As you approach the small teal building that stands out among an otherwise undeveloped stretch of Southwest Third Place in Cape Coral, there’s nothing to suggest that this once-upon-a-time auto service center today houses one of the most highly awarded rum brands (craft or corporate) in the world.
And yet, it does. Inspired by a bad glass of rum, fueled by a passion for quality and born of an entrepreneurial spirit of excellence and adventure, JoAnn Elardo and her husband Bob have turned the rum world upside down with the creation of Wicked Dolphin — a craft distiller of currently 10 artisan rums that, in less than five years, has been awarded numerous international (and national) awards, and grown to see its delightful flavors and colorful labels in more than 3,000 distribution points in Florida alone.
That’s quite a distance these two have traveled from their years owning one of the largest independent footwear distributors in central Europe. But in 2008, they sold that business and decided to relocate from New York to Southwest Florida. Then, one fateful evening, JoAnn was attempting to enjoy a cocktail when she noticed that the rum was, in fact, distasteful. “I looked at the bottle and saw that it was produced in Canada,” she recalls. “That’s when I thought: why aren’t we making a Florida rum?”
It was a good question, considering that almost 50% of all sugar produced in the United States germinates from Florida soil. So JoAnn set out on what was to become a four-year journey of learning all she could about the business of distilling, and what it would take to become a craft distiller of distinctively quality rum.
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it the best I can,” she explains. “We did a lot of homework and never rush anything. We’ve worked very hard to perfect our craft, we’ve invested a lot of time and money, and we were lucky enough that we could survive a year or two.”
To make Wicked Dolphin the best it could be, JoAnn made two very important decisions early in the company’s history: she hired a master distiller to work at the Cape Coral distillery for almost a year, and convinced her nephew Dan Termini — a Long Islander who had dabbled in craft beers but also came with a mechanical background — to apprentice with him as head distiller. “Dan’s craft beer experience made for a nice and easy transition, and his mechanical background doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a bunch of distilling equipment that always needs fixing.”
In the beginning, Wicked Dolphin focused on producing its “Reserve” product line — various rum flavors aged one, two, three years or longer in American white oak barrels that previously matured whiskey. It’s one reason why the first batch of rum distilled in 2012 wasn’t bottled for sale until a year later. But over time, restaurants and clubs have approached Wicked Dolphin about a lighter rum that would go nicely with mixed drinks, and a “Premium” line was launched.
Nevertheless, JoAnn has a special affinity for quality “and we still have some of the original batch that we’ll age for 20 years.”
This affinity for quality is what’s garnered Wicked Dolphin so much attention in the rum world. In 2013, its first year, Wicked Dolphin won a gold “Best in Class” at the Miami Rum Renaissance. In 2014 and 2015, Wicked Dolphin took to the world stage at the International Rum Conference Madrid — and took home gold. Add to these awards at the American Distilling Institute, Spirits of the Americas, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and more, and you have the makings of a folk tale come true: the little rum that could.
But not only is Wicked Dolphin a popular rum that’s now in five states, the Cape Coral distillery has become a tourism destination of sorts and a highly praised TripAdvisor attraction, hosting more than 25,000 people annually for tours, trinkets and — best of all — free samples.
With all this attention and growth, the Elardos are looking down the road — literally and figuratively. Recently, they purchased a parcel of land adjacent to the distillery, enabling Wicked Dolphin to expand its capacity in production and tours. Plus sometime before the end of the year, Wicked Dolphin will foray into vodka with its own signature label that JoAnn promises “will rival the best vodkas out there.”
And further down the road — roughly eight miles, to be exact — Elardo has taken her company in an altogether different direction with the October opening of Big Blue Brewing, a brew pub and restaurant in Cape Coral managed by her other nephew Joe Termini, twin brother (almost identical) of head distiller Dan. Big Blue Brewing is a delightfully hip and happening place, with six signature beer labels, a light and tempting menu, plus an attractive and highly creative décor that is, once again, the amazing vision of its owner.
But despite where these ventures may take her, JoAnn Elardo wants to remain true to her passion: quality. “I don’t have any real desire to create this huge company,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with being a great boutique, and we will always want to be a great Florida rum. That’s a good story to be able to tell.”
“I looked at the bottle and saw that it was produced in Canada,” she recalls. “That’s when I thought:
why aren’t we making a Florida rum?”
With all the awards Wicked Dolphin has won in four years,
you have the makings of a folk tale come true:
the little rum that could.