BY SAMANTHA PUTTERMAN
NNB Student Reporter
ST. PETERSBURG – When a Polish family decided to move some of its distillery business to the United States, there were lots of options.
But Texas was too polluted. Miami was too expensive. Tampa was too crowded.
So when Kozuba & Sons opens its doors in late June, it will be in the Warehouse Arts District in St. Petersburg’s Midtown area.
Though Kozuba is commonly thought to be strictly a vodka distillery, that’s not the priority.
“It’s going to be a whiskey and bourbon distillery primarily,” said Maciej (pronounced Matthias) Kozuba, 38, a partner in the family-run business. “Vodka is going to be one of our products, but it won’t be our flagship.”
The distillery will be housed in a 12,000-square-foot building at 1960 Fifth Ave. S in a once-sagging swath of St. Petersburg that’s now home to art galleries, craft brewers, a monthly flea market and a custom furniture maker with plans to expand. A Sarasota software company is moving its headquarters – and 40 new jobs – into a warehouse four blocks west of the distillery.
Kozuba was established in 2005 in Jablonka, Poland.
The Kozubas first made fruit cordials, moving to vodka five years later. During this time, they still bought spirits – alcoholic beverages produced by distillation – from outside manufacturers since they were not yet able to distill on their own.
“Then in 2012, we bought two stills, copper-made, and started distilling,” Maciej said.
Kozuba is family-owned and operated. Maciej oversees marketing and sales, and his brother, Jakub Kozuba, 32, is in charge of finances and administration. Their father, Zbigniew Kozuba, 64, a biochemist by trade, is the company’s master distiller.
In September 2014, the three families moved to Tampa, but the bay area wasn’t the first place they looked.
Texas was first.
But the state’s over-abundance of distilleries and heavy air pollution, specifically in industrial areas, caused it to fall short.
In fact, the Kozubas’ Poland-based distillery is in the largest lakes region, making it one of the cleanest areas. So Texas was out.
Then they turned to Florida.
“There are over 600 craft distilleries in the United States and there’s, like, 120 or more in the state of Washington alone. In Texas there’s plenty. But in Florida, 10, maybe 12?” said Maciej. “And they are all small, which gives us a huge competitive advantage and a good head start.”
The two contenders: Miami and Tampa.
But Miami’s price tag wasn’t inviting.
“It was too expensive, in terms of potential properties,” Maciej said. “It’s a great market, but we decided it’s not the best place for our kids to grow up.” Maciej has two sons and Jakub has a daughter.
When they were unable to find the right facility in Tampa either, the Kozubas started to look in St. Petersburg.
It wasn’t easy. The industrial zoning the distillery required made it hard to find a suitable location. They were about to give up when their broker, Bob Sampson, ran into his old friend Peter Zant, who with partner Dan Stone happened to own the perfect warehouse.
“It was totally indirect; there was no planning,” said Stone, 42.
The Kozubas plan to spend $1 million on the facility, renovating the building’s shell and surrounding area from scratch.
The establishment will have rooms for production, storage and tasting. A retail store will be adjacent to the distillery.
But the best part is the theme: A journey back in time to the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early ‘30s.
Artwork created for Kozuba by a comic artist in Poland will be transformed into murals scattered throughout the distillery.
Imported Kozuba products will be sold at the distillery.
“All together we are going to have around 500 barrels, made of American oak,” said Maciej.
They have two 600-liter stills. Each batch produces around 60 liters, or 10 percent, of 165-proof spirit. They plan to purchase a third still for gin production alone.
“Gin requires a lot of juniper, which is very aggressive, very aromatic, ” Maciej said. “So when you work with it, everything is very smelly. And you don’t want whiskey to be smelling like juniper.”
The average price for Kozuba’s liquors hovers around 25 to 35 dollars a bottle.
In Poland, its vodka is more expensive than brands like Belvedere, Ciroc and Grey Goose. “The reason why is, first of all, it’s a boutique spirit, hand-made, small batch,” said Maciej. “That’s the most important. Top quality.”
The production begins when the Kozubas buy grain from farmers. Next, it goes through the mashing, fermentation and distillation. It finishes with bottling. Everything happens within the micro-distillery. Instead of buying the raw spirits, they make them.
It will take some time before they can implement this detailed process here.
Poland and Florida are very different places, with very different resources.
“We have different grain. We have different fruit. Weather, temperature, humidity – it will all affect the character of the whiskey and bourbon,” said Maciej.
Distilling in Florida doesn’t necessarily mean the alcohol will be better or worse than Poland – just different.
“It’s going to happen quicker here, for sure,” Maciej said. “When you have higher temperatures, whatever you put in a barrel, the aging process is more intense. The lower the temperature, the process slows down.”