local, so why not local criminals?” Menta says.
His signature drink will be a Legal Rum & Coke. His twist on the classic: The white rum will be poured over cubes of frozen Coke.
“The rum slowly mixes with the soda as it melts,” he says. “It’s a cool way to drink it.”
If the federal permit arrives in time, Menta will make the first batch on Oct. 4.
The fermenting process takes three to four days, turning sugar, yeast and water into a “wash” that’s ready to be distilled.
“It’s alive,” Menta says. “When the C02 blows off, it’s bubbling and makes its sounds.”
Two shiny, 200-gallon copper stills are ready to go. One is for stripping out impurities; the other is to smooth the rum to bring out body and flavor. Troughs are in place to soak five-gallon American oak barrels in seawater.
Just getting to the starting line has been arduous. Menta had to navigate the permitting process at the local, state and federal levels, assemble all the distilling equipment and get it installed according to strict codes.
“I now know why there are not a ton of craft distilleries out there,” he says. “It’s the most nerve-wracking, ridiculous-in-the-beginning investment you’ll ever make in your life. You’ve got to get a place, put together your equipment, get bonded — and then you are allowed to apply for your license.”
Menta and his partners have spent about $300,000 so far. “To me, it is like a million dollars,” he says.
There are now 21 licensed craft distilleries in Florida, including two in Miami and one in Hialeah, according to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That’s fewer than half the number of microbreweries (55) and wholesale wine manufacturers (58) in the state.
“We’re about 20 years behind where microbreweries are,” says Mitch Abate, a Colorado master distiller who is mentoring Menta. “Nationally there were like 250 when we started [in 2008], and now there are close to 600.”
The growing craft industry got a boost this year when the state legislature passed a law that allows small distilleries to sell directly to the public.
“We’re going to call them rations,” Menta says of the two-bottle-per-customer annual limit the law imposes.
Menta plans to use local ingredients including demerara sugar grown in South Florida and Spanish limes picked in friends’ backyards.
He traveled to Abate’s Downslope Distillery in Centennial, Colo., to learn to make rum from sugar rather than the more typical molasses and to fine-tune his recipes. Abate is coming to Key West to help with the first few batches, each of which makes enough rum to fill 110 (750-milliliter) bottles.
Legal Rum will be distributed throughout the Keys at first, and eventually in South Florida, with a bottle costing about $21 retail. In Key West, Menta plans to sell five-gallon barrels to restaurants and mini-barrels to tourists.
He also hopes to turn the distillery into an attraction where visitors can take a tour, taste samples and learn about Key West’s rum-soaked history.
Once the distillery is operational, Menta looks forward to focusing on the creative side of the business. He’s come up with a “cherry bomb” (cherries soaked in chocolate rum) and is experimenting with Spanish lime and crème brûlée rums. He’d like to use mango and Brazilian pepper honeys from a local beekeeper for infusions.
Menta is certain he’ll try something with Key limes, too. And, of course, he says he will be making a Fantasy Fest rum and a hurricane rum.
“When the barometric pressure drops is when you want to be making rum,” he says. “You get a much richer, fuller-body taste out of rum. So when it’s storming and a hurricane is coming and everyone is boarding up, we’re going to be in here cranking out batches.”