Florida Keys News
Thursday, December 5, 2013
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Rum distillery is legal first for island
Eighty years ago, 21st Amendment ended Prohibition

For all Key West's heaped up fame and fortune as a "drinking town with a tourist problem," the island's citizens have never been able to locally produce liquor supplies.

Until now, that is.

Eighty years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution formally ended Prohibition, but left in place measures that make it very difficult for newcomers to the business to legally distill spirits.

And after years of jumping through government hoops, one Key Wester is about to realize his dream of producing the island's first rum, appropriately titled "Key West Legal Rum," at the Simonton Street building that once housed Key West's Coca-Cola bottling plant.

"There just aren't that many small distillers in Florida," said Paul Menta, who started the Chef Distilled company with business partner Tony Mantia. "It's too hard to get a license. You need to basically set up the entire operation and have the government inspect it before you can get the paperwork approved. It takes them 30 days just to get your bottle labels approved."

Though his business is a first for Key West and the Florida Keys, Menta is mindful of the town's alcohol-drenched history, as evidenced by the many photos adorning the walls of the cavernous distillery and retail area.

Key West Citizen front pages from the golden age of rum smuggling in the 1920s and early '30s detail the authorities' losing, and ultimately futile, battle against the bottle.

One article details how confiscated booze stored at the county courthouse somehow turned into ordinary well water, overnight.

"The sheriff's office of the 1920s had the same problem with storing illegal booze during Prohibition that they had in the 1970s with pot," said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright. "It turned to water. Or it disappeared altogether. Local authorities weren't particularly cooperative with the FBI men who would come down here looking."

Menta also has assembled a collection of old Coca-Cola bottles he discovered while ripping up the floors to dig the government-required drains. But it's rum, not Coca-Cola, that interests Menta on a business level. (The kite-boarder turned chef/entrepreneur claims not to be much of a drinker.)

To that end, Menta plans to produce about 350 bottles per week of Chef Distilled's flagship 80-proof Legal Rum, which will be available for sampling at the tasting bar and for purchase in the retail store, with a strict limit of two bottles per person, per visit, as per government regulations.

Next, as his blends and labels are approved, Menta will produce a lighter, 65-proof "White Light" rum, and a stronger, 105-proof recipe that will pay homage to one of the Coca-Cola building's former tenants, Jack Williams, whose bar at 105 Simonton St. is pictured on one of the distillery's walls.

"The Jack Williams Saloon was around at the turn of the century," Hambright said. "It's lived on in posterity because we've got good photos of it."

Menta has also come up with a "Key West Raw and Unfiltered" blend, which uses salt from seawater to give the rum that's stored in American oak casks a unique flavor.

Ironically, Menta learned the process of brewing beer and distilling spirits from the teetotaler Quakers who taught him chemistry at a Philadelphia-area school.

Armed with the knowledge, the 20-year Key West resident first seriously considered creating a Key West distillery three years ago. He and his partner have been working on the project ever since, traveling to similar operations in Colorado and elsewhere seeking guidance.

Menta has also gone out of his way to "buy American," ordering two custom-made stills from the Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Ky.

"They're the last company in America that makes them," Menta said. "All the other outfits are European. Vendome makes these huge stills for the big companies, like Jack Daniels. But they treated me like I was spending millions -- with respect."

Everything else, from the sugar to the bottles and labels, comes from as close to home as possible. Menta is also planning on hiring local apprentice rum distillers as soon as sales allow it.

Aside from the two-bottle retail exception, Menta isn't allowed to personally sell his product, but the company's distributor has high hopes of offering Chef Distilled products throughout the state.

"They're already taking orders from the local bars and hotels," Menta said. "I'd be very surprised if we have any leftover for export after supplying local needs. This is Key West we're talking about."

Though Menta's rum juggernaut was slightly delayed by the federal government shutdown in October, he's now shooting for a Monday launch. He plans to invite to the event the local and state political representatives who helped make his dream a reality.

"I've also invited top representatives from the Navy and Coast Guard in Key West to come share a drink with me," Menta said. "It'll be the first time in history that members of these organizations have shared a legal glass of local rum."

Should another delay appear, the launch date may end up being pushed back, but Menta is undeterred.

"My dream is so close to becoming a reality that I can almost taste it," he said. "I'm discovering that I have a lot more friends than I thought I did. This is going to happen."

Interested parties are advised to check the company's Facebook page for details.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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