How a handful of St. Augustine residents turned a dilapidated old ice plant into a successful craft distillery and eatery

How a handful of St. Augustine residents turned a dilapidated old ice plant into a successful craft distillery and eatery
Photos courtesy St. Augustine Distillery

Despite the pains it has taken to preserve its colonial past, the city of St. Augustine has notoriously neglected whole swaths of its more recent history. Nowhere is that more evident than in the 15,000-square-foot ice plant building on Riberia Street. A stately concrete structure built between 1905 and 1926, after a half-century in business, the ice plant went from being a critical part of St. Augustine's infrastructure to a disused afterthought on the western edge of a neglected neighborhood.

In 2010, four locals – retired businessmen Philip McDaniel and Mike Diaz, Café Eleven founder and former St. Augustine Amphitheatre general manager Ryan Dettra, and The Floridian restaurant co-founder Patricia McLemore – set out to change that. They poured three years, nearly $3 million and immeasurable effort into their dream of turning the former ice plant into a historically specific, financially sound business venture. Today, a wildly popular distillery and bar/restaurant occupies the space, which sat empty or sorely underutilized for nearly 60 years. 

It took a long time for the ice plant to turn into a viable business venture, though. What it required was a leap of faith that craft distilling, a small but growing offshoot of the booming craft-brewery business, could take hold in this part of Florida. Artisanal, locally sourced spirits were huge in hipster havens like Denver, Portland, Seattle and Brooklyn, where the group visited distilleries, attended conferences and sampled spirits. But translating that to a relatively small market on the coast of Florida would prove difficult – even if our salty and humid climate is ideal for the aging and distilling process. 

"We've been programmed to take whiskey, add Coke, and if you really want to go over the top, squeeze a little lime on top," McDaniel says. "People think that's a great drink. Well, that worked up until about five years ago. We recognized that the craft cocktail thing was happening all over the country – and that it could happen here, too."

The former ice plant, which hadn't been used for much of anything since being decommissioned and sold in the 1950s, was the perfect choice for the endeavor. Its roots in manufacturing, its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and the challenge it presented – pink paint, modern carpet, acoustic ceiling tiles, vintage equipment either disassembled or entirely covered up – were too appealing to ignore. 

Originally built as a power plant in 1905, the ice plant building was expanded in 1917 into the first Florida facility to generate commercial block ice. That business boomed alongside St. Augustine's shrimping and fishing industries, so in 1926, the newly formed Florida Power & Light conglomerate purchased the complex and expanded again, increasing ice-making capacity from 65 to 125 tons. Four massive "cans" or "trays" set in the floor of the newly built two-story side of the building froze 325-pound blocks of pure, clean ice that were then transferred via overhead bridge crane to rail cars, boats and trucks out back – or broken up into smaller quantities and sold to residents out front. 

At its pinnacle, the U.S. ice trade accounted for 4,800 plants, 100,000 employees and 40 million tons of ice; in World Wars I and II, ice plant employees were even exempt from the draft. But by the 1950s, with a refrigerator and freezer in nearly every American home, the ice industry collapsed and FPL offloaded the now-cumbersome ice plant to a former employee for just $1 while retaining ownership of the land surrounding it. 

After decades of disuse, local company Mega Systems took over the ice plant in the 1990s, manufacturing movie projectors in the cavernous space. But they covered most of the building's original features with drywall and carpet, installed drop ceilings and fluorescent lights, and even boarded up the soaring two-story steel windows to create a "blackout" room for testing. Uninterested in sinking millions into the building's renovation, they left the rest of it to slowly rot. 

The distillery group secured a lease for the ice plant building at the end of 2011, but while performing due diligence, they discovered what Dettra calls that "depressing and shocking" interior. That was only the tip of the challenging iceberg, though; for 18 months, McDaniel led negotiations with FPL over parking and other property rights; spent months explaining the distillery's vision to the neighborhood's residents; and enlisted St. Augustine officials to help grant code enforcement variances and Historical Architectural Review Board approvals. Basic utility services even had to be restored to the building.

McDaniel says their hook was bringing history back to life by presenting a genuine experience to tourists suffused with a local's sense of pride. "We're longtime locals," he adds. "Once the city, the neighborhood and FPL saw that we weren't just out-of-town investors trying to fleece a quick buck, everyone lined up to help us out."

Obstacles still arose, though. Due to Florida laws governing the production, distribution and sales of spirits, the St. Augustine Distillery and the Ice Plant Bar had to be established as separate business entities. In 2012, McDaniel and Diaz purchased the southern half of the building for $437,500; McLemore, joined by her parents and Dettra's parents, bought the northern half for $450,000. McLemore was one of Dettra's longest-tenured employees at Café Eleven, and her experience co-founding and running popular restaurant the Floridian made her a perfect candidate to add sustainably sourced, locally focused food to the mix. 

The Ice Plant Bar opened in September 2013, while the more extensive engineering work required on the distillery pushed its opening date to March 2014. But today, both sides of the property deliver a coherent trip back in time. In the distillery, visitors punch an antique time clock to begin their tour before entering a museum containing a 2.5-ton cast-iron sugar mill from 1883, a copper still from the 1890s, an ammonia compressor from the 1940s and other carefully curated relics of Florida's ice-making, distilling and agricultural history. 

