WINTER PARK, Fla. — An unprecedented meeting brought distillers from all over the state — from Jacksonville down to the Keys — to Winter Park on Wednesday, hoping to craft a unified message to bring to Tallahassee.

  • Orlando-area businessmen say distilled spirits too tightly regulated
  • Distillers across state came together to create Florida Craft Spirits Guild
  • This is in response to state's restrictions on spirts, beer, the group says

"This is the biggest meeting of craft distillers in the history of Florida," said Paul Twyford, Winter Park Distilling Company's co-founder. "We want to have an environment where we have the ability to grow our businesses, to hire more people and create more consumer choice."

In 2010, Twyford and Andrew Asher began making distilled spirits, vodka, and whiskey. A year later, the pair got into the distilled spirits market. 

It was the first "legitimate" whiskey distillery in Orange County, Twyford said with a chuckle. "This is a labor of love."

Asher recalled how it all came about.

"We were sitting around over lunch thinking about how much we like to drink distilled spirits. 'Wouldn't it be cool to make them as well?'" remembered Asher. "It's something we could put our hands on. It's tangible and (we could) say, 'We made this.'"

Asher, an attorney by trade, said that his background has come in handy in navigating the "maze of regulations" when it comes to the industry.

Liquor in Florida is tightly regulated. You have to have a license to make it and a license to sell it. If you own a bar, restaurant, or liquor store, you have to have a vendor's license.

And in between the manufacturing and selling — to those licensed to sell to the general public — is a layer called "distribution," which is also licensed, Asher said.

He said that although businesses can procure a full liquor license, which in Orange County can run upwards of $250,000 to $300,000, those are not available to those who manufacture spirits at the same time. 

In 2016, the pair branched out and founded their Bear and Peacock brewery, making and serving craft beer alongside the distilling company, where they created whiskey, bourbon whiskey, vodka, and rum.

Their two businesses were brought under one roof and one name: the Brewstillery.

But the rules that govern the brewery and distillery are very different. While customers can saddle up to the long, wooden bar and order a pint, they cannot order a cocktail made with their house rum or vodka. Instead, they can only ask for free samples of the spirits at a small gift shop window; a glass wall and doors separate the transactions. 

"We have the ability to sell six bottles per person, per label, per year, in a direct, face-to-face transaction," Asher said. "You can't open that bottle and start pouring yourself a cocktail. You go 10 feet over past the glass wall into the brewery area, (and) you've got another set of licenses."

There are other regulations that prohibit shipping throughout the state of Florida. 

These have led to frustrations for distillers, who said they are missing the creative freedom of experimenting and expanding their businesses and hiring workers as the state loses out on a potentially fruitful industry.

"The state of Florida's rules are in need of (an) update. There are other states who are more innovative and have already changed some rules," Twyford said. "Florida can certainly become a leader in this industry. We need to change some of these rules." 

Speaking With a Single Voice

A few years ago, Florida relaxed some rules, allowing Twyford, Asher, and other distillers to open a gift shop window in their shops. It had to be contiguous and adjacent, and they could sell two bottles, per label, per year in a face-to-face transaction.

Since then, the legislature gradually expanded the exemption.

"That was a very, very small victory, but a very important victory in that it opened the door to changing some of the Prohibition-era rules," Twyford said.

And last legislative session, there was momentum in Tallahassee. 

HB 1219, introduced by Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini, would have allowed selling spirits by the glass, among other things. The bill passed last spring in the House but was never taken up in the Senate.

So, following their disappointment, Twyford and Asher rallied the troops, opening up their Winter Park spot to more than 30 distillers, attorneys, and lobbyists this week to talk shop. Their goal was not just share secrets and swap stories, but to ensure this coming legislative session, they would approach the fight with a united front.

One message, one voice.

A "positive message into Tallahassee," Twyford said.

"It's a real reflection that Florida is embracing craft distilling like the rest of the country has," Asher added.​

"We're hopeful that by organizing this group, we can appeal to our legislators and ask for their support," said Philip McDaniel, who runs St. Augustine Distillery and has been instrumental in organizing the group of distillers. "Think about Florida in 20 years being known for rum what Kentucky today is for bourbon. It's a pretty powerful thing."​

In an hours-long closed-door meeting, the group made headway, voting to officially form the Florida Craft Spirits Guild.

"We want to have an environment where we have the ability to grow our businesses to hire more people and create more consumer choice," Twyford said. "We would like the ability for you, the consumer, to come to us and buy as many bottles as you'd like. We would also like the ability to sell cocktails across our bar."

According to Twyford, the guild will elect a board of directors and vote on a legislative platform in coming meetings.