American Rum Report #14 — August 30, 2019

~ In This Report ~

#1: Rum Revelations brings us fascinating, er, revelations into Privateer Rum's yeasts and fermentations (see what I did there) 🔬

#2: Paste Magazine reviews Montanya Exclusiva and Virago Spirits' Four-Port Rum ⛰️

#3: An inside look at a particularly unique American rum expression—Thrasher's Green Spiced Rum from Potomac Distilling Company in D.C. 🌿

#4: The Uncapped podcast interviews Jaime Windon, co-founder of Maryland rum distillery Lyon Distilling 🎙️

#5: Drink of the Week — Hopefully, this one will bring on fall 🍂

#6: An American rum makes VinePair's list of the 20 best rums for every budget 💸

#7: Quick links on USA Today's best U.S. rum distillery nominations, Owney's Rum, a regulatory win for Illinois distilleries, and more 🔗

#1: A deep dive into yeast and fermentation with Privateer's Maggie Campbell 🔬

The more I read about fermentation, the more I'm convinced it is magic. Or at the very least sorcery. Distillers could start calling themselves alchemists and I would not object. 

That might be why I found this yeast-focused Q&A with Maggie Campbell on so delightful. It not only offers great info on yeasts and rum fermentation in general, it also provides some fascinating insight into Privateer's production process and rum-making ethos.

I recommend bookmarking the whole thing for further reading, but I also went ahead and pulled out a few of the parts where Campbell discusses how Privateer approaches yeast and fermentation.

On why Privateer doesn't attempt to replicate certain rum-making methods from the Caribbean: 

“Distilling in my region of North America is unique as we do not have a currently well established industry and lack a continuous distillation history here. I do not use dunder or mimic other rum methods distinct to the Caribbean as I feel it would be inauthentic to mimic their culture outside their community and country with no rooted connection of my own, instead we are finding our own way. We are pulling on practices I feel are best for our house style, raw material, and mesoclimate. (The macro and mesoclimate affect flavor development from many of the elements yeast create in the fermentation but that is a very long story indeed.)”

Quick sidebar: The idea of authenticity here is something I've touched on from time to time in this newsletter (this write-up on "Jamerican Rum" is an example). It's something distillers have to decide for themselves, but I love that Maggie is willing to share how she approaches it.

On selecting different yeast strains for different Privateer expressions:

“I certainly have a yeast strain I particularly love for aged spirits in a pot distilled expression because of the flavor profile it creates, but I would not use it in a fermentation for an unaged spirit or a column distilled spirit because it offers more savory and earthy esters over fresh and bright esters that are a house style of Privateer unaged and column stilled rums. I use blends of yeast, and different blends for different expressions we distill (which of course you have to account for how well the yeasts all get along and what flavors they create when they interact with one another). 

“We also allow wild yeast to play a role in all our fermentation as we do not sterilize our fermenters or wash liquid, adding to the complexity. Our 6 day, cool fermentation allows a bit more local microbiome influence than some styles of hot and fast fermentation, as some conversions take time. At the same time we do not go long enough for other certain conversions to take place. We hit our own sweet spot for flavor cultivation in fermentation on our own timeline through our own process.”

On what Privateer is looking for in their yeast:

“For us our goal in yeast selection is flavor cultivation, and we often pay a bit more for specific strains we want to work with, rather than use more generic powerhouse yeasts that wont give us as meaningful, concentrated, and complex flavors. As I mentioned we will let natural yeast play a role, but we also pitch a blend of yeast (all strains of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae of course). We do this because we are looking for certain esters to be produced and cultivate flavors in the fermentation while getting some local nuance.”

When I interviewed Campbell for this piece I wrote for Rum Reader, I asked her what the first questions are that she asks other American rum distillers to get a feel for their approach.

"What kind of yeast are you using? How's your fermentation?"

After reading the Rum Revelations article, I'm not surprised!

#2: Paste Magazine reviews Montanya Exclusiva and Virago Spirits' Four-Port Rum ⛰️


When it comes to reviews, I'm less interested in their ratings or opinions on individual American rums and more interested on how they view the category as a whole. They can act as a lens on the wider perception of American rum among spirits enthusiasts who are less familiar with it.

