TARPON SPRINGS — From the name to the logos to the building itself, the Tarpon Springs Distillery captures the flavor of Tarpon Springs.
The venture started by Barry and Lisa Butler in a refurbished sponge warehouse at 605 N. Pinellas Ave. has officially opened to the public, and based on the huge turnouts at its Jan. 17 ribbon cutting and the grand opening the next day, it appears that the Butlers got it right.
“It’s impressive. The attention to detail is incredible,” Jason Shenefield, a professional chef and sommelier in Orlando who consults for restaurants, breweries and distilleries, said as he sipped shots on Saturday. “The knowledge of the staff, how friendly everyone is, the décor,” he added. “Everything is top notch.”
Indeed, everything about the Tarpon Springs Distillery was carefully thought out, from the mural by New Port Richey artist Jenny Pearl that wraps the exterior of the building and the décor featuring sponges and diving helmets to the labels and the distillery equipment itself, which includes a massive 500-gallon pot still the Butlers named “Amazing Grace” because it’s wrapped in reclaimed wood from a century-old church.
According to Lisa Butler, paying attention to detail while honoring the city’s history was important.
“Tarpon Springs is unique in terms of history — the Greek heritage, the sponge diving industry. There’s nothing like it,” she said. “So, it was really important to us to play that up.”
While cool decorations and friendly service make for a welcoming atmosphere, when it comes right down to it, a distillery is all about the booze.
Although the Butlers, who work in the pharmaceutical industry, had no previous professional experience crafting spirits, Lisa explained Barry is “an effortless idea generator, and he’s a great chef and a master of flavors. So, it’s no surprise he wanted to make spirits.”
She said the couple traveled to distilleries around the country over the past several years comparing tastes and taking notes, and she said they even spent quality time in the mountains of Tennessee learning how to make moonshine “the traditional Appalachian way.”
The result is a trio of spirits for sale at Tarpon Springs Distillery: Gramling Woods Rye Moonshine; Anclote Gin and Papou’s Ouzo.
As he began one of the many tastings on the grand opening afternoon, Barry Butler explained the intricacies of his products. He noted the Anclote Gin is a “sipping” spirit that makes for a great a Bloody Mary, and he suggested adding apple pie cocktail mix to the Gramling Woods to help take some of the edge off the 100-proof ’shine.
The ouzo is a clear, Greek staple that Butler said differs from other brands sold stateside.
“The ouzo turns white under cool temperatures,” he said, adding, “and it gets more flavorful as it sits on ice.”
When asked for his expert opinion after sampling the spirits alone and in Tarpon Springs Distillery’s signature cocktails, Shenefield said, “they’re full of flavor and quality instead of just getting the job done …. I can tell they’re serious about what they’re doing.”
Based on their experience in the pharmaceutical field, Lisa Butler said they wanted to put an emphasis on quality.
“We decided we were going to make everything we sold from scratch. We were not going to cut any corners. We just wanted to be the real deal,” she said, noting they do not grind their own grain at the distillery because “it’s safer, and we really care about the community. “
Once they found the building, everything quickly fell into place. Well, after some of the walls fell, first.
“This was a wholesale sponge warehouse that operated for 60 years before being vacant for the last 10,” Butler said of the former Katzaras Sponge Company, which was founded in 1945. “So, it was in pretty rough shape. We had to demolish an attached house and the wooden floors had to be replaced, and a wall was knocked out. But the city was great when it came to helping us get open, and here we are.”
As guests began to pour in for the grand opening, Barry Butler wrapped up his latest sampling session and prepped for the next one; due to state laws, the distillery is not allowed to sell shots or drinks, only full bottles of liquor, and sales are limited to six bottles per brand per customer per year. Hence the free samples.
“It’s one of the biggest thorns in our side,” Lisa Butler said. “We can sell our spirits in the gift shop, but we cannot sell cocktails because we don’t have a liquor license. The idea is to get the customers to try the drinks and then sell the bottles.
“So, things have us a little hamstrung, and we have to be creative to get around it.”
For the Butlers, who named the distillery’s fermentation vessels Sherman, Abrams and Patton, after the iconic U.S. battle tanks, creativity shouldn’t be a problem.