Rum production gets a shot in the arm

Small-batch distillers putting their stamp on the spirit

December 26, 2007|By Michael Nagrant | Michael Nagrant,Chicago Tribune

A new breed of American small-batch distiller is staking a claim to rum.

The burgeoning growth made small-batch rum the focus of the American Distilling Institute's national conference this year.

"There's a whole new generation, from the Eastern Seaboard to Hawaii, who are making great rum," said institute president Bill Owens.

The 12 active small-batch rum distilleries operating in the United States might seem like pioneers, but rum (aka Nelson's blood, kill-devil, demon water) is part of America's heritage. Though Barbados originated rum in the 1640s, the first American rum distillery was established on Staten Island, N.Y., in 1664.

"If you walked into any tavern prior to the Revolution and said `Give me a shot,' you got rum," said Wayne Curtis, author of the history, And a Bottle of Rum. The Colonial boom in rum production coincided with the wealth of molasses, a byproduct of sugar-cane refining in the West Indies. Because the New England seaports were much closer to the West Indies than Europe, the Colonies got the bulk of the molasses.

Old New Orleans Rum (started in 1995, it's the oldest of the small-batch premium rum producers) was built in a similar Colonial spirit of capitalizing on resources. Inspired by a Swiss friend who entertained guests with her homemade spirits, founder James Michalopoulos - a New Orleans-based artist - decided to distill rum using Louisiana's abundant sugar-cane crop.

At Prichards' Distillery in Tennessee, production is also tied to history.

"I've always been fascinated by American history," said owner Phil Prichard. "Colonial rum was dry and not as sweet. No one was making traditional American rum, so I decided to do it."

Not all of the distillers opened with their eye on history. Triple Eight Distillery on Nantucket in Massachusetts makes rum to support a goal of producing 12-year-old single-malt scotch. Because rum doesn't require long aging, president Jay Harman said Triple Eight earns money on the spirit while the scotch ages.

For some, distilling rum is also about differentiating themselves in a crowded marketplace. Eric Watson, a former brewer and consulting distiller for Green Bay Distilling (expected rum release fall 2008), said, "Super-premium and premium rums [about $30 a bottle] are the fastest-growing category behind vodka. Micro-distillation is where craft-beer brewing was 10 to 15 years ago. Distilling rum is a way for me to make a great product and to make money doing it."

Nationally acclaimed regional craft-beer brewers such as Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware and Rogue Ales Brewery in Oregon also produce rum. "We discovered the world didn't need another brewpub," said Rogue founder Jack Joyce.

Economic considerations aside, all of these small-batch distillers emphasize the importance of craft. Prichards and Rogue ferment their rum with table-grade molasses, which has higher sugar content and a cleaner flavor than commonly used blackstrap molasses.

Large production rum houses generally use automated continuous column stills, which excel at stripping out compounds called congeners responsible for the taste, aroma and color of rum. Most domestic small-batch rum producers use copper-pot stills, which offer the distiller an opportunity to emphasize certain taste characteristics of the congeners (diacetyls, for example, which produce butterscotch flavors). As Watson puts it, "Our strategy is tongue-based."

Many of the domestic distillers offer "crystal" or clear rums, traditionally used for mixed drinks, and dark premium sipping rums. Clear doesn't mean tasteless. Prichards' crystal is very buttery, whereas an average bottle of clear large-production rum is closer to neutral vodka.

Most of the small-batch dark rums are aged for at least three months and up to three years in spent bourbon barrels, which impart flavors such as vanilla and caramel to the final blends. Prichard is one exception. He uses virgin 15-gallon charred casks made from the heart of white oak trees, which he said impart a sweet toffee flavor. As a result of the wood aging and pot-distillation technique, domestic aged rums tend to display butterscotch, whiskey and caramel flavors.

Operating on a small-batch scale also offers distillers an opportunity to exercise a bit of quirkiness and variation. Old New Orleans offers a Cajun spiced rum steeped with whole cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cayenne that is more aromatic and flavorful than Captain Morgan's. Harman at Triple Eight crafts his rum to brace customers against the force of storms that come through Nantucket, saying, "The higher the wind speed [of the storm], the stronger the proof of the rum."

Despite the current growth of domestic small-batch rum, craft distillers have an uphill battle against whiskey, vodka and Caribbean rums. When Prichard first started producing his rum, he got a call from a buyer in Paraguay. Prichard wondered why anyone would want American rum in South America. The buyer told him, "You're gonna have a hard time selling American rum to Americans. We love good rum no matter where it's made. Send me 150 cases."

Michael Nagrant writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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