I first tasted Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey on the Vinoy Verandah in St. Petersburg. Only the reputation of the Vinoy persuaded me that Florida whiskey might be worth sipping straight; I’ve tasted Florida wines that could have powered farm equipment and feared the same stinging effect from our state’s whiskey.
The Vinoy, I assumed, would never embarrass itself with a low-end whiskey designed for college sophomores looking for a cheap buzz, so I opted to give the butterscotch-colored liquor a sip.
I was right, and my love affair with Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey began. This is not a shooting whiskey or a mixed drink whiskey; it is a choice whiskey for the connoisseur who drinks for taste, not effect. If you’re drinking to get drunk, stick with the mass-produced cheap stuff, because this is not a shooting whiskey.
WHAT: Thought Florida was all oranges and beaches? Think again. In the middle of horse country, the Palm Ridge Reserve churns out small batches of whiskey. The blended whiskey contains local corn and the taste rivals the priciest sipping whiskeys.
WHY: Why not? Florida craft beer has taken the market by storm, so why not locally-produced craft whiskey? Recent changes to the law allow small-batch distilleries to offer tastings. A much-coveted tasting at Palm Ridge Reserve marries the aid-back Florida lifestyle with high society gentleman’s whiskey.
WHO: Dick and Marti Waters bought a cozy sprawl of land by Ocala as their daughter grew more and more interested in horses. Just about the time they closed on the farm, Dick laughs, she got interested in boys instead. The land looks plenty big to me, but Dick and Marti explain it really isn’t large enough for a proper farm. When Marti read a trade article about farmers using some of their land to make whiskey they thought, “Well, why not?”
WHEN: Whiskey doesn’t take a vacation, and neither do Dick and Marti. Distilling whiskey into something non-lethal, keeping it from exploding, and crafting something that tastes like fiery velvet takes all their time, so until their distillery hits the big time, they’re on deck every day. Once a month, they do give tours, which end with a modest tasting.
WHERE: Just outside Ocala, less than two hours from Pinellas.
BEST part: Well, clearly the whiskey’s pretty tasty, but the best thing is seeing small industry producing a product that outshines the mass-produced alcohols.
WORST part: Local whiskey produced in small batches (so small Dick and Marti call them “micro batches”) doesn’t come cheap. You can buy the whiskey at Total Wine or at the tasting, but the price remains the same: $60 a bottle.
FUN Fact: You may think truly fine whiskey needs aging, but at the tasting Dick and Marti astound you with young whiskey that tastes every bit as smooth as the old stuff. Just for fun, they’ll let you taste the brand-new stuff, too. That whiskey? That whiskey could probably power farm equipment.
MAGIC Question: Free, but tours and tastings are limited, so please call to reserve your spot. E-mail them at whiskey@palmridgereservecom; the next tour comes up March 1, and the tours do fill quickly. Learn more about Palm Ridge at PalmRidgeReserve.com.