A bill now before the Legislature (SB 220), by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, would equally benefit the state’s tourism and its growing number of craft distilleries.
I co-founded American Freedom Distillery in St. Petersburg, but our story is a little different.
I’m a sixth generation Floridian; my family’s been here since the early 1800s. I’m also a 25-year Special Forces combat veteran. I retired out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, along with 10 other military families.
We were the first Green Berets into Afghanistan after 9/11. After our service, there was one economic opportunity for veterans, especially those in Special Operations, and that was to be government contractors and go back overseas.
Instead, we decided we wanted to put down roots here, in Florida, by starting a small business. I’m one of the first graduates of Veterans Florida, a program that offered entrepreneurial training.
We decided to open a distillery, which has a long history in the military among veterans returning home, all the way from George Washington – who owned the largest distillery of his time – to Bulleit Bourbon.
In fact, many of the best known brands were created by veterans. But we just wanted a chance at the American freedom we had been defending, and we chose the state of Florida because of our roots here, and many of us retiring in the state as veterans.
What we’ve learned, as we honed the craft of distilling through trips to Scotland and Ireland, was the value of tourism to build your brand.
If you look at the business model of a craft distillery, you learn quickly that you have to find your own customer. You have to tell them your story, and they have to try your product. It’s really how you grow your brand.
Then you, the distiller, become a value proposition to the wholesalers and then ultimately the retailers. It’s on us all along the way, however, to find our customers.
For example, in the state of Kentucky last year, they boast that 1.2 million people visited the “Bourbon Trail.” Yet in my own backyard in St. Pete, there are 14 million visitors to the beaches alone.
There are millions more visitors to the state of Florida, all looking for something to do. We just want to be one of those “top 10” things to do in Tampa Bay.
SB 220 gives us the ability to do that. It gives us equal footing to wineries and breweries to be a destination, and thus to gain our own customers.
A provision in the bill also would allow us to ship our own bottles. If you come from another state and visit us and you like our products, the biggest obstacle to making a sale is people don’t want to buy because they can’t take it home on the airplane.
This bill would allow us to ship directly to those customers who are out of state. And it allows retail sales for those visiting the beach or Orlando, for example, to go back home and find us at their favorite spirits shop through traditional retail and distribution.
In the end, that helps us grow as a brand and helps Florida tourism flourish by featuring Florida companies and Florida products. Sounds like a win-win proposition to us.
Scott Neil is a co-founder and chief operating officer at American Freedom Distillery in St. Petersburg.