Wine X Magazine Online
They have stolen Tom Brady and Gronk. They have taken the Stanley Cup from its rightful home in the frozen hinterlands of Canada. Now they are taking bourbon from Kentucky.
Is there no end to this shameless pilfering from the North?
The good news is they aren’t trying to steal Kentucky’s thunder when it comes to bourbon. According to Dark Door Spirits owner Matt Allen, “We have the luxury of being able to make the products we want, in the style we want. Ideally, it resonates with the crowd; if not, we enjoy it ourselves.”
Based on a recent tasting there, it DOES resonate with the crowd. This being Florida, no “so-called pandemic” was going to get in the way of tastings. The staff at Dark Door Spirits are quite adept at handling the mythical “Florida Man” species, and the tasting room provided ample room to sit and enjoy some really unique and compelling offerings.
Located in a warehouse district away from downtown Tampa (but merely a stone’s throw from the world-famous Mons Venus gentlemen’s club) Dark Door Spirits is a destination unto itself. The ample space inside the warehouse means the entire operation- distilling, aging, bottling, and tasting, can all be conducted on premises. It also means there is room for a skunkworks lab where the creative team can remain hard at work coming up with additional libations.
They had just released their initial foray into the world of Florida rums with two smoked rums; mesquite and hickory. Spirits distilled from sugar cane, molasses, or honey in Florida are about as ubiquitous as septuagenarians dating twenty years-olds. The smokiness added a unique flavor profile making the rums very food friendly. Or as their in house master mixologist Shane Neukam pointed out, “cocktail friendly.”
They offer a cheekily named vodka called “Pandemic at the Disco.” The label is an homage to all things pandemic related- toilet paper strung from palm trees and masks on their mascot Cerberus. During the pandemic, Dark Door Spirits went into wartime mode and churned out sanitizer for anybody and everybody. As less-than-savory suppliers gouged them with obscene increases in underlying costs, Dark Door did their patriotic best to help everyone else. With the rush on sanitizer over, pallet upon pallet of leftover product takes up valuable shelf space. Sadly, the same folks who took advantage of the situation and profited from the pandemic have yet to return to purchase the broad offering of spirits now that production is back to its traditional focus.
The two products at the backbone of their offering are handcrafted gin and whiskeys. The lavender and rose hip-infused gin is really compelling and should be a staple in every true mixologist’s bar. It contains a welcoming floral overtone that makes it ideal for summer cocktails, with very little needed beyond a good tonic or soda, and a hint of citrus.
They make their gins in true Prohibition-era, bathtub style, meaning there is significant experimentation with different flavor profiles and ingredients. It is done in a controlled environment, so there is no fear of going blind from a bad batch.
In fact this idea of blending and experimentation is offered out to the guest level. They host events where you can come in and taste through several different infused gins and essentially create and bottle your own. Why this isn’t a staple of bachelorette parties, I don’t know. I have asked to be kept in the loop when it does happen.
They offer a similar program with their whiskeys. Guests can taste through roughly a dozen in-house aged whiskeys featuring distinct flavor profiles ranging from “sweet corn, cut hay” to “toasted coconut, imperial stout.” You can create your own master blend and have it bottled and live like any of the other Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneer ballers do. I suggest not letting Gronk toss your 1 liter bottle as it is about as rare as the Lombardi trophy is, and would definitely make a bigger mess if dropped.
The whiskeys show the creativity of the Dark Door Spirits. Their “Spirit of the IPA” whiskey is a bipolar beverage. Guests either love it or hate it- there is no in-between. Matt describes it as the ultimate “Florida Whiskey.” The whiskey you want to take to the beach when you don’t feel like drinking a lot of beer. They actually take an IPA beer from a local brewery and distill it into a whiskey. This distillate is blended and barreled with an already-aged corn whiskey or bourbon. They start with barrels from Buffalo Trace distillery, which are then sent to the folks at Calusa Brewing in Sarasota (great place btw) where they create a bourbon cask ale. The used casks are returned to Dark Door Spirits and the whiskey is added to the still-wet ale-aged barrels. The resulting product is a confounding drink that tastes like whiskey going down, and an IPA when you exhale. Almost like a single-glass whiskey and chaser.
Their Spirit of the Oak captures the caramel and vanilla sweetness that comes from being aged in properly toasted oak barrels and having a very high (74%) corn mash. Like most of their offerings, it stands on its own as a sipping whiskey, but would be excellent in cocktails.
My personal favorite was the Spirit of the Harvest. Ryes can be over the top with pepper and spiciness, but this was just spot on with zero heat even at 96 proof. The flavor profile of pumpernickel and rye would lend itself to an excellent old–fashioned.
In keeping with their focus on community ties, they have done a few special releases. “Buddhaful” is a blend from two of their aging casks that has a very pronounced candied orange peel profile. A local artist, Tracey Jones, was selected to design the vibrant label. Future special releases will all feature local artist-designed labels.
In conjunction with the Whiskey Culture Blog, they did a limited release of their Brown Butter Bourbon which clocks in at a potent 117 proof. They start with barrels from Buffalo Trace distillery, which are then sent to the folks at Calusa Brewing in Sarasota (great place btw) where they create a bourbon cask ale. The used casks are returned to Dark Door Spirits, and the whiskey is added to the still-wet ale-aged barrels. The heat is well tamed in this viscous bourbon that features a welcome buttered popcorn and sweetness that practically begs for one ice cube and a cigar as an accompaniment.
My hostess Christina was effusive with her knowledge and charm and pointed out all of the events they do in-house given the open space. She reiterated their interest in collaborating with other local artists to do art shows, comedy shows, bands, and anything else that can bring the artistic community together while sharing some intriguing beverages or some of their newly permitted craft cocktails.
It’s a wonder that while I was there I did not run into any Super Bowl or Stanly Cup-winning players, but perhaps at 4 pm they were down the road at Mons Venus. Regardless, it is absolutely worth entering through the Dark Door.