istillers in flood- and storm-prone areas have always had to keep an eye on the skies, and recent hurricanes in the Gulf and on the east coast have proven that the stakes of this “when-not if” calculus will only intensify along with the weather. At the tip of the Florida Keys, Paul Menta at Key West First Legal Rum said that longtime residents of the Keys know how to get by in isolation, without water, electricity or cell service, which helped them weather this hurricane season. “I’ve been down here for a long time. You have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C. This was the first time going to the plan C,” he said. The chef and distiller said the community had a phone chain going after Hurricane Irma to let friends and relatives know they were ok, and he was able to tap into the local fish market, which he also co-founded, to help tide things over. “Lobster and rum go a long way,” he said. Joe Breda at the Old Humble Distilling Company, on the north side of Houston in Humble, Texas, was stranded by floodwaters when Harvey struck, but otherwise he and the Houston distilling community didn’t see much trouble. “I got stuck at my house for a few days, but we didn't get any water at Humble. Everybody I know had water in their house. We were delivering fans, we were ripping out sheetrock.” “There’s not much you can do, really. The last time there was an evacuation out of Houston it was a fiasco. I’d rather my stock remain in the distillery than in a panel truck on the road, so it would have to be a huge storm for me to consider doing anything drastic like that.” The Polish-born Kozuba clan in St. Petersburg, like most Florida distillers, also didn’t have a lot of trouble with the storm at their facility. Distiller Matthias Kozuba of Kozuba & Sons Distillery said that they were in a mandatory evacuation zone, and kept an eye on things via their cameras at the distillery. “It was not only new to us because it was one of the biggest storms in American history to hit Florida. For us as immigrants it was completely new. We didn't really know what to expect,” he said. “We got lucky enough and didn't get hit directly.” Depending on their unique circumstances, some producers have built their facility around the idea of catastrophic weather. Menta knows how impactful the weather can be in the Florida keys, so he had Vendome engineer and install wheels when he bought his still. “It was in the business plan to set up for a hurricane, mainly for the flood part of it. If a wind comes and rips your roof off, there's not much you
can do,” he said.
UP AND RUNNING It’s important to remember that just getting to the distillery in the alien landscape can be a disorienting experience. Landmarks have moved or disappeared, streets are closed, the area is changed in unpredictable ways. After Irma had passed, the Kozubas came back to a St. Petersburg that had already been cleared of debris, tree limbs, and any other impediments. Thankfully they had no fermentations going, only lost power for a couple of hours, and had the most key element, “a lot of luck.” Kozuba said they lost revenue from tours, private events, and other on-site sales, but didn’t have to do any repairs or renovations after Irma had passed. In Key West, it was a little longer before Menta was able to reopen, but he took the crucial step of getting back to the distillery as quickly as possible to start cleaning up. “Right after the storm was over, and it was blowing 40 (mph) out, we were out there taking care of business.”
LOSSES Distillers in Florida and Houston generally escaped without significant losses, but other distilleries over the years haven’t always been as lucky. At Cedar Ridge Distillery in Iowa, Jeff Quint saw the Cedar River rise ten feet over its record high during the summer of 2008. “Our original location was in downtown Cedar Rapids. We were outside of the 500-year floodplain, and if someone had tried to sell us flood insurance we would have accused them of trying to rip us off,” he said. “We wound up taking on three and a half feet of water. It was devastating.” He said cleanup was its own ordeal. “This was by no means pristine water,” Quint said. “We came back in to assess the damage, and there was probably an eighth to a quarter of an inch of scum covering everything. There were dead fish in the distillery. Are we still in business, or are we out of business?” he started asking himself. “About half of my inventory was lost, tanks were knocked over. My wife Laurie started cleaning a few things, and I went up and checked the messages and there were a few orders we could fill. Kind of by accident or by default, we found ourselves conducting business.” Colin Spoelman, co-founder and head distiller at Kings County, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy
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