Raise a Glass

Cape Coral’s Wicked Dolphin Distillery Exalts Florida flavors

JoAnn Elardo draws from local ingredients for her award-winning, small-batch rums.

BY June 1, 2023
Wicked Dolphin Distillery
JoAnn Elardo opened Wicked Dolphin Distillery in 2012 to create a decidedly Floridian rum. Most of the sugarcane comes from Florida farms and spirits are infused with local flavors. (Photo by Christina Bankson)

When JoAnn Elardo and her husband, Robert, retired to a Cape Coral home on the Caloosahatchee River, dolphins seemed to taunt their labrador retriever. One night, JoAnn woke to hear the dog growling. “I think someone is trying to break in,” she told her husband. “It’s just that damn wicked dolphin,” he sighed.

That quip inspired the name of their Wicked Dolphin Distillery, and more than 10 years later, the Cape Coral brand is among the most recognizable producers in the state. Inside the turquoise building off Pine Island Road, rows of medals, including top honors from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, hang on the necks of bottles behind the bar. Tour groups regularly move through the distillery, where Florida sugarcane and local fruit are infused into 13 different rums and spirits. The space includes a new, laid-back tiki bar—aptly named the Wicked Tiki—which JoAnn opened last year. “This was supposed to be my retirement,” JoAnn says, with a laugh. “But we just kept growing.”

As an international entrepreneur, it’s no surprise JoAnn’s retirement didn’t go as expected. Years before moving to the Gulf Coast, she opened Amer Sports in Poland, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and grew the sporting goods company into a major distributor of American activewear in Europe. In 2008, she sold the company and retreated from the cold winters to Southwest Florida, where her parents lived on Pine Island. “At the time, Cape Coral was growing. It had a hometown feel,” she says.

Wicked Dolphin Distillery matches that vibe. A life-sized dolphin statue greets you at the entrance, and folks playing oversized Jenga, cornhole and Connect 4 games populate the exterior. At the bar, the staff line up rum samplers: mango, coconut and Key lime. (When in Florida, right?) You might order a cocktail, like the Vanilla Sunrise, with its dangerously deceptive sweet and smooth mix of vanilla bean rum, orange juice and grenadine.

Like any good, new Florida retiree, JoAnn first sat back and enjoyed the rum-soaked drinks she sipped on the beach. Over time, she started to get the itch for entrepreneurship again. After reading a story on Florida’s sugarcane industry and realizing the farm-to-table movement was gaining momentum, she recognized the potential at her fingertips (Florida accounts for about half of domestic sugarcane production). So in 2012, she set out to make a true Floridian rum with ingredients from producers in her new home state. She brought on West Virginia master distiller Eric Watson—who works with distilleries worldwide, including the award-winning San Antonio’s Rebecca Creek Distillery and Privateer Rum in Massachusetts—to consult for a year.

JoAnn’s entrepreneurial instincts have also paid off for her community. As Wicked Dolphin Distillery has grown, JoAnn’s become more involved with organizations like SalusCare, Pace Center for Girls and Captains for Clean Water, and she’s been instrumental in the development of the Cape Coral Animal Shelter. She’s also made a mark on the state’s spirits industry. The year Wicked Dolphin opened, JoAnn was part of a group that successfully lobbied to allow distillers to sell directly to the public in Florida. More than four dozen distilleries have opened in the state since the decision. “I can really see rum, vodka and lots of liquors exploding in Florida,” she says. “We have so many great ingredients grown here.”

Floridian rum
Last year, JoAnn debuted a tiki bar at the distillery, where locals and travelers gather for tropical cocktails and rums flavored with ingredients like pineapple, mango and Key lime. (Photo by Christina Bankson)

Wicked Dolphin’s award-winning, six-year aged rum—JoAnn’s favorite—begins with filtered water, Florida molasses and sugar, which is distilled in 750-gallon copper stills and then aged in American oak barrels that once held Kentucky bourbon. Other small-batch rums and spirits start similarly and are flavored with local ingredients. Honey from North Fort Myers’ Walker Farms lends a subtle sweetness to the spiced rum, while seasonal strawberries and blueberries from Plant City are the fruity punch in the smooth and aromatic RumShines. JoAnn found inspiration for the high-power RumShines on a trip to the Everglades, where she learned how migrants were paid to clear the swamp for farmland in the era of prohibition and moonshine. The history prompted her to create the 100-proof rum, RumShine.

In celebration of Wicked Dolphin’s anniversary last December, the distillery tapped barrels of their 10-year-aged rums made with Florida brown sugar, which gives the spirit hints of butterscotch and caramel. The limited-edition rum is so popular that JoAnn can’t keep it in stock long enough to get it to distribution. She’s also in the middle of launching her first rhum agricole, a Francophone Caribbean spirit made of fresh-pressed cane juice instead of molasses. The style results in an earthier, more savory flavor. Also in production: a botanical vodka that relies on native beautyberries, lemongrass and saw palmetto (the latter sourced from Perkins Nursery in LaBelle) for a bright, crisp flavor. “We love to experiment with new products,” JoAnn says.

For all the zeal and growth, the Cape distiller keeps her operation homegrown and focuses primarily on Florida distribution. “We want to make this really concentrated on Florida,” she says.

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