Written by Kelli Fuqua Hart, editor – in – chief
Photography by Chris Redd, Chief Photographer
If you have ever enjoyed a glass of their spicy Twisted Sun Golden Rum or a sweet sip of their Island Grove Blueberry Vodka, you should know you have just tasted a locally developed and locally distilled product made from all-natural, locally grown ingredients. Every FishHawk Spirits product uses some ingredient that is grown in Florida – a step that is important to its owners.
Matthew Bagdanovich risked his entire life savings to make the FishHawk Spirits a reality. Alongside co-owners Jim Brady and Chris Howard, Bagdanovish erected, operates and has put this unique artisinal distillery on the map.
With 50 states and over 3,000 counties to choose from in selecting a location for this distillery, why Marion County? Bagdanovish answers that question with two solid answers, “Location and water.”
FishHawk’s distillery sits on a secluded 3.5-acre farm in Dunnellon, of which only 1.25-acres are currently developed. Long, dirt roads lead visitors to this primitive, yet beautiful venue where they can see the entire distilling process in action. “Fortunately, Marion County wants agriculture to work,” explains Bagdanovish, “so they were both instrumental and helpful in streamlining the permitting process and opening our doors.”
FishHawks’s second not-so-secret formula is its water source. The farm sits on some of the purest water found in the US. Because it contains no iron or trace of calcium, it is, as Bagdanovich describes, “Classic whiskey maker’s water.” To help put into perspective just how great this water is we can compare it to water bottling plants. These plants use reverse osmosis filters to get total dissolve solids in their water down to 200 or 300 parts per million. The water FishHawk uses begins at 115 parts per million, naturally.
FishHawk opened for business in 2011, but its owners never anticipated visitors. Today, more and more curious passerbys stop in for a tour of the farm and to explore the inner-workings of the distillery. Ocala Magazine was lucky enough to get a private tour that literally showed the Fishhawk process from the pluck of a fresh blueberry to the clink of fully filled and labeled glass bottles as they are packaged for shipping.
The process is tedious, specific and yet exciting for Bagdanovich’s team. Even as he spoke on the processes of yeast nutrients, Diammonium Phosphate and fermentation, Bagdanovish’s face lit up with enthusiasm and passion for his product. He walked us through his distillery with pride explaining every detail of grain and how alpha amylase and beta amylase is created. Who knew how critical and captivating tiny kernels of corn were to the process of distilling, yet here they were making the magical malt FishHawk products depend on!
The smokey smell of oak and cherry deliciously filled the air as Bagdanovich roasted his malt. Smoke is a big part of FishHawk’s flavor process. The grain binds to compounds that form in the smoke. “When we get ready to grind the grain,” explains Bagdanovich, “it still has that smokey flavor. When we mash it, the smokey flavor is still there. Even as the clear whisky runs out of the still, it still contains a hint of smokey flavor. That is a big, big step for our products in terms of flavor.”
Throughout the tour, Bagdanovich kept reiterating the importance of using local ingredients. “We do business with our neighbors,” he boasted. FishHawk’s blueberry vodka is made from 100% blueberries from Island Grove. Everything in its bottle grew and was fermented within 25-miles of the distillery. Bagdanovich uses corn from Meeks’ Farm, oats from his good friend Ricky and local citrus from varying groves. His Silver Queen Whiskey is made from Silver Queen Corn he grows himself. Even the lumber he used to build his remarkable new tasting porch was all milled by a neighbor using local trees.
Under this newly built, rustic porch, detailed with Edison Bulb fixtures and hammered copper, Bagdanovich lined up his products and began to pour us all a sample. A woman on horseback trotted over for a taste of FishHawks delicious vodka collection. Visitors who come by way of horseback are the norm at the distillery.
Packaged in unique glass bottles, adorned with creatively designed labels, FishHawk products taste even better than they look. Watermelon Vodka was the perfect choice on such a hot day. Another gentleman at the tasting bar was complimenting the Marion 106 – a 106-proof Tangerine Brandy seasoned with blackberries and toasted American White Oak.
FishHawk products can be found in over 300 retail locations, as well as many local bars and restaurants. In 2016, FishHawk concentrated on opening two other locations – one in Gainesville and the other in Ybor City, Tampa.
So the next time you are ordering up some spirits, ask for FishHawk. Bagdanovich’s products hit their proof with precision. They contain no artificial flavors or preservatives. In fact, FishHawk products contain no chemical byproducts – such as sodium cyanide and acetone – which means virtually no hangover tomorrow.
“We aren’t looking to take a substandard product and make it palatable,” explains Bagdanovich. “We are taking a premium product and making it excellent.”
For more information on FishHawk Spirits, please visit www.fishhawkspirits.com or call 352.445.1292. OM