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Libertalia & Legacy

From left to right, Peter Lugo, Co-founder & Owner; Christian Lugo, Co-founder & Master Distiller
Written by Benjamin Vickers
Photography by Jason Stephens

Lugo’s Craft Distillery is a family-owned operation distilling premium craft rums and Puerto Rican Pitorro in Lakeland

Believe it or not, Lakeland has a craft rum distillery—and though they barely have a year-and-a-half of experience under their belt, their rum should be taken seriously and I am fascinated to see how their products and processes are refined over time. I sat down with Christian Lugo, co-founder and head distiller of Lugo’s Craft Distillery, to discuss his approach to craft rum and his journey into the distilling industry.

Born in Puerto Rico, Christian grew up in Georgia and North Carolina, building an early career as a chemist before helping to build the family business. “I’ve always been an open person. I love talking to people and being a natural salesman. As a chemist, I was great in the lab but horrible at theory… [Distilling] has been a dream come true, allowing me to use both creative and scientific methods… Even now I’m still perfecting it and refining the process.”

My first impression as Christian began showing me the distillery is that the Lugo’s keep their business true to a family operation. The Lugo Patriarch, Peter, left the corporate world to co-found the business with his son. His wife Ana covers the administrative and sales side of the distillery. Their daughter, Anamarie crafts the Lugo’s branding and marketing identity. Even cousin Hector gets roped in to help Christian in the brewing and distillation process.

“The Lugos wanted to create a lasting family legacy that celebrates their Puerto Rican heritage and could be passed down to future generations. “

The Lugos wanted to create a lasting family legacy that celebrates their Puerto Rican heritage and could be passed down to future generations. Don’t call it a scrappy independent startup though. Lugo’s Craft Distillery is a small but well-maintained and organized operation. The distillery has a focused vision which I appreciated and was impressed by.

From left to right, Peter Lugo, Co-founder & Owner; Christian Lugo, Co-founder & Master Distiller

The distillery’s interior space on Drane Field Road has a small and intimate retail area with a rustic wood bar that sits five to six guests. According to Lugo, it has already become a regular hangout for neighbors who enjoy sipping the new experimental rum flavors and talking shop with chemistry-minded Christian. Guests can visit the tasting bar to sample rum varietals and purchase bottles mere feet from where the brew was distilled.

The business received its distilling permits in 2020 but not to make drinkable rum—to distill and bottle hand sanitizer which was largely donated to city hall and first responders. “For us to be where we are is a blessing. Especially opening during a pandemic,” Christian relates. The first rum for commercial sale was not made until the end of July in 2020. In fact, the samples I tasted during my visit were from batch “0001”. Despite the slow start, the growth of Lugo’s business has been steady, and they are already distributing across Central Florida.

Because of liquor regulations, Lugo has difficulty marketing the distillery to potential patrons, with in-person events such as being the primary method of spreading the word. In fact, legal restrictions strongly discourage craft distilleries from selling directly to consumers. Instead this limitation forces them to sell to distributors, which in turn sell to restaurants and package stores, and, lastly, to the end consumer. It is a system left over from the Prohibition Era that creates space for middle men and multiple charges being passed onto the next person in the supply chain.  According to Christian, changing the current regulations which place a firewall between the distiller and consumer would make the greatest positive impact for his business. These changes would allow craft distilleries to benefit from direct customer sales. “We are limited to just distributors and our tasting room––things like that truly limit us. I hope it will change… If the laws can be more helpful to distilleries, our business can then grow easier and more efficiently.”

 

. . .
DARK N’ STORMY

2 oz. Libertalia spiced rum

0.75 oz. Fresh lime juice

0.75 oz. Ginger syrup

Soda

Garnish

Candied ginger

Combine all ingredients except ice and soda in a shaker. Shake hard. Add ice and shake hard. Fine strain into a Collins glass and add ice.  Top with soda and stir. Garnish with a straw and either a lime wheel or candied ginger.

 
MOJITO

6 mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish

2 oz simple syrup

2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice

2 oz club soda

Muddle the mint leaves in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. Add ice and shake until thoroughly mixed and chilled. Strain into a Collins glass, top with club soda, and garnish with extra mint leaves

. . .

At our tasting, Libertalia was the breakout star of Lugo’s product line. The spiced rum comes in a 750ml bottle with a modern elegant silhouette and is sealed with gold wax, similar to Maker’s Mark seal. Libertalia receives its name from a 17th century mythical island paradise founded in Madagascar by pirates to be a free colony in which people of all colors, creeds, and beliefs were equal and free of scrutiny from traditional powers and authorities. The rum’s smoothness and fruit-forward flavor containing apples, cinnamon, and other secret spices won’t be something you’d expect a pirate to be drinking, and that’s a good thing according to Christian. Many Caribbean rums suffer from low quality and harsh-tasting alcohols.

A more smooth, pure, and higher-proof version of Puerto Rican clear rum is Lugo’s Pitorro. The bottle is modern with a playfully colorful label. The spirit is aged in contact with coconuts which provides a sweet mellowness that binds excellently with other flavors to mix into cocktails. Christian let me sample several Pitorros with tertiary flavors he was experimenting with for future products, such as coconut, pineapple, and guava.

The third product in Lugo’s distillery, Risky, is a barrel-aged whisky-inspired rum that is still under development. The first barrels will finish aging later this year and can be pre-ordered on the Lugo’s Distillery website.

Currently, Lugo’s craft rum can be enjoyed responsibly at Nineteen61, Frescos, and Mojo Federal. Bottles can be purchased at La La Land and The Grape Vine in Lakeland. The preferred way to purchase bottles is directly from the distillery after taking a tour at 2500 Drane Field Road, Suite 208.

Lugo’s Craft Distillery
2500 Drane Field Rd STE 208, Lakeland, FL 33811

 

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