The Business Of Being A Good Neighbor

Fish Hawk Distillery opened in 2011, and from the moment they began, they’ve put their farm-to-bottle philosophy first.

The distillery was born after years of travelling the world and learning about the craft, says chief operating officer and master distiller Matthew Bagdanovich. 

“From 1993 to 2005, I lived and worked abroad,” he explains. “Almost my entire adult life I had made wine at home as a hobby. While living in Mexico, I encountered a family that had a tequila distillery, so for seven years I distilled tequila in Mexico, where it’s legal.”

When he returned to the United States in 2005, Bagdanovich became aware that craft breweries and distilleries were booming, and set out to create one of his own. The name comes from a beloved family memory.

“The name Fish Hawk came from my grandma. She was a Florida cracker and our built-in babysitter. For the first five or six years of my life, we’d be out by the beach or the river. Whenever an osprey would swoop down, she’d say, ‘Look at that fish hawk!’ It’s a very Central Florida thing to say.” 

For Bagdanovich, there was no question his distillery belonged in Marion County—not only did it have the necessary resources, it meant something to him.

“The reason we’re here in western Marion County is because this is home. I have worked in 28 countries and spent a lot of time abroad, but my mom went to Ocala High School. Also, we needed outstanding source water, and where we are right now, we draw water out of the aquifer that feeds Rainbow Springs.”

Today, the eight-person operation focuses on its philosophy of putting quality first and being a good neighbor. That means buying local whenever possible. To date, Fish Hawk Distillery is the only distiller certified by the Florida Department of Agriculture as “Fresh From Florida,” meaning that at least 51 percent of their raw materials originate from Florida farms—a percentage Bagdanovich says they far exceed.

“All of our rums are made from sugar cane molasses grown in Palm Beach County. Everything in our lemon vodka was grown, distilled and packaged within a 30-mile radius. The Silver Queen whiskey is made from corn we grow on our own land,” he explains. “I grow a lot of botanicals here for various infusions. We get blueberries and blackberries from Island Grove, and from that we make vodka. Most of the citrus for our citrus-based vodkas are from Peace River down in South Florida. We use muscadine grapes from Micanopy.” 

He adds that whenever a product he needs is not available in Marion County or Florida, he opts for ingredients grown by U.S. farmers over international products.

“If someone has a globally optimized supply chain in their business, we wish them well. We choose to do business with our neighbors because we will not use an artificial color, flavor or preservative, nor do we source any precursor material, like malt alcohol. We are a true farm-to-bottle distillery.”

Fish Hawk Distillery chooses to buy local not only to support neighbors but to guarantee the quality of the ingredients they use to create their own products.

“Know what you’re buying,” Bagdanovich urges. “Where it came from, who made it, and how they made it.” 

When purchasing spirits, he says knowing exactly what’s in them is important. 

“If you stay hydrated but overindulge in our product, you cannot get a hangover. The alcohol that would give you the pain in the head, we remove, and we sell it to other distilleries who make vodka out of our waste—even though I wouldn’t touch it.”

Fish Hawk Distillery produces about 30,000 cases of spirits annually. Their bestseller is the Conquistador 1513, a whiskey with a smoked oat flavor. Bagdanovich suggests trying it neat, with a little ice water, or in an Old-Fashioned. One of his personal favorites is the Siren Song whiskey.

“For a number of years, I went all over Scotland and developed a taste for Scotch whiskey—the bold, smoky, peaty ones. I wanted to make a whiskey that reminded me of that. Siren Song is a very bold, very smoky whiskey, and it’s what I typically drink. For a teeny-tiny, out-in-the-woods Florida distillery, we were very proud to win medals for a smoky whiskey.”

In 2018 alone, Fish Hawk Distillery won 19 medals from the American Craft Distilling Institute. When considering a local distillery to purchase from, Bagdanovich recommends getting to know their processes and supporting those who are truly distilling.

“Nine out of 10 craft distillers in Florida do not distill, but buy from big commercial outlets, repackage and resell,” he explains. “If you visit the few of us who actually distill from local products, you’re going to find some wonderful products that the big boys just can’t make.” 

Fish Hawk Spirits › 16350 SW 20th Lane, Ocala, FL 34481 › (352) 445-1292www.fishhawkspirits.com 

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