What do you get when you take a World Record holding Kite Boarder, Chef, and 20 year resident of Key West and add the love of Rum – not to mention the life of a Conch? You get one of the best craft rum distilleries in America. Paul Menta a long time chef in Key West took his love for rum to a successful new height. You see, Paul created the First Legal Rum Distillery in Key West just a little over a year ago. As a matter of fact, the 1 Year anniversary of the “Chef Distilled” rum distillery is on the same date as the repeal of prohibition in the US.
We were hanging out in the Rodriguez Cigar factory during our visit to Key West, and were introduced to the new distillery when a Chef Distilled staff member came in the shop to the shop to get his daily fix of Rodriguez cigars. I have been going to the Island for decades and it came as a pleasant surprise that there was a distillery now on Americas Caribbean Island. So after we finished with Rodriguez we headed over to Simonton Street and checked out the new attraction. The building itself has some interesting history, it was a pre-prohibition bar and was also the Coca Cola bottling plant.
We met Paul Menta the owner of Chef Distilled. Paul greeted us warmly and gave us a back room tour of the operations. He explained that the Rum they produce is “hangover free” as he showed us how they distill it 6 times and then run it through 10 feet of charcoal. It takes 3 – 4 days to ferment and is produced with natural sugar cane. A sample taste confirms that this is one of the best rums that will touch your lips.
The story got even better when he explained that the anniversary of the distillery was the same date as the repeal of prohibition and we just happened to be there when they were about to all march out onto the street and recreate the reading of the 21st amendment of the US constitution precisely at 5:32 p.m. the exact time it was ratified in 1933. This time it was Key West Mayor Craig Cates that did the honors. Yours truly even got to partake in the festivities holding a sign that stated “Make it Legal”
After the festivities I got a moment to talk some more with Paul Menta and learn about his passion. I asked him how rum making compares to being a chef and he stated that “food does not wait but Rum does”. You set the process up and then you have time to follow your other passions like Kite Boarding. Being a chef did not allow this freedom for him so Paul is truly living his dream.
When asked how he learned how to make rum, Paul told us he actually learned the process of brewing beer and distilling spirits from the teetotaler Quakers who taught him chemistry at a Philadelphia-area school. To further is understanding and knowledge he traveled to Centennial, CO to visit the Abates’s Downslope Distillery to learn how to make rum the proper way – with sugar-wash from natural sugar cane instead of a molasses-based mash . As a chef, Paul took the lessons to heart and created his first rum. Paul uses only local ingredients from the island and sugar cane from South Florida. He uses two custom-made 200 gallon stills from the Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Ky. Paul believes in the “Buy America” mantra.
The Chef Distilled creations include some amazingly smooth and infused results. Our personal favorite was the Key West Devils Rum – a cinnamon infused rum that has to be one of the smoothest and flavorful rums I have ever tasted. It is great straight up as sipping rum and really adds a boost to a Saturday morning coffee. I highly recommend it as a pairing for your morning cigar.
Speaking of cigars, the Key West Legal Rum Distillery has partnered with Rodriguez Cigars to create a rum based cigar that uses a unique process. This is a truly a marriage made in paradise.
Of course all was not so easy for Paul and his desire to create the first legal rum distillery in Key West, He met many head winds along his journey. The US Government had just shut down and his application was stuck in government limbo. He was literally down to his last pennies before the government finally resolved their differences and then approved his license after 150 days in limbo. Paul also stated that you don’t see many distilleries opening up because “It’s too hard to get a license. You need to basically set up the entire operation and have the government inspect it before you can get the paperwork approved. It takes them 30 days just to get your bottle labels approved.”
The distillery has been quite successful in it its first year. It has already turned a profit and most of the rum making itself was done by just two hands, Paul Menta. He knew he had to fully understand the ins and outs of the process personally so as to get everything right. He has now hiring apprentices and creating a new job skill for the island as this is the first distillery the island has had.
Chef Distilled produces 450 bottles of rum per week and they are building organically starting out in Key West at the local bars, pubs, and restaurants. Eventually they will branch out throughout Florida and beyond. The offer guided distillery tours and rum-tasting sessions that offer stories of old Key West and rum such as the story of how confiscated booze stored at the county courthouse somehow turned into ordinary well water, overnight. The tours start after 5 p.m. for parties of six or more.
Besides the rum that is made and sold at the distillery you can see many historical items like the a collection of old Coca-Cola bottles that Paul found when cleaning out the building. Old Signs and even some turn of the century newspaper articles about rum running back in the days of prohibition.
The next time you are visiting Key West don’t forget to stop in to Chef Distilled and check out their rum and sign up for a tasting and tour. They are located at 105 Simonton Street just a short walk off Duval Street. Tell Paul “Boston Jimmie” from Stogie Press says hi. You can also like them on Facebook.