Food & Drink

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum: Manatee County’s first distillery set to open

After months of careful, meticulous preparation, fermentation and distillation, not to mention navigation of strict governmental oversight, Manatee County’s first distillery opens its doors to the public at 10 a.m. on Friday.

Offering locally produced rum, gin and vodka, Loaded Cannon Distillery is located in Suite 110 of the Gatewood Corporate Center at 3115 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.

Customers may sample the spirits, a half ounce at a time, in the tasting room of the gleaming 5,000-square-foot pirate-themed facility and take a tour of the production plant.

Guides explain the process of converting raw materials such as Clewiston molasses, stored in an oversized blue storage tank in the middle of the distillery floor, and 40,000 pounds of Jacksonville corn, stored in an outside silo, into spirits.

A few individuals and groups already have had an opportunity to sample the spirits and have given Loaded Cannon high marks.

White rum, dark rum, spice rum and vodka have been popular, with the toasted coconut rum already selling out, according to founder and lead distiller Steve Milligan.

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Steve Milligan and Michelle Russell hold bottles of spirits produced by Loaded Cannon Distillery. The new business opens Friday, July 19, at Lakewood Ranch. James A. Jones Jr.

The gin, which receives a hint of citrus, has been popular as well.

“There are about 10 different botanicals we’re putting in our gin, and by law it has to be very heavy in juniper,” Milligan said.

“People have been walking in and buying the last two weeks. The support of Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch leading up to the opening has been tremendous.”

Whiskey will be joining the lineup of Loaded Cannon spirits in the future.

With the tours and tastings, Loaded Cannon is not just a distillery, it is a destination as well.

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Steve Milligan and Michelle Russell stand with some of the tanks used to make spirits at Loaded Cannon Distillery. The new business opens July 19, at Lakewood Ranch. James A. Jones Jr.

Michelle Russell, who handles marketing and social media for Loaded Cannon, calls it an entertaining show, invoking the names of legendary pirates such as Pascual Miguel, Carlota, Ben Margoza and Jose Gaspar in the branding of its spirits.

“Our product will only get better with time and feedback from our customers. It will be forever changing,” Russell said. “We always want to put out small batches and reserves.”

A chemical engineer, Milligan began making spirits for foreigners working in Saudi Arabia, and received enthusiastic praise for how good they were.

With that encouragement, he decided to open a distillery after returning to the United States.

“Nobody should walk out of here unhappy. They should feel like they have had a good show and bought some good alcohol,” Milligan said.

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There are many nautical and pirate references at at Loaded Cannon Distillery, which opens July 19, at Lakewood Ranch. James A. Jones Jr.

Milligan attended a meeting of about 40 Florida distillers this week to talk about common issues.

“It is brutal trying to open a distillery in Florida. We can’t sell cocktails, we can’t go to events and we can’t sell more than six bottles per label to customers,” Milligan said.

Florida distillers have taken their concerns to the Florida Legislature. Locally, Milligan has been talking to Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota.

While at the distillers conference in Orlando, Milligan was surprised to meet a Bradenton woman who spotted the Loaded Cannon logo on his shirt and asked if he might be Steve Milligan.

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Bottles of Loaded Cannon Distillery vodka and rum are lined up behind the bar of the tasting room. James A. Jones Jr.

She had read several stories in the Bradenton Herald about Loaded Cannon and knew that the distillery was opening soon, he said.

“Everyone has been patiently waiting for Loaded Cannon to open. We had two women drive down from Tampa. They thought we were already open, so we opened the doors for them,” Russell said.

Loaded Cannon offers guests a flight of five half-ounce samples of its spirits for $5. Guests get to keep one of the barrel-shaped shot glasses as a souvenir.

Other souvenirs offered include hats, T-shirts, glassware, coasters and bar sets.

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Steve Milligan sits on some of the barrels used to age spirits at Loaded Cannon Distillery. The new business opens July 19, at Lakewood Ranch. James A. Jones Jr.

“We have had people come in and want to buy tables. We tell them, no problem, it’s easy. We can have them custom-made for you,” Russell said.

Loaded Cannon is considering adding events space in the suite next door, Milligan said.

In the meantime, Milligan hopes that guests who like Loaded Cannon spirits begin asking for them at their local bars and liquor stores. The increased demand could help the company get a distributor.

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Among the souvenirs offered at Loaded Cannon Distillery are T-shirts, shown above, hats, glassware and more. James A. Jones Jr.

Florida is a three-tiered state where one company may produce spirits, but another must distribute it and another must retail it.

The Loaded Cannon tasting room is open from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Distillery tours are available Wednesday and Thursday by appointment and to the walk-in public from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday. The price of a distillery tour is $15 and includes a free shot glass and free tastings.

Private events and libation classes are also available.

For more information, visit or call 941-900-1482.

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