KEY WEST -- For good karma, what better place for a kiteboarding chef to launch the Keys' first legal rum distillery than one of Coca-Cola's earliest bottling plants?
Inside the 2,500-square-foot warehouse on Simonton Street, the island chain's soon-to-be first federally licensed distiller, Paul Menta, discovered decades-old Coke bottles and bottle caps under the cement floor as it was being dug up for plumbing.
With all the rum running and bootlegging in its colorful past, it's surprising that this island city is just now getting its first legitimate spirits manufacturer: Chef Distilled.
During Prohibition, "Spanish Marie" Waite, Willie "Twisteye" Demeritt and others made boatloads of money smuggling rum the 105 miles from Havana to Key West and on to South Florida. Other entrepreneurs made their own contraband rum, trying to stay a step ahead of federal raids and local busts.
Prohibition "was not too strictly enforced here," says Key West historian Tom Hambright. "Most of the arrests that showed up in the papers were done at sea by the Coast Guard."
Menta wants his product to capture the spirit of the island.
"Some of my rum is going to be raw and unfiltered like the people of Key West," he says. "We're not concerned about age. Down here, it's kind of a timeless place."
Menta, 47, may seem an unlikely
CEO. His usual attire is board shorts and a T-shirt, his curly, shoulder-length hair tucked under a red Key West High baseball cap. On windy days, he's at Smathers Beach, performing trick jumps high above the waves. He has been a professional kiteboarder for 14 years, and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest kiteboard crossing from Havana to Key West.
By night, he's a chef who has cooked at swanky places such as Grand Café on Duval Street and now is turning out Mexican favorites as chef-partner at Amigos Tortilla Bar on Greene Street.
Menta learned how to make beer and liquor in 10th-grade science class at a tiny Quaker school, Media-Providence Friends, near Philadelphia. The chemistry of it fascinated him. Though not much of a drinker, he says his interest grew as he encountered brewing and winemaking in Europe and homemade hootch production in South America during his travels as a chef.
Three years ago, he began kicking around the idea of starting a distillery in Key West, where he has lived since 1984. He got serious when he found the perfect location to lease: The warehouse where Coca-Cola was bottled from 1903 to 1984.
The labels on his main product, Legal Rum, will bear mug shots of people arrested in Key West for bootlegging during Prohibition. "We want to use everything local, so why not local criminals?" Menta says.
His signature drink will be a Legal Rum & Coke. His twist on the classic: The white rum will be poured over cubes of frozen Coke.
"The rum slowly mixes with the soda as it melts," he says. "It's a cool way to drink it."
If the federal permit arrives in time, Menta will make the first batch on Oct. 4.
The fermenting process takes three to four days, turning sugar, yeast and water into a "wash" that's ready to be distilled.
"It's alive," Menta says. "When the C02 blows off, it's bubbling and makes its sounds."
Two shiny, 200-gallon copper stills are ready to go. One is for stripping out impurities; the other is to smooth the rum to bring out body and flavor. Troughs are in place to soak five-gallon American oak barrels in seawater.
Just getting to the starting line has been arduous. Menta had to navigate the permitting process at the local, state and federal levels, assemble all the distilling equipment and get it installed according to strict codes.