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East County Monday, Jun. 10, 2019 6 days ago

Loaded Cannon Distillery brings locally made alcohol to Lakewood Ranch

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The distillery produces the full spectrum of spirits and features a pirate-themed tasting room.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

Standing in the cavernous warehouse that will soon be Loaded Cannon Distillery, Steve Milligan pats a gleaming metal contraption. “This is Annie,” he says. Named after famed 18th century pirate Anne Bonny, she’s a Minnetonka copper still, 500-gallon capacity, the star of a cast of equipment — fermenters, tanks, barrels, even a 30-foot corn silo out back — that within a few weeks will produce rum, vodka, gin, whiskey and moonshine. 

Milligan is Loaded Cannon’s founder, president and master distiller — a compact guy dressed for hard work: blue golf shirt emblazoned with the company logo, baggy shorts, sneakers and a ball cap. His blue eyes peer through wire-rim glasses.

A long-time chemical engineer for Dow Chemical, the Michigan native ticks off the places he’s lived: Alabama (he graduated from high school in Huntsville and got his degree from University of Alabama), Arizona, California, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kuwait, Korea. Before retiring from Dow in 2017, he spent three years in Saudi Arabia.

It was there that he put his chemistry knowledge to good — some might say essential — use.

“We thought, ‘Someone needs to make some alcohol,’” Milligan says with a hint of Southern drawl. “It’s illegal in Saudi. Right in the supermarket aisles there were bottles, sugars, yeast, all you needed. I started distilling in my home. Had a few setbacks. One time, I was making a batch of mango brandy, and it blew up, turned my bathroom orange.”

Although his home alcohol endeavor was technically a criminal activity, Milligan didn’t worry. He lived with Carmen, his wife of seven years, in a compound mostly populated by Dow and Exxon employees. “Everyone looked the other way,” he says.

Chemical Engineer Steve Milligan, founder of Loaded Cannon Distillery, learned to make alcohol while living in Saudi Arabia, where spirits are not available for purchase or consumption. (Photos by Heidi Kurpiela)

Milligan has vastly improved his distilling expertise since the Middle Eastern mishaps and views his chemical background as essential.

“Making spirits is tricky stuff,” he remarks. “There’s so much flammability. I don’t see how you can be a distiller and not be a chemist.” But for him it goes beyond science. It’s also passion. “Distillation is my blood,” Milligan says.

Along with finishing Loaded Cannon’s labyrinthine production line, Milligan — aided by his marketing director, Michelle Russell — is building out a tasting room with a Florida pirate theme. It will include netting, barrels with custom wood tops, crates, and a 10-foot replica of the Black Pearl, the ship from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” hanging from the ceiling.

Dovetailing with the decidedly Sunshine State buccaneer concept is Loaded Cannon’s commitment to sourcing as much as possible from Florida, be it raw materials, equipment or bottling supplies. All the corn and molasses come from the state. He gets the botanicals for gin from Sweet Bay Nursery in Parrish, and his fruit flavors from Florida Worldwide Citrus in Bradenton.

Loaded Cannon Distillery occupies a 5,000-square-foot space in an industrial park facing Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. As of mid-April, Milligan was in negotiations to lease an adjacent space and turn it into an events venue, if he can clear related licensing and regulatory hurdles. He’s encountered plenty of those — federal, state and local — laws that prohibit him from serving cocktails (he can only offer half-ounce samples), limit the number of bottles he can sell per person per year and prevent him from shipping his product.

“It can, at times, seem like a lot of bureaucracy,” he says. “But then you realize, most of them are in place to protect the consumer.” (Although some of them, he says, are in place to protect the big distributors.)

He takes some heart in proposed Florida Senate Bill 220, which is designed to ease rules about how craft distillers peddle their wares (a key provision would be allowing them to sell spirits by the glass).

Loaded Cannon’s first product line includes Carlota’s Revenge whiskey, Annie’s Blade vodka, Pyracy rum, Margoza gin and a select flavored rum. Milligan projects prices to range from $19 vodka to $39/$49 for more unique whiskeys. Unlike a lot of operators in Florida’s nascent distilling industry that focus on one type of hooch, Milligan has tackled the whole spectrum.

“I like making them all,” he says. “To me, it’s part of the adventure. I’m ultimately going to make what people want to drink, but doing the same thing over and over dulls your edge.”

Milligan reaches into a low cabinet and pulls out a jar of honey-colored liquid. He pours Carlota’s Revenge, still a work in progress, into a couple of chrome 2-ounce containers. I make no claim to be a whiskey connoisseur, but this stuff is nirvana in a tumbler. So smooth. The harshness that makes you wince is nowhere to be tasted.

The whiskey’s got soul. And maybe that’s because it’s tinged with tragedy. In May of last year, Milligan’s daughter from his first marriage, Victoria, took her own life at age 21.

“If I can help one other family by highlighting the problem, to encourage them to watch their children closely, to talk openly,” Milligan says. “Tori was living in Baton Rouge, and I would talk to her regularly. The last time I saw her, though, I recognized that there had been a change. I feel devastated that I didn’t do something.”

Milligan says he plans to earmark a certain amount of revenue toward suicide prevention. In the meantime, diving into the Loaded Cannon venture has been therapeutic.

“After we lost Tori, I just had this feeling that she’d want me to commit myself to something I enjoy,” he says, “That’s when I went into the project full force.”

Milligan made a comfortable living as a top-level Dow engineer. He has sunk a considerable sum into the Loaded Cannon enterprise, and would like to make a few bucks, to not fret about keeping the doors open, and to someday distribute in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. But money is not his primary motivator.

“I own a little over 70% of the business and the rest is investors,” he explains. “I want to strike a balance between enjoying myself and keeping my investors happy. You can’t always do both, but you can sure have fun trying.”

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