By Chad Thurman
Photography by Romona Robbins
The time was February 1929, and the United States was about to enter deep into the ravages of the Great Depression. Most Americans then were having a hard time making ends meet and were trying to survive by making money through any opportunity that presented itself. One such opportunity was bootlegging alcoholic spirits. However, this line of work had been illegal since 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution set the framework for what would come to be known as Prohibition. Almost overnight, alcohol became a highly profitable, although illicit, trade industry. Those who dared to make, transport, sell, or deliver it stood to gain lucrative profits—so long as they didn’t get caught.
Northwest Florida’s vast wilderness, extensive rivers, many bayous and bays, and coastline along the Gulf of Mexico made it the ideal place to make and move illegal alcohol. With a train line running directly from Chicago to Northwest Florida, wealthy men from the big cities traveled to the area for more than just fishing trips and golfing in the sun. Two distilled products drew them and their money to the state: turpentine and alcohol. Both industries proved to be integral to the livelihoods of many of the small communities along the Gulf Coast during this period of American history. And, early in 1929, one of the wealthy businessmen in Florida was Al Capone.
Fast-forward to February 20, 2014, when Okaloosa County’s first legal alcoholic spirit was produced in the historic Fox Theatre building in downtown Crestview, Florida. This beverage was created by Tyler Peaden, his brother Trey, and their partner, Robert Ellis, and was distilled just a hundred yards from the county courthouse—all with the blessing of the permitting governmental agencies.
Tyler Peaden credits curiosity and his background in the local service industry as instrumental to his entry into the distilling business. However, after spending time at Peaden Brothers Distillery on Main Street in Crestview, one soon finds that there may be some family tradition involved in the process as well.
“I was in the bar business, and curiosity paved the way for what we have here. We won’t go into depth about it, but in the application for the federal side of things, there’s an area where they want to see your equipment—but you are not yet legal, so it’s one of those gray areas,” Tyler says. “Fortunately, a field officer with the Florida beverage control board—who I worked with years ago—told me the way to go about things. He said, ‘Alright, here’s the deal. Y’all can have the equipment since you’re in the licensing process, but do not assemble it.’”
While the distillery was under construction, the brand-new still was kept on the top floor of a local office in downtown Crestview. “The still sat up there for seven or so months,” Tyler continues. “We had the equipment about nine months before we could use it.” Finally, the Peaden brothers and Robert Ellis were able to create the first legally distilled spirits produced in Okaloosa County. “The recipe was right on the money, though I believe it could have been run twice. We single distilled it, and it should have been double distilled. You can smell the difference, but most notably, when you double distill, it smoothes out and enhances the flavor immensely. We just ran it through quickly as a novelty thing so we could say that it was the first of the first, but it’s not a spirit that you would want to drink. It’s rough; it’s moonshine.” The more a spirit is distilled, the purer the alcohol becomes, which gives it a smoother finish. With the Peaden Brothers’ bigger still, they are now able to double distill their liquors in one run. “That’s all one needs to do. The proof’s there, the quality’s there, and that’s all in a single run. If you distill too many times, it becomes such a fine alcohol that there is no flavor of the grains left. It just turns into vodka basically.”
After the distillation process, the spirits age in new, charred white oak barrels for five to six months (for bourbon). Using smaller barrels can speed up the aging process, while large barrels may take years. “The smaller the barrel, the faster we can age it,” Tyler explains. “We could do it in as little as three to four months. Barrels are in short supply now, but we locked in with our supplier on a contract before all of the hype about distilling popped up from the Discovery Channel show Moonshiners. They call us and ask how many barrels we’ll need.”
That’s all one needs to do. The proof’s there, the quality’s there, and that’s all in a single run. If you distill too many times, it becomes such a fine alcohol that there is no flavor of the grains left.
Speaking of Moonshiners, the show’s featured bootlegger, Don Wood, stopped by to check out Peaden Brothers Distillery last year. “He contacted me with a couple of e-mails,” Tyler says. “Back in October, he informed me that he would be in Crestview at the end of the month. On his way back from Oktoberfest in Daytona, he asked if he could come and see our facility and still.” When Wood stopped by, the distillery was still under construction, but the bootlegger was impressed nonetheless. “He said that he had been all over the country looking at stills and the way that they were laid out and the way that they were marketed, and he said that our operation was unique and outside of the box—the novelty of it being in an old theatre; the way the tasting room turned out looking like a barrel; and the fact that production is happening on Main Street less than a hundred yards from the county seat courthouse.”
Peaden Brothers Distillery is well known within the craft distillers’ industry for creating all-natural, flavored whiskies and moonshines. The Peadens say that this fame enables them to create and produce more flavors that will be coming out this spring.
“We started out with flavors that were seventy proof. We’ll have more flavors out this spring that are forty proof like everyone else on the market,” Tyler explains. “We have bourbon that has been very successful; I’ve got a rye in the back aging now. On the moonshine, we have a unique process that makes it clear. We do this with absolutely no sugar; it’s all-natural in that we use an enzyme to force the sugars out, and then, of course, the corn will ferment. A lot of people in the distilling industry and some in the brewing industry, too, take a lot of pride in using enzymes. It’s not something that is very easy to do. It is very time consuming and you have to babysit the still; it’s not just a ‘cook it and go’ process. There is a lot more maintenance involved on our part to do it this way.”
