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.”