Couple make whiskey in home still
UMATILLA - It seems out of place. A lonesome palm tree shooting up in the forefront of a southeast Marion County farm with its pasture dotted live oaks. But up the dirt driveway, in a converted horse barn nestled among a clump of those oaks, that singular palm takes on a new significance. It serves to distinguish the name and logo of Palm Ridge Reserve, a handmade, homemade whiskey that Dick and Marti Waters distill in their barn.The Waterses are part of a burgeoning trend in the alcohol-producing industry. They are micro-distillers — or craft distillers — a gradually swelling cousin to the small, niche beer and wine producers withdeep regional roots. Making headway, not to mention profits, depends on deflating a stereotype. In the Waterses' case, that means convincing liquor drinkers that smooth, flavorful whiskeys can be made in Marion County not just Kentucky, Tennessee, Canada or Ireland. It all begins with a sip. On a recent morning, Dick Waters siphons into a small cup a couple ounces of the clear liquid, which bears a resemblance to moonshine but is known to distillers as "white dog." He sips the brew, waits a moment, sips again, waits and then finishes it. Close, but not quite, he surmises. In addition to being co-founder, president and co-marketing director of his Florida Farm Distillers, he is most responsible for engineering Palm Ridge Reserve's "flavor profile." Before making whiskey, he was a longtime whiskey drinker. He preferred Canadian Crown Royal. He is a former plumber and construction worker. Marti mostly worked for him during that career. The Waterses kept horses and cattle on their 80-acre farm near Umatilla, which they bought in the 1980s. They moved there from Casselberry. Their entry into the spirits industry came as the construction industry was headed south. Marti Waters said she read a newspaper article in 2007 about how Midwest farmers had turned to distilling to supplement their falling incomes. "I called him and said, 'Honey, you like to drink whiskey. Have I got a job for you.'" Dick Waters embraced the idea, but admits he wasn't prepared for the regulatory obstacles and the fickle ways of Florida's alcohol industry. The couple spent two years, and upward of $100,000, securing the necessary federal, state and local permits and obtaining the equipment for their operation. Palm Ridge Reserve finally hit the market in 2010. And the ongoing costs can be considerable. They pay $4,000 a year for a state license. And the specially charred, 5-gallon white oak barrels, imported from Arkansas, that add so much of the whiskey's flavor run about $130 apiece. And each gallon of Palm Ridge Reserve is slapped with a total of $20 in taxes from the federal and state governments. That's about triple the combined levy for beer and roughly double that of wine — not to mention a big hit for a small company that manages to produce about 1,200 gallons a year. Dick Waters will repeat taste tests several times a day during the 10 hours the 60-gallon still — hand-built in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains by a maker named Col. Vaughn Wilson — runs on the distilling days. A glass pitcher catches the liquor flowing from the tube. The first batch in a daily yield of about five gallons typically comes off at about 140 proof. Waters uses a key ingredient — tap water pumped from the well on his property — to cut the product until it reaches the optimal for barreling of between 110 proof and 118 proof. It's a two-person production. Marti bottles the whiskey a bottle at a time. "We put the micro in micro-distillery," Dick Waters said. "Being this small, we knew we had to do something different." Waters learned to operate a still by consulting a friend familiar with distilling, from books, online research, and advice from Col. Wilson. That expertise was coupled with five months of experiments in which the Waterses utilized taste buds of family and friends to narrow down the characteristics they liked. "It's a very old-fashioned way of distilling," Dick Waters said. "It's that homespun thing, that mom-and-pop-making-whiskey-down-on-the-farm kind of thing. It's not like we're geniuses here. It's only unique because it's what we wanted. I'm judging it by what the whiskey tastes like." He says his mash is a combination of Florida corn, toasted rye flakes, barley malt and rye malt. The recipe also has toasted chips from the bark of an orange tree. Then there is the aquifer and flavoring contributed by the barrel during aging, typically about eight months.