The story behind Tyler’s favorite flavored whiskey from the distillery, Strawberry Angel AMP, brings a more serious note to the business. “My daughter passed away the year before last at the age of twenty from diabetes,” he explains. “That was a big shock because she was here one day and then she was just gone. When that happened, we had already worked on the recipe, but I didn’t know about the labeling or name going on the bottle; my brother and partner came up with all of that as a tribute to her. Strawberry Angel, Alana Michelle Peaden—those are her initials.” Even the bar code on the label was customized so the last four digits are Alana’s birthday, 6-9-93, which is also part of the federal serial and identification numbers of one of the Peaden Brothers stills. “They also put her initials on the floor of the tasting room. My partner and my brother did all of that during the time I was away after I lost her; I had no idea they had done all of that.”
Tyler Peaden credits his wife as being the alchemist behind the flavors, adding that she is very good at this part of the business. “The most difficult flavored moonshine to do was the one we call Shock the Monkey Nanner Shine,” he says. “If you ever try to get flavor out of a banana, there’s none there. My wife went through every natural banana in the world trying to get that natural banana flavor—because we are all-natural. Somehow or another she hit the flavor close, so we left it at that.”
Another popular flavor, Cherry Da Bomb, was created as a salute to the military. “It has a 1940s pin up girl on the label that is reminiscent of the airplane nose art on American bombers during World War II,” Tyler shares. “It’s a big favorite with cherry lovers—a nice blend of corn whiskey with a rich cherry finish.”
“Blue Berry Curve is named for an area just north of town here in Crestview,” he continues. “Back when we were in high school, there were giant blueberry fields there. It has the wonderful taste of old-fashioned corn whiskey with a hint of blueberry. It’s an excellent whiskey to use in a mixed drink or drink chilled straight.”
Big Granny’s Apple Cobbler is a tribute to the Peadens’ grandmother. “We threw a curveball to the apple pie flavors of other boutique distilleries and did the apple cobbler angle instead. We use our own proprietary blend of spices to simulate an apple cobbler.”
Every flavor’s name ties back to a story about the Peadens, and Tyler’s brother Trey does all of the artwork and label designs.
In fact, every flavor’s name ties back to a story about the Peadens, and Tyler’s brother Trey does all of the artwork and label designs. “We named our moonshine after the building we’re in,” Tyler says. “We submitted to get the moonshine approved for sale, knowing that it normally takes ninety days to get a formula approved—but we were approved in just twenty days. And it takes forty-five days to get a label approved, so we were all caught realizing that we hadn’t even decided on a name for the product yet. We three—Robert Ellis, Trey, and I—happened to be standing out in front of the building during this conversation. The building, of course, is the old Fox Theatre, so we named it the Fox 382 Special Edition Moonshine.”
When Tyler speaks of Peaden’s rye whiskey formula and its namesake, he takes on the air of a seasoned orator of folklore. “Otahite Reserve Rye is named for an area around Blackwater State Forest,” he reveals. “Otahite is where my grandfather started the first post office in Northwest Florida. It was also a trading post for the Native Americans in the area. I knew my grandfather was in the turpentine and timber businesses. We have since found out through a historian that he was also in the spirits business. Otahite was very close to the forest. The outpost had proximity to the rivers, and the major roads and railways were basically in the backyard. Recently, a family relative shared the true story of a tree brand that had been with the family since the turpentine days at the turn of the twentieth century. This particular tree brand was used to mark timber, turpentine barrels—and other barrels. They stamped each barrel in a particular way so that, depending on where the brand was—on the top or on the side—it indicated whether it contained turpentine or spirits. When the barrels floated down Blackwater River to the Otahite outpost, the workers would then know the right barge to load the marked barrels on.”
Tyler goes on to explain that local historians believe notorious gangster Al Capone stayed in the area, specifically in Valparaiso, as he traveled to and from his house in Miami. “At the time, Capone was traveling between Illinois and Florida; the train from Chicago came directly to DeFuniak Springs,” Tyler says. “It was believed for many years that Capone’s bootleggers worked out of the Blackwater Forest. Whichever way Capone was going, his men were going the other way with his whiskey. I had three local historians contact me with this information. We had always heard that he came here to play golf, but we always wondered, why here? Then, with the historians and my relative’s information about the tree brand, we bridged the link of Al Capone to the area’s spirit industry during Prohibition.”
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The Peaden brothers and Robert Ellis carry on a local and storied tradition that blends history and good times with fine spirits and meaningful flavors. Peaden Brothers Distillery has a major distribution deal in the works, in addition to the many new flavors and unique spirits currently reserved in the aging process. The distillery maintains a website with an online store at www.peadenbrothersdistillery.com. Peaden also suggests people like their Facebook fan page found under the same name. The distillery offers tastings at 382 North Main Street in Crestview, Florida. They are open Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon to five and can open other times upon request. Call the distillery at (850) 306-1344.