In the Ice Plant Bar, mosaic floor tiles front the electrical cage and a wooden staircase leads to low-slung tables and the elegantly lit bar and restaurant. Vintage ice tongs, lights, signs and other decorations dot the walls; every detail down to the menu and serving glasses is exquisite, and the bartenders even rock suspenders to complete the old-school aesthetic. All of it is meant to appeal to enthusiasts hungry for an authentic and immersive experience.

"This whole project was a giant puzzle determined by the path the renovation of the building took," Dettra says. "But it was worth it from an experiential marketing standpoint. We want visitors to have their first experience be the building and its heritage, not something fabricated. We could have built something new and tried to make it look old, but it wouldn't have had the same feel. You can't reproduce history." 

"What's so impressive about this project is how it still looks like an ice plant," says Elli Morris, whose 2008 book Cooling the South detailed the ice industry's golden age. "There's maybe one other plant in the South that has retained so much of its character. And it's the only one I know of where they're actually manufacturing something again." 

Even the new distilling and ice-making machinery inside the St. Augustine Distillery space evokes an artisanal ethos. Vendome Copper & Brass Works, one of the last companies left manufacturing copper stills in the United States, custom built the 750-gallon and 500-gallon beauties, along with a smaller botanical still. At the Ice Plant Bar, a nearly $10,000 Clinebell ice machine churns out two dense, pure 300-pound blocks every 52 hours, which are carved up into spheres and long rocks. A Kold-Draft machine produces solid, slow-melting cubed ice, while a Scotsman machine makes nugget ice intended to dilute drinks quickly. 

Florida agriculture is also treated with craft importance. The distillery's gin and vodka, for sale since March 2014 and now available in ABC Fine Wine & Spirits stores, bars and restaurants in Orlando, rely on citrus from the Rogers family in Indian River County, who've grown grapefruit since 1928. Wells Brothers Farm in northern St. Johns County supplied the non-GMO corn and wheat for the first batch of bourbon, currently aging in single-wood, single-char barrels, with a tentative release date of 2017. The crew collected rare heirloom sugarcane strains from Marianna farmer and Southern Syrup Makers Association president Richard Harrison, convincing KYV Farm owner Francisco Arroyo of Hastings to populate 40 empty acres of his land with it. The first cane harvest in December 2013 yielded three acres, which tripled after the second one in December 2014. Later this year, the distillery hopes to have enough fresh-pressed cane juice to produce clear, agricole-style rum. 

"That's never been done before in Florida," McDaniel says. "And it's certainly never been done with historically significant sugarcane anywhere in the country." 

Via his role as president of the Florida Craft Distillers Guild, McDaniel also influenced the Florida Legislature, lobbying lawmakers to loosen a Prohibition-era law preventing distilleries from directly selling their spirits. In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 347, which allows individuals to buy two bottles per year from the manufacturer. That was a major win for the St. Augustine Distillery, and this year, a new bill passed in the Legislature allows people to purchase up to two bottles of each type of liquor distilled by a manufacturer.

The distillery also encourages participating farmers to recycle used grains back onto their land, and it has one of the only zero-waste water reclamation distilling systems in the country. 

"The growth potential in this industry is immense," Dettra says. "But we're trying to grow in a responsible way."

Naturally, the accolades for such growth piled up. National lifestyle publications like Garden & Gun and Southern Living added the Ice Plant Bar to their 2013 best-of lists, and the distillery's St. Augustine Vodka won a Double-Gold medal in's 2014 Best Domestic Vodka awards, while its New World Gin was awarded a gold medal at the 2015 American Craft Spirits Association Competition. 

But the top honors have come from the city and the state. In 2013, St. Augustine bestowed one of two inaugural Adelaide Sanchez Awards on the distillery and Ice Plant Bar, followed a week later by the highest award at the Florida Trust for Historical Preservation's 36th Annual Preservation Conference. 

"Hopefully these awards, which provide an incentive to prevent buildings from being knocked down, can serve as a model for what a for-profit business can achieve in terms of historic preservation," Dettra says.

With near-universal praise from out-of-town aficionados and eager local clientele, anyone who's endured a two-hour wait to be seated at the Ice Plant Bar on a weekend night — and then forgotten about it upon taking that first smooth sip of a Florida Mule or St. George Sour — recognizes the appeal of imbibing in such fascinating confines.


Homegrown: Other Florida distilleries

Florida Farm Distillers
This microdistillery located on a cattle farm in Umatilla produces the award-winning Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey and Palm Ridge Rye. The distillery is truly a small-batch brewing operation, releasing just 500 cases of their product per year.

Flagler Spirits
Palm Coast
Independent distillery that produces Flagler Lightning moonshine, vodka and rum fermented from molasses.

Winter Park Distilling Company
Winter Park
The Orlando area’s first artisanal distillery, Winter Park Distilling Company produces rum, vodka and two kinds of corn whiskey.

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