“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” or in the case of Roger Morenc, “make distilled spirits.” When faced with an unexpected and unwanted corporate reassignment which required relocation, Morenc and his wife Heather decided it was time for a serious reassessment of their priorities and life’s work. The ultimate outcome of that reassessment was the establishment of Marlin & Barrel, the First Coast’s newest distillery, located on South Second Street in Fernandina Beach.
The couple evaluated numerous business opportunities and potential sites before settling on the current venture and venue. Marlin & Barrel is located in a completely refurbished century-old building just a stone’s throw from the waterfront in historic downtown. The space has a rich, if apocryphal history, including stints as a bottling facility, sign and banner shop and perhaps, even a brothel.
Morenc speaks about the business with a contagious passion and enthusiasm. “This was a labor of love from the start,” he says. “It’s taken more than two years to get to this point, and we’ve only really just started.” The couple’s studious attention to detail is evident in everything from the building’s interior décor to the labels on the bottles. Even the business name was carefully considered. “It’s like having to name a child before you know what the child’s personality is going to be,” says Morenc with a smile. “We knew that we wanted something that suggested Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Lauren, though. We chose ‘Marlin’ to recognize the tenacity of the spirited local gamefish and ‘Barrel’ to acknowledge the heritage of quality implied by the traditional use of vintage barrels in the distillation process.”
From its two stills and with the help of three part-time employees, the distillery currently produces two product brands: a craft vodka (“Venture Vodka”) and a white rum (“Bearing Rum”). Both are 80-proof (40% alcohol-by-volume) spirits. The overall manufacturing components, process and final products are uniquely and intentionally Floridian. Both the vodka and rum are made from molasses produced from Florida-grown sugarcane. Molasses, from the Latin word melaceres meaning ‘honey-like,’ is the thick, dark syrup byproduct which results from the sugarcane refining process. “We are proud to ‘wave the Florida flag’ as much as possible in our business,” says Morenc, “so sourcing our raw materials locally was important to us. Florida leads the United States in sugarcane production, even surpassing Louisiana and Texas, so we knew after some careful research and numerous phone calls, that we could find the right local suppliers and partners.”
The cane is grown and refined by U.S. Sugar, headquartered in Clewiston, Florida, just southwest of Lake Okeechobee. The company, founded in 1931, produces over 7 million tons of sugarcane annually. The molasses byproduct is shipped in bulk by rail from Clewiston to JAXPORT. From there, the molasses is unloaded, re-containerized and ultimately delivered to the Marlin & Barrel facility for fermentation and distillation. This process is overseen by Charlie Gressman, of Gressman’s Dairy in Callahan, Florida, a small, family owned business that has been in operation for more than 60 years. The distillery is committed to maintaining a local flavor and doesn’t over-filter its products in order to ensure that the distinctive character of the Florida molasses is retained in their final taste and aroma.
In the future, Marlin & Barrel intends to broaden its product line to include grain-based spirits and what Morenc describes as a “unique Floridian cocktail which embodies our local heritage of citrus production and identity.”
Morenc is committed to “doing it right, not large,” for the time being, and his products are currently only available on the First Coast. “Everything we do,” says Morenc, “is guided by our vision statement: ‘Discover Your Spirit Here.’ The pun is entirely intended. To us, it means making sure that we find and keep the right partners, processes and customers to help us all be the very best we can.”
Community is a huge part of what inspires this distillery. “The tastings and tours that we offer to the public have become my favorite part of the business,” says Morenc. “We really enjoy the interaction and the opportunity to share our ‘spirit’ and vision with customers and new friends.”