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InterviewWith: Philip McDaniel

SJB Phillip McDaniel 1607B

Philip McDaniel is co-founder and CEO of St. Augustine Distillery, located in the historic Ice Plant building on Riberia Street. After graduating from Assumption College with degrees in Economics and Spanish, McDaniel owned a sales and marketing company supporting convenience and oil stores with branded promotional products like the Hess toy trucks. Selling that company enabled him to take a break in his career to focus on his family and then about five years ago, he reentered the workforce with a plan to support his community and his family by opening a craft distillery. McDaniel says the St. Augustine Distillery wants to be known as the premier artisanal craft distillery in the state of Florida.

  1. What was the origin of your idea to open the St. Augustine Distillery?

I was fortunate that in 1998, a Los Angeles-based company that supplied toys for fast food restaurant kids’ meals bought out my promotional product business. After commuting to California for three years, I had the opportunity to retire and spend more time with my family. It’s rare that you get that gift of time, so in 2001 I hung up my sales cleats and became a full time dad to our three kids, aged four through 15. I learned to surf and for my mid-life crisis bought a beach home in Costa Rica. By 2004 I was serving on community boards and Dr. Joe Joyner, superintendent of schools, recommended that I work in an organization to advance the arts. I helped found the Center for Performing Arts at St. Augustine High School and was instrumental in establishing the St. Augustine Amphitheatre as a performing arts center. I felt better and better about helping out my community and believe that it is important to try to leave your community in better shape than you found it.

Then about five years ago, my children were grown and I thought, “Now what?” I was ready for a new challenge. I decided I wanted to continue to do social good by bringing a new business to St. Augustine and make some money at the same time. I decided to look into the emerging industry of craft distillery. I went to a trade show in Portland, Ore., and networked. I loved the energy of the young people.

My co-founders in the distillery were Michael Diaz, the former CFO at Acosta Foods and young businessman Ryan Dettra (who has since moved on from our company). Charles Cox of San Sebastian Winery was my mentor. He said that the key to our success would be to get the right building to house the distillery and if we could be right on the tourist trolley route, we could do for local spirits what his company did for local wine.

2) What was your biggest challenge in opening the distillery?

Securing the building and getting licensing were definitely the two biggest challenges. Not only were we trying to open our business, but we were trying to preserve the oldest ice plant in the state of Florida, which was built in 1917. The coolest part is that now, 100 years later, this building that produced the first block ice in the state is now going to produce the first bourbon in the state. (The St. Augustine Distillery produces vodka, gin and rum and will introduce bourbon later this year.)

Working with the Florida legislature was challenging. Laws had to be changed so that we could sell our product directly to the public. We founded the Florida Craft Distillers Guild and are still trying to get Florida’s laws to be consistent with other states, although we have made great progress.

3) How do you market and advertise your business?

We are on the trolley routes. We advertise on the tourist maps and have approximately 400 people come through our building daily. We offer tours and present what we do in a fun, informative and educational manner. We feel that if we provide our guests with a great experience, they will tell their friends, which they do. We have great results with word of mouth. We are proud to be the No.1 thing to do in St. Augustine according to TripAdvisor.

Most importantly, we tell everyone the “why” behind what we do (the center of the so-called “Golden Circle.”) We tell people the story behind our company and that we care about our community — we have created 37 new jobs. We want to make the best spirits using local agriculture and we want to educate our guests about how the spirits are made.

4) What was the best business decision you made?

I’d say surrounding myself with people who know what they are doing, like Mike Diaz and Brendan Wheatley and our managers. Also, our site selection and rehabilitation of the building were key.

5) What are your long-term goals?

Our long term goal is to grow smartly, but not to the point that we lose our soul. We want to continue supporting our community and be the best well known craft distillery in north Florida — and make a living. We don’t want to be in every bar in the United States.

We are very excited and bullish about our future. We are looking forward to our release of bourbon in the fall of this year. But really, we are so grateful to everyone who has been supportive of our dream to bring this business to north Florida.

Photo courtesy St. Augustine Distillery

Philip McDaniel


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