A 305-er by birth, Fernando Plata served in the 82nd Airborne Division and learned engineering before moving on to work for multiple Fortune 500 companies as a software developer. (He actually still works at one.)
The thing is, he has a short attention span. And he enjoys gin.
Which is why he and cousin Mark Graham got together and started experimenting with botanicals to create what he swears is the perfect blend of flavors for a hand-crafted spirit.
Five years later, the experiment has blossomed into Big Cypress Distillery, one of a tiny but growing number of local startup distilleries capitalizing on Miami’s resurging interest in craft cocktails.
“We thought Miami was ready again,” Plata said.
Miami has gone decades without a local distillery, pinning its drinking reputation instead on Cuban-born distributor Bacardi, which still calls the Magic City home (though it is domiciled in Bermuda), and the power of mixology temples like The Broken Shaker.
The current craze has its base in 2011, when Wynwood was a gritty frontier. A marketing maven named Matt Malone began churning out rum at a North Miami Avenue facility just north of Northwest 23rd Street. Miami Club Rum, as Malone called it, would go on to earn multiple plaudits, including Best White Rum at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Today, it is still going strong, churning out everything from rum to vodka to liquors from its current location in Doral. Malone famously plays Latin-flavored music during the distilling process to make the products truly Miami.
Plata says Malone’s legacy is critical to the story of spirits in Miami.
But he says there is also plenty of room to expand — and to take a more scientific approach to the blend.
“We wanted to understand the distilling process from a scientific point of view,” he said. “I read every single book on the topic, as well as a bit of chemistry and biology, to understand what was taking place on an atomic level.”
For years, Plata and Graham, a tax attorney by trade, ran test after test. Eventually they came up with a gin that satisfied them. They source their ingredients from around the world: juniper from Bulgaria and Italy, vanilla from Mexico, coriander seeds from Canada.
The spirit of the city is infused in the name and the brand. Plata says he and his family grew up hunting and fishing in the Everglades, and that Big Cypress National Preserve in the heart of I-75/Alligator Alley remains a favored haunt. They’ve expanded their repertoire to include three rums — Magic City, Lemon City and Hell’s Bay — and, when it’s released, Miami Rye whiskey. (It also produces Wynwood Whiskey, created by Miami Herald Startup Competition finalist Tevin Smikle.)
Success has been swift: Last year, the company sold 600 cases, with 12 bottles in each. Big Cypress remains self-funded. Within the next 12 months, it plans to move into a new facility near Miami International Airport from its current facility near Tamiami Airport in southwest Miami-Dade.
Meanwhile in Fort Lauderdale, the guys behind South Florida Distillers, Joe Durkin and Avi Aisenberg, are taking the hand-crafted spirit movement into Broward with their award-winning white rum, FWAYGO. Founded in 2014, the business is boosting revenues by producing brands for ambitious local flavor-meisters. Durkin said the company produces 600 cases per month thanks to area residents interested in experimenting with their own products.
Durkin’s dream: opening his own in-house bar.
Unfortunately, Florida law does not permit him to do so. State statutes prohibit distilleries from on-site servings other than tastings. Nor can distilleries sell large volumes of spirits; those must go through a distributor. That’s why, unlike breweries and wineries, distilleries can’t serve house cocktails outside of free samples.
To distiller Victor Olshansky, a West Point graduate, combat veteran, and former federal bank examiner, it’s just not fair.
“Right now, when you buy a bottle at a large retailer, or cocktail at a bar, most of that margin is going to the retail and distribution side, and very little is going back to us,” he said. “We’re hoping to change that.”
Olshansky founded Florida Rum Company in 2017, as he felt the local tide turning against beer. Florida Rum sold 600 cases of its signature Ziami Rum last year, Olshansky said. Olshansky and partner are now in the process of building their own distillery.
“I felt like Miami and South Florida would be a great place to do a rum featuring Florida-grown sugar cane,” he said. “I always felt craft spirits would be the next big wave in the drinker’s evolution.”
A bill to allow on-site sales was up for a vote in Tallahassee but failed to move forward. Olshansky remains optimistic. He says a state-wide guild of distilleries is in the process of being formed to beef up lobbying efforts.
“It’s a movement right now,” he said.