For Naples, FL native Alex Voss a period of unemployment in 2012 became the perfect opportunity to travel to Hawaii and experience island living. What started as a short-term trip, however, soon turned into an extended stay and ultimately led to a new found career in distilling.
“I was living in San Francisco building iPhone apps,” Voss said. “I got laid off and I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore. My situation wasn’t too great and I just wanted to get away. I bought a one-way ticket to Maui and stayed for five months doing construction work with a friend of mine. The job ended and I had to figure out what to do again.”
While looking for additional temporary work, Voss came across an ad for an apprenticeship at the Haleakala Distiller on Maui. Voss had no previous experience working in a distillery, but since there was not a lot of work to choose from in Hawaii, he gave the job a shot. Voss says the job didn’t pay a lot, but the more he learned, the more he began to like it.
“I walked into a well-oiled machine that had been operating for over 10 years,” Voss said. “A lot of it was labor, understanding my raw material and what to do with it. I didn’t get paid a lot of money and living on the island was expensive but the job grew on me. I developed friendships and I felt like I was part of the island.”
Voss says his family supported his newfound passion and after visiting him in Maui began to encourage him to start his own distillery back home in Florida. Soon after this, Voss began to research other distilleries and by late 2013 he was fully committed to the idea of operating his own.
Voss received a great deal of help from family and friends to make his distillery a reality. His mother was the one responsible for finding his current facility in Punta Gorda and supplying the funds to purchase it.
“I grew up in Naples and I wanted to build the distillery close to home,” Voss said. “We looked for space in Lee and Collier County but there was nothing there that we could afford. My mom was driving around and found a building in Charlotte County before they listed it. She bought this property when I was still living in Maui.”
The idea for the name came shortly thereafter as Voss was attempting to familiarize himself with the area.
“Initially Peace River Rum was the idea,” Voss said. “The river is one fourth of a mile north of us. I started going down the river on Google Maps and saw that there was a harbor called Alligator Bay. I wanted a name that paid homage to the city.”
Voss says it was a chore learning all the different legal aspects associated with operating a distillery but, once again, he got the help he needed from a close friend of his who works as an attorney.
Alligator Bay Distillers officially opened in December of 2015 behind a simple emoji of some sugar cane, a distiller, an oak barrel, and bottle of rum, and the production motto of “Cane to Bottle.”
“It was thought of one day after looking at emojis and understanding we could tell the story of our rum production with simple icons,” Voss said.
When it comes to getting the word out about Alligator Bay Distillers, Voss says he relys on his brother, Ben.
“My brother got on board when I started production,” Voss said. “I wanted the help and he wanted to be a part of this. He’s currently an apprentice but I want him to learn everything so I’m transitioning him into sales. Ben has been driving around southwest Florida, stopping in to chat with local bar and liquor store owners, from Marco Island to Boca Grande.”
In addition to sales Ben has an extended mechanical background, which comes in handy for upgrades and repairs on the various moving parts at the distillery. Ben says his real focus right now is letting other people know that they are open and running.
“We’re the only distillery that I know of that is five minutes off the highway,” Ben said. “There’s a huge market out there but not many people know that we are here.”
While Ben focuses on sales it is Voss who performs the actual distilling. Voss says he is hands-on and operates the distillery with his own unique methods and equipment, such as using gravity feed to transport molasses from a 5,000-gallon storage tank into heavy-duty totes.
“When you use too many pumps it changes the viscosity of your product,” Voss said. “Most people use stainless steel mash tanks. I love using totes because they are built for fork lifts and can hold 250 gallons of liquid.”
Improving on an idea from Maui, Voss uses custom designed fermentation tanks with CO2 dissipation valves at the top and special valves at the bottom to quickly remove thick sediment waste.
Voss explains, “My tanks have a small opening that will release CO2 off the top. In Maui they had the entire top of the tank open so it was exposed to bacteria and oxygen.”
After a challenging start Voss says he is now able to consistently produce five different types of traditionally handcrafted rum. Almost all of the rum is bottled at 40 percent alcohol and includes honey, vanilla, chocolate, pineapple, coconut and cinnamon flavors.
“The hardest part was locking in my recipe and learning how to use the pot still,” Voss said. “I started using my recipe from Hawaii but I was using a different yeast here and started having fermentation problems. It took me six to eight months but I finally found a recipe that gave the flavor and volume that I wanted.”
Besides conventional honey Voss says most everything that he uses for ingredients comes from local sources.
“The molasses is the biggest source of local raw material that we use,” Voss said. “We pay 88 cents a gallon for our molasses which is sourced from the Clewiston sugar mill 70 miles from Punta Gorda. Our molasses carries bittersweet notes meaning it tastes like licorice and gives the rum a bold flavor.”
Voss’s old-fashioned copper pot still from Oregon also plays big part in giving the rum its flavor. Voss says that although the one shot method does not produce the purest final product, the various organic compounds that are left behind help to provide a more flavorful and textured rum.
“I use an old fashioned still,” Voss said. “Not too many people do. That’s what makes me different. Old fashioned stills are known as one shots because the vapor rises and condenses one time while a modern still may get eight shots in one pass through. You create a purer alcohol that way but I want my rum to carry the essence of the molasses.”
Voss says there are about 22 oak barrels on site for which he uses to store, flavor and age his rum. After three years of use the barrels are reconditioned or sold to other beverage industries.
In addition to using local products, Voss prides himself in operating a progressively sustainable distillery. Voss says at some point he wants to outfit his distillery roof with solar panels but for now he is focusing on putting his waste molasses to good use by offering it to local ranchers as livestock feed.
“After I process the molasses I don’t need it anymore,” Voss said. “I might get about 1,000 gallons of waste a week. The high mineral content is too rich to dump. It will burn the grass. I dilute it down to three to one water to molasses ratio and recycle it with the ranchers. I have six different guys that come to pick up 250 gallon totes of stillage. We’re a helping hand for each other.”
Voss says Alligator Bay Distillers are currently in the early stages of marketing their product but they have lofty goals for expansion.
“Ninety percent of our sales are currently generated at our gift shop,” Voss said. “We find guests enjoy the experience, learning the process and sampling afterwards. We are currently only located in three counties — Charlotte, Lee and Collier. The short-term goals are to create brand recognition in our current markets. We plan to start expanding to other parts of the state by the end of 2017.”
Voss says he doesn’t plan on making any other types of spirits besides rum at this point and he is currently working on a high-proof rum product line to be released in March of 2017.
For more information on Alligator Bay Distillers visit their website at www.alligatorbaydistillers.com .