Paul Menta has spent the past five years crossing things off his lifetime “bucket list” while also managing to blend, distill, bottle, label and sell more than 100,000 bottles of specialty rum, all from a historic Coca Cola bottling plant on Simonton Street.
Professional kite surfer, chef, advocate of locally caught fish and rum distiller, Menta’s a busy guy, to say the least, but he has no plans of slowing down. In fact, he’s in the process of expanding Key West’s First Legal Rum Distillery, which he launched five years ago this month.
Menta pointed to a sign in the distillery Tuesday afternoon. It’s updated every time he and his crew bottle another batch of their chef-distilled rum. On Tuesday, the sign showed that Key West’s First Legal Rum Distillery had bottled 23,874 bottles since January.
“We have 10 different brands that are available for sale here in our retail shop,” he said. “Plus, Sloppy Joe’s and about 30 other local bars offer our rums, along with some online sales. In 2019, we’re taking three of our 10 brands national, so they’ll be available in retail outlets in 35 states. It’s been an exciting five years. You go into something like this thinking you’ve done all the research and have a lot of knowledge. But you never have any idea of how much you don’t know.”
In a concrete-floored room behind the retail shop and rum-tasting bar, giant, copper stills simmer and steam as the potent clear liquid inside is distilled six times at the rum distillery that’s located at 105 Simonton St.
“Distilling it six times takes out so many impurities to help alleviate a lot of the hangover headaches. Plus, I started using demerara sugar in our rum rather than molasses. Demerara is the extra virgin olive oil of the sugarcane world,” Menta said, pointing to the wooden barrels that are stacked in every available space in the distillery, each one carefully dated and filled with rum that will age at least a year in the barrels that are all soaked in the saltwater at the end of the street before being filled with rum.
“We take every barrel to the end of the street and fill them with saltwater, so they’re all locally saltwater cured,” Menta said.
But another batch of barrels has been set aside for something entirely new.
“I’ll be making sparkling rum using the traditional method of champagne makers,” he said. “Imagine celebrating New Year’s Eve in Key West by popping the cork from a bottle of sparkling rum. It’ll be 25 proof, and will be bottled in the traditional green champagne bottles, and it’ll be aged in wooden barrels that I got from France that held champagne while it was aging.”
But the biggest expansion will come in March, when Menta opens a rum cake bakery and coffee shop in the adjacent storefront on Simonton Street.
“I got the bar from Sloppy Joe’s old Speakeasy that will become our dining counter, so there will be a true piece of history in our new rum cake bakery,” said Menta, who has infused every bottle of rum and every part of his enterprise with tales of old Key West and its storied rumrunners. “None of the stories or historic photos would have been possible without Tom Hambright at the county library. I meet with him once a week to find something cool in the history vault at the library.
“In addition to Tom, I could never take all the credit for any of this,” he said. “This whole project has been the result of so many cool and creative local people. Plus, my staff of distillers and everyone else has been crucial to our success. This has become a really, really cool way of life.”
Menta and the distillery are also featured in an upcoming Shopify documentary about Key West that also highlights Mel Fisher’s treasure hunt and the Kino sandal factory.
“It shows Key West in such a good light,” he said.
But one of his biggest bucket list items occurred earlier this year when Menta and his wife loaded 14 cases of their Key West rum onto the Schooner Wolf and sailed for Cuba, where Menta declared the booze to a Cuban customs officers and stated that his intent was to give it away to the Cuban people.
“After all the years and countless barrels of Cuban rum that made its way across the Florida Straits to Key West, we figured we owed them a round of drinks,” Menta said smiling broadly. “The Cuban customs officer said that in his 36 years, he had never witnessed anyone bringing rum INTO Cuba, so we like to say we’re the first American rumrunners to run rum in the opposite direction and bring it TO Cuba.”
While they were giving away their rum in Cuba, Menta also learned the Cubans’ secrets to great mojitos, he said.
“Before that, ‘I’ll be honest, my mojitos weren’t great, but now, having learned the traditional methods, they’re amazing,” he said.
Key West’s First Legal Rum Distillery now offers mojito tastings and classes three days a week. Distillery tours are available daily and tastings are always offered.
“We don’t enter any competitions, but if someone tastes our rum here or in Sloppy Joe’s or someplace, and they like it enough to come in and buy a few bottles, that’s the best reward possible,” he said. “We’re doing things differently and they’re working really, really well.”