by Paul Burdziakowski
The conception of Wicked Dolphin Artisan Rum began in 2008 when Florida resident JoAnne Elardo happened to be reading an article about the U.S. sugar market over a rum cocktail. The article pointed out that over half of the sugarcane produced in the United States comes out of Florida. Elardo wondered why someone wasn’t taking advantage of this and making Florida rum. She proceeded to take a sip of her drink, thought to herself how terrible the rum tasted and the rest was history.
Equally interesting is the story of how the name “Wicked Dolphin” came about. This idea too happened quite organically one evening at Elardo’s home.
“I live along a section of the Caloosahatchee River where we have dolphins coming through,” Elardo said. My dogs get all excited whenever they show up and usually end up running the length of the river chasing after them. One night I heard a lot of commotion coming from my dogs and I was worried that someone might be trying to break into the house. I asked my husband what was going on and he said, ‘don’t worry it’s just that wicked dolphin outside that keeps coming back for the dogs.’ Later I thought about what my husband said and decided it would make a great name for our rum.”
Elardo says she has no background or experience when it comes to making rum but at the same time she is no stranger when it comes to running a successful business. From 1991-2008 Elardo owned an independent American footwear distribution company in Central and Eastern Europe.
Elardo had offices in Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. This unique work setting gave her an opportunity to travel to different parts of Europe, which she enjoyed very much. However, after 17 years of being mostly away from the U.S., Elardo decided to sell her company and retire to Florida.
Elardo made quite a splash upon starting her new business in Florida. With the help of another company, Elardo started the Florida Craft Distillers Guild in 2012 and later proceeded to get some burdensome state regulations changed. The first change came in 2013 when the state passed a bill that allowed about 20 small craft distillers in Florida, which annually produced less than 75,000 gallons of spirits (alcoholic beverages produced by distillation), to offer on-site sales. This particular bill imposed a two bottle per customer annual cap for the purchases but in 2015 Govenor Scott signed another spirits bill into law which allowed Florida craft distillers to sell two bottlers per brand per person per year.
When it came to the day-to-day operations Elardo wanted to keep Wicked Dolphin a family business so she turned to her nephew Dane Termini. Elardo felt that he was the perfect fit to be the head distiller because he had previous mechanical experience while working in the HVAC trade. Along with two other distillers, sales people, retail workers and production workers, Wicked Dolphin employs a total of 16 people.
Wicked Dolphin has a few thousand people who sign up for the opportunity to be part of the bottling crew. To make things fair, 50 names are randomly selected and an email is sent out. The first five to 10 people to respond make it onto the crew. The shift, which is approximately four hours in length, requires volunteers to do everything from unloading glass, corking, labeling, capping, shrinking, tagging, boxing and being part of the quality control process. For their efforts volunteers receive a free meal at the end of their shift and a bottle of Wicked Dolphin rum.
Termini, who provides regular tours of the distillery, says that Southwest Florida residents have shown a lot of interest in Wicked Dolphin from day one even though they didn’t have tours to start with.
“There was a ton of excitement when we first opened,” Termini said. “We had a lot of people coming and wanting to see the facility. Everyone wanted to be part of the process.”
Recently free tours and tastings are a regular occurrence at the distillery. The tours allow visitors to learn how Wicked Dolphin sources their ingredients and how they come up with all their different flavors.
“We use 100 percent Florida sugar and local ingredients,” Termini said. “Our sugar is shipped in 50 pound bags from a refinery outside of Miami. We go through about 65,000 pounds of granulated sugar and 10,000 pounds of molasses every three months.”
Tours usually end in the barrel room where visitors are informed on how the rum gets its unique color and taste.
“Our rum is aged in American White Oak barrels that once held premium aged Kentucky bourbon for at least three years,” Termini said.
Wicked Dolphin currently has nine premium signature rums, 32 reserve rums and 17 different flavors of rumshine which are made with fresh fruits. Of all the different rums available Termini says that their premium coconut flavors are currently their most popular. Termini also revealed that Wicked Dolphin recently launched a new vodka which will be released some time during early 2017.
“We try to push the limits,” Termini said. “We are always trying to come up with a new product and experiment with new flavors.”
On their way out visitors can also stop by the gift shop and purchase various items such as t-shirts, hats, shot glasses and mugs all of which have the Wicked Dolphin logo on it. Elardo says they began selling merchandise and apparel in 2014 due to the demand coming from customers and as a way to help cover employer salaries.
“People collect brewery and distillery shirts,” Elardo said. “Customers were telling us that they wished they had a t-shirt to bring back home with them. We don’t charge for our tours so the sales from the gift shop pay for our employees who run the tours.”
Today the distillery has put itself on the map as a tourist destination drawing people back time and time again.
“We never expected to be a tourist destination,” Elardo said. “One of the biggest changes happening now is that people are more educated about the craft. The craft brewers are really educating people into seeing that you can have a better product when it is hand crafted.”
The company recently launched a larger bottle size going from 750 milliliter bottles up to 1 liter and 1.75 liter bottles. They also purchased property south of the distillery, which they plan to use sometime in 2018-2019 in order to make a larger rack house and to hold their barrels for storage and aging.
Elardo says they have been able to successfully grow their brand using minimal marketing resources and by focusing on good relationships with other businesses.
“Florida is very diverse,” Elardo said. “We have millions of people a year visiting. It’s hard to market to people here because it’s always changing. When we have people on our tours learning our process and tasting our rums and vodkas, it’s the best marketing you can have. We seek good relationships with our restaurants, businesses and retail stores. It is through these relationships that we grow our brand. We are constantly growing. We are growing so much that we are starting to get calls from other states now. ”
Elardo says she doesn’t mind being a small business and is just proud of the fact that their product is made from the finest available ingredients.
“We’re okay being boutique rum,” Elardo said. “It’s about making a great product that you can be proud of. When looking for quality and something hand crafted I want people to think of us. The absolute best part of all this is when you are at a restaurant or store and you hear someone ask for a Wicked Dolphin. To be honest, it kind of rocks you.”
For more information on Wicked Dolphin visit their website at .