There are only a handful of craft distilleries in Florida. It’s a venture not for the faint of heart. Between competing with the big dogs (i.e. Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker) to following painstaking, authentic procedures, making small-batch spirits is something not many entrepreneurs take on.
Meet Flagler alumnus Ryan Dettra, ‘00, co-founder, co-owner and marketing director of St. Augustine Distillery. Along with two additional owners and a list of investors, Dettra has spent the past three and a half years transforming a historic building on Riberia Street into St. Augustine’s newest attraction.
The St. Augustine Distillery, which opened March 2014, creates small-batch whiskey, rum, gin and vodka using local ingredients such as heritage sugar cane, citrus and juniper. Or spirits that “capture the taste and flavors of Florida,” as marketing material touts.
“This has probably been as hard a project as one could tackle,” Dettra admitted. “I had a concept for a business in an industry that has a long history and I’ve applied that history to current business practices.”
The distillery was started in a restored 100-year-old ice plant in St. Augustine’s Lincolnville. Dettra and the other owners partnered with local farmers to produce Florida-grown ingredients like the sugar cane that goes into their cane vodka. By doing so, they hope to not only produce world-class spirits, but also preserve farms and the area’s farming heritage. In addition to vodka, gin and rum, the distillery is producing Florida’s only small-batch bourbon. It is currently aging in oak barrels and will be ready in 2018.
Dettra, who graduated from Flagler with a degree in business administration, has had a string of successes within the St. Augustine business community. He owned and operated Café Eleven, a popular restaurant and music venue at the beach, and helped grow the St. Augustine Amphitheatre into a world-class music venue as the general manager.
“When creating a new business, entrepreneurs imagine how things will be,” explained Dettra. “In our minds, there are magical elements to the venture. Then the harsh reality of how things actually are sets in.”
This rang true especially in Dettra’s first venture.
Only a year and a half after graduating from Flagler, he opened the doors to Café Eleven. He remembers hosting the venue’s first concert with a lesser-known artist and having no one show up. After calling on friends and offering passersby free entrance, the evening ended up a success. The venue quickly became known as the place to see up-and-coming musicians before they went mainstream.
“I have many memories from my first couple years being an entrepreneur,” Dettra said. “The learning curve was steep, although it was exciting. I learned what to do as I was doing it. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Dettra’s entrepreneurial expertise, married with an intimate knowledge of St. Augustine and its people, has helped make St. Augustine Distillery a must-see for tourists and locals alike. The Distillery is a stop on the trolley train route and offers an interactive museum experience, as well as free tours and tastings.
Guests are given the opportunity to see first-hand how the spirits are made, from hand-cut and mill-fresh ingredients distilled in small-batch copper pot stills to the barreling process.
“To play a role in something that people consider to be a great memory has been a driver for me. I want experiences to be at the forefront of any project or business I am involved with,” explained Dettra. “When conceptualizing the St. Augustine Distillery, I wanted every touchpoint with the product to be an experience. I think we are on our way to achieving that.”