Culture

After the Storm, A Distillery Endures

Paul Menta rode out Hurricane Irma with his family in Key West. Now, he's focused on crafting his first batch of “hurricane rum."
Before the storm hit, Menta climbed on top of his distillery’s metal roof and spray painted “Save Da Rum.”
Before the storm hit, Menta climbed on top of his distillery’s metal roof and spray painted “Save Da Rum.”

It’s been three weeks since Hurricane Irma brought widespread destruction and damage to the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys.

Adding to the tragic loss of life and personal property, communities also face the economic impact of these storms. Needless to say, any kind of interruption in rum production and tourism will have a significant impact on these regions. As the aftermath of the storms continues to unfold, we look to Florida's southernmost tip, where one man is determined to rebuild his community — while making rum along the way.

Paul Menta, a distiller and chef in the Keys, decided to keep producing rum during Irma, buckling down for the storm with his family in a building capable of sustaining Category 5 winds. In some ways, he had been waiting for this storm for seven years. “Of course, I did not want a hurricane like this to hit Key West,” he says. “But these things come in cycles and we all know inevitably another storm will hit.”

Menta is the chef, distiller, and co-owner at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. Opened with Tony Mantia in 2013, the distillery uses a process they call "chef-distilled" to produce a white rum made with cane sugar, often with infusions of ingredients like coconut, vanilla, and key lime. Menta’s background as a chef lends itself to an atypical production process and unique flavor combinations.

“When I made my business plan, it included what to do when a storm hit,” Menta says. “It’s a cement building, with a cement floor, and my stills are on wheels. I can move what I need to move. And we use salt-cured barrels, so after thigh-high water, now I just say the whole damn place is salt cured.”

Menta's distillery survived the storm, thanks to the cement building and floors. Menta's distillery survived the storm, thanks to the cement building and floors.

In addition to prepping the distillery itself for the coming storm, Menta wanted to prepare a fermentation specific to the low pressure conditions brought on by a hurricane. “I knew if I got super low pressure, I could get an intense pear flavor with what I was using,” Menta says. “I was extracting yeast from black truffles. I knew I could do that with low pressure because of an earthquake that happened in Cuba years back. The rum tasted different, so we ran a spectral analysis and realized it was because of the low pressure that event produced. I decided to use that to my advantage and make a hurricane-infused rum, when the time was right. But I wanted a Cat 1, not a Cat 5.”

Menta finished his fermentation the Friday prior to Irma’s arrival, and did the stripping ten days later. (Twice as long as he normally waits.) “It smelled like pears sitting in an overripe basket; that’s the nose coming off of it,” he says. Menta finished the rum on September 22, ending up with around 100 bottles. “It’s very different from what I normally make. I still have to filter it, but then I’m going to have it analyzed and take notes on the flavor profile,” he says.

Menta surveys the damage at his distillery in Key West. At one point, the water was thigh-high. Menta surveys the damage to his distillery in Key West. At one point, the water was thigh-high.

Menta’s dedication to producing rum through the storm goes beyond his commitment to the distillery; it’s also part of his desire to see a rapid recovery. He plans to auction off some of his hurricane rum, and sell the rest, with all proceeds going to an area nonprofit helping locals in the Keys called the Sister Season Fund. “I’m hoping to raise at least 15 to 20 grand for this organization, because I know they’re helping people who really need it, especially those in the service industry. A lot of them are really in some sh**. Their houses are done, and we don’t want them to leave. I want to help stabilize that industry.”

Before the storm hit, Menta decided to climb on top of his distillery’s metal roof and spray paint “Save Da Rum.” Some people thought he was crazy. “They said, “you’re going to be down here distilling like this? The Coast Guard guys were flying by and taking pictures. I would stick out like a sore thumb anywhere else, because I’m a weird guy, but in Key West, I fit in. We appreciate levity, and you need levity in situations like this. That’s all I’m trying to do...that, and help the people of Key West.”

Meghan Holmes is a New Orleans-based writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and her work often focuses on food, culture, and the environment.

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