Sunlight streams through the paneless, screenless window. It imbues the 60-gallon reflux-column copper still with a warm glow that matches the fiery poteen in its belly. That whiskey – Florida whiskey – gets its beautiful color from the charred oak barrels in which it ages. But it gets its warmth (in part, anyway) from its makers.
Palm Ridge Reserve took home a silver medal in the 2013 Washington Cup Competition. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Dick and Marti Waters, chief cooks and bottle-washers at Umatilla’s Palm Ridge Reserve, have warmth in spades. And they're sharing it – along with their award-winning micro batch whiskey – on engaging tours of their humble operation that are as informal as they are informative.
Palm Ridge Reserve creates roughly 500 cases of whiskey a year. Each bottle is lovingly fermented, distilled, aged, taste-tested and packaged in what was once a 10-horse barn in cattle country. The Waters' small herd is no longer “ranched.” Cows graze and doze comfortably in a pasture while the couple works the still instead of the land.
Where it all happens: Palm Ridge Reserve's still-in-the-stall. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
“The farm was never going to make a living for us,” says Dick. His previous career in construction helped the Waters’ – Orlando-area natives – hang onto the slice of rural paradise they purchased in 1986. Then Marti read a piece in the Orlando Sentinel. It profiled small Midwestern farmers; families supplementing their income with craft distillery operations.
I called him up at work and said, “Hey! Do you want to make whiskey?!” she chuckles.
Her husband, a longtime whiskey drinker, was keen. Legally distilling it of course, is not as easy as making the decision to do so. It’s a long process – expensive equipment, intricate applications, state and federal approval – but eventually Palm Ridge Reserve was up and running. They have grown steadily since hitting the market in 2010, up 40 percent this year from the last. “It’s nice growth, but you have to remember,” says Dick, squeezing thumb and forefinger together to illustrate, “it’s still not that big when you start this small.”
And small it is. Many brewery, vineyard or distillery tours involve massive, gleaming vats in warehouse-like digs. Participants get a breezy walk-through and a few tastes, inevitably landing in the gift shop. This is not that tour.
The Waters’ welcome groups of about 15 to their humble operation, where a 17-pound cat naps soundly just steps from the still. Dick explains the fermentation process; you'll smell it before you see it. He removes a filmy screen, handmade by Marti out of curtain sheers, from the mash tank, so visitors can peek inside.
Recipe for success: Palm Ridge Reserve's four-grain combination. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey begins its life as a four-grain mixture: barley malt, rye, toasted rye flake and Florida corn. Into the still its fermented concoction goes and over several hours boils and distills into clear, pure 120-proof whiskey. If you’re keen for a taste, you’ll have it. It’s one you’ll likely find surprising and enjoyable.
Everclear this is not. In fact, it is downright “breakfasty” on the nose, imparting an amalgam of sweet, grainy smells to the palate and similar reads upon taste; sweet corn in the front, spicy rye in the back. Strong? Hell yeah, it is. But wow – it’s actually smooth. This is one of Dick’s favorite moments to note on the faces of tour goers.
“People may or may not like it,” he notes. “It’s not the whiskey they’re used to or that they’ll taste farther on in the tour, but I want them to taste the smoothness.”
Dick Waters offers up a sample of "first trimester" whiskey, three months aged. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
They’ll also taste far more of the grain. “When you barrel it, the whiskey takes on barrel flavors that overlay the grain flavors. We work very hard to keep a lot of the grain flavor in the whiskey. We’re kind of following the craft beer movement in that we’re looking for a more intense flavor profile.”
As the tour moves forward you’ll amble to the “stall next door,” which doubles as both aging and bottling room. Five gallon barrels, each tagged and dated, line the walls. This is where Dick shakes each one every day to ensure even aging. It's where Marti hand labels the bottles. In less than a year’s aging time, she filsl them with the finished product.
Visitors will taste it along the process. With each sample, they'll gauge a steady uptick in rich caramel color, and spicy-vanilla bouquet. Not to mention a velvety, slow-creeping finish that warms the back of the tongue like an après-ski fire.
The photogenic barrel room. Sniff hard and perhaps you'll get a whiff of the "Angel's Share." — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
You can purchase a bottle at area retailers including Total Wine and ABC Liquors (check the PRR website for precise locations), but you can sample it in town, as well. More than a few Orlando-local businesses have made Palm Ridge Reserve a go-to whiskey for their menus. Cask & Larder’s Ron Raike won “Best of Show” at the 2012 Florida Beer Championships with his Palm Ridge Wee Heavy, aged in the distillery’s own casks. The Ravenous Pig crafted a cocktail hit with the Umatilla Smash, pairing it with Florida oranges and mint. And Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant – along with Diana Zimmerman of the Courtesy bar – employed it to create the Florida-New York Sour for a James Beard Foundation dinner.
Pastoral poteen: the road to the distillery lowers the blood pressure on sight. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
The tours are a relatively new advent, and so far successful. A recent Diageo survey about American whiskey has set Dick – whose product ages for less than a year – on a bit of a mission. “It found that most people equate good whiskey with age. I’m here to tell them it’s just not true. Good, smooth whiskey comes off the still as good smooth whiskey.”
Palm Ridge Reserve’s has won raves. Critics have called it “refined,” “the real deal,” “snifter-worthy.” Its barn doors are now open for those interested in paying a visit.
Palm Ridge Reserve is located in Umatilla, FL 40 miles from Orlando. Tours are free, by reservation only and last between 1.5-2 hours. A small lunch is served post-tour and bottles are available for purchase ($55). Like the Palm Ridge Reserve Facebook page for regular updates on the tour schedule.