The Florida CANE Distillery’s story started about 15 years ago when Lee Nelson, a home-brew hobbyist, moved from Rochester, New York to Florida. In a small garage in south Tampa, Lee built his first still out of 3 Miller Lite Cans, marbles, and a pressure cooker and distilled a batch of beer. Although the first few drops tasted absolutely terrible, two things happened. Firstly, Lee was completely hooked on this new hobby and secondly, a very valuable lesson was learned – don’t use Gorilla Glue to fuse joints on a still! (Yes, Lee poisoned himself a few times over from that first run).
As Lee’s new hobby morphed into an obsession, he started sharing the not-quite-legal product with his
beer drinking hockey team. One particular team mate and good friend, Pat O’Brien, quickly connected the dots between the trends of craft brewing and what would eventually happen with distilled spirits. And after talking about it for over 2 years, the teammates, along with Lee’s wife Sarah, met at O’Toole’s Irish Pub in Brandon and hatched a plan to bring this crazy idea to life.
The company was officially formed in February of 2012 and things started happening very quickly. Without much capital and no experience with actually creating a licensed and functional distillery, they turned to a Peer-to-Peer lending site and wrote a small story to convince anonymous people to lend them money. Within 10 days, their loans were fully funded and a small 800 square foot ‘glorified storage unit’ was rented in an East Hillsborough industrial business park. A 26-gallon still was ordered and the 82 page application for a Federal DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) was filed. Within 6 weeks the still had arrived, the DSP was approved, and Pat and Lee spent the next 7 months posing for bad-ass pictures with their still and perfecting a vodka they would take to market.
Since that first shipment of 40 cases of Florida CANE Premium Vodka in October 2012, The Florida CANE Distillery has worked with local elected officials and The Florida Distiller’s Guild to help modernize distilling within Florida and became one of the very first ‘Craft Distilleries’. In September of 2013, the first Vodka Tasting room attached to a craft distillery was opened as one of the new laws allowed for the direct sale of product to visitors.
The Florida CANE Vodka line was extended to 13 flavors that were inspired and sourced from local farms. A line of the highest proof moonshines (109!) sold in Florida, named Sunshine Moonshine, were added in the summer of 2014. These were quickly followed by the award winning Tamiami Gin.
In February of 2016, the Florida CANE Distillery moved from the small business park to the historic ‘El Encanto’ building in Ybor City and officially opened in May. The historic building, on the third trolley stop, has expanded square footage and a unique, non-air-conditioned space that is perfect for the distillery’s latest project –aging whiskey.
Please come visit us for a tour and tasting, and follow us on social media as we continue to explore, experiment, and distill the Spirit of Florida.