Key West Legal uses oak barrels cured in seawater — Photo courtesy of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery/Chef Distilled
As a professional kiteboarder in Key West and around the world, Paul Menta has always watched the weather closely for the perfect windy conditions. Now he pays attention to atmospheric changes for different reasons – it affects the flavor of his rum at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery.
Everything from humidity, temperature and pressure can change the quantity of the spirits produced in each batch, as well as how it tastes. While some liquor producers search for a controlled and stable climate, Menta takes pleasure in the Southernmost City’s mercurial conditions.
Truly a boutique distillery, each batch at Key West Legal is slightly different. You can taste the craftsmanship in each sip.
In 2013, Menta and his partners (Tony and Jill Mantia) opened the distillery, a first for the Florida Keys, in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant. Keeping a piece of the building’s history alive, they collected the antique Coke bottles found during the renovation and put them on display. There are even old bottle caps pressed into the cement floors.
The main part of the cavernous building houses two 200-gallon copper stills custom-made by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Kentucky. (The same company that builds them for major players like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.) The front is dedicated to a tasting bar and retail space.
Throughout the distillery and retail shop, Key West Legal pays homage to the island’s alcohol-soaked history when bootlegging and speakeasies were a way of life during Prohibition. You’ll find mugshots of local rumrunners on the walls and old newspaper clippings detailing the story of the authorities' losing battle against the bottle.
Want to show off your inner bootlegger? Take a mugshot selfie under their "captured" backdrop where they even have a placard for you to hold bearing the crime as “2-MUCH-RUM.”
The rum is distilled six times to remove the impurities — Photo courtesy of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery/Paul Menta
They offer free rum tastings of the various flavors, so you can try before you buy. The knowledgeable employees educate about the distilling process and provide tasting notes on each one. While you sip, they’ll share the quirky stories of the Conch Republic’s colorful past with the liquor – especially the era of speakeasies and rum runners.
Menta just happens to be a gourmet chef too, so he’s passionate about using local ingredients – a boozy twist on the farm-to-table movement. He uses a Demerara sugar wash rather than a molasses-based mash and sources much of his fruit from Robert is Here in Homestead.
They squeeze Key limes from the Florida Keys – some from Menta’s own front yard. Taking advantage of Key West’s most abundant natural resource, their oak barrels are cured in seawater. The residual sea salt creates a smoother, more flavorful drink.
Tours of the distillery are offered daily — Photo courtesy of Claudia Miller
The rum is distilled six times to remove the impurities, and they produce about 600 hundred bottles per week. Each bottle is labeled by hand, and the Legal Rum flagship bottles bear police mugshots of former local residents guilty of alcohol contraband offenses.
The base rum is creamy with a butterscotch aroma and a pear finish. On certain batches, you can taste black truffles. The smooth Key West Raw and Unfiltered Blend is one of the top favorites of novices and connoisseurs alike for its rich fig and oaky tones.
The Chef Distilled line brings out creative flavors in their original white rums with infusions of coconut, vanilla creme brulee and Key Lime. They’ve also created special label editions for resorts like The Gates and Sunset Key.
In keeping with Hemingway’s rum-loving tradition, Sloppy Joe’s is their largest customer, and you’ll find specialty drinks made with Key West Legal Rum on other local bar menus.
Tours of the distillery are offered at 3:00 pm and 3:30 pm where you can watch as prefiltered alcohol is drained into the still. If you miss the formal tour, the staff is usually happy to show you around while they are working. Of course, if it's a windy day, don't expect to see Menta monitoring the stills. He'll be out kiteboarding.