Paste Magazine's Jim Vorel wrote two reviews of rums produced by American distilleries this month that do exactly that, especially when you read them back to back. I've pulled key excerpts to dissect below. Let's start with the intro to his review of Montanya Exclusiva (emphasis added is my own):

“In the last year, I’ve tasted rum of all sorts—aged white rum, oversweetened 'premium' rum and gorgeously aged classical rum, although almost all of them have shared one thing in common: They hail from the Caribbean, or Central America. USA-made rum is still something of a rarity—or aged American rum is, anyway. Although many distilleries make a cheap white rum as a cash cow (much like their vodka or gin) while waiting for aged whiskey to arrive, Colorado’s Montanya Distillers is a rarer breed. Their status as a female-founded and operated distiller already makes the company a rarity in the craft spirits world, but it’s their focus specifically on rum, using American-grown, single origin sugar cane from Louisiana, that really makes the distillery unique.

Vorel's point about many distilleries producing a "cheap white rum as a cash cow" certainly has merit (as I discussed with multiple distillers in "Why Are Hundreds of American Distilleries Suddenly Producing Rum?" and this Q&A with Jaime Windon), but I was surprised to see him view aged American rums and rum-focused American distilleries as such rarities.

I took a quick stroll through the American rum index and counted around 45 distilleries that I'd consider to be rum-focused. Though when you factor in the limited distribution of many and the fact that there are somewhere around 2,000 craft distilleries across the country, I suppose you could still call them rare. I have to remind myself to remove my American rum-tinted glasses sometimes.

Still, aged American rum is becoming less and less unique to those rum-focused distilleries. Even many of the hundreds of rum-producing distilleries that don't focus on it exclusively are already releasing aged expressions, some of which are quite good.

Nevertheless, it's worth noting that the perception here is basically that cheap unaged rum is the norm in American rum, while quality aged expressions are the exception.

But being an aged expression from a rum-focused distillery wasn't the only reason Montanya Exclusiva caught the reviewer's eye:

“This release from Montanya caught our attention for the fact that it is aged two and a half years in American oak barrels that previously held Colorado whiskey, before being finished in a significantly more exotic way: Six months in French oak barrels that previously aged Sutcliffe Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and port.”

People love an intriguing barrel finish! Vorel goes on to say that it was the combination of the finish in red wine barrels and Montanya's unique Colorado story that really sparked his curiosity. Keep that in mind for this final bit of the review I want to highlight:

“Ultimately, I’m probably less likely to drink this particular rum neat, compared with classic, well-aged Caribbean rums, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities it offers as a cocktail component. Montanya has done what all micro-distilleries must do: Created a product unique enough to carve out a potential niche for themselves.”

This touches on something I think about often with American rums. When a distillery releases a more exclusive, top-tier expression, it often carries the price of a premium rum (the MSRP for Montanya Exclusiva is $54.99) but not the kind of age statement many spirits enthusiasts would expect at that price point (3 years, in this case).

You can feel this a bit when Vorel compares it to "well-aged" Caribbean rums in the above quote. (For what it's worth, he's still quite complimentary of the rum throughout the review, and even refers to it as one of the most unique rums he's had in recent memory.)

The point here is not that producers like Montanya should price these kinds of rums lower (that's often not financially feasible in the first place). The point is that it speaks to how important it is for American producers to obsess over differentiating themselves and creating something truly unique if they hope to compete with similarly priced rums bearing longer age statements and histories. Montanya is one of the best I've seen at doing that (as Vorel points out), but it's not the case for all American rum producers with higher priced offerings.


It's this pricing dichotomy that brings me to Vorel's review of Four-Port Rum from Virago Spirits. His intro addresses it directly:

“In the craft distillery world, as in the craft beer world, the consumer must eventually come to terms with the fact that they’re always paying a premium for the satisfaction of supporting a small enterprise. This simply comes with the territory—a microdistillery that has fought and clawed to get its first aged whiskey to the two-year mark required to label it as 'straight' essentially has to charge a premium for that product in order to make it financially feasible, even if the Jim Beams of the world can produce something twice as old and sell bottles of it for $12. The knowledge that craft distillers can’t operate as efficiently, on as great a scale, should be baked into the consumer’s understanding of this landscape.”

Vorel sets the review up this way because Virago Spirits has done something different. Rather than trying to compete right away with their own distillate, they released a blend of four rums from Barbados, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Panama.

In Vorel's eyes, this has allowed Virago to unlock a pricepoint and level of quality that's competitive with many higher priced Caribbean offerings right off the bat:

“Which is all to say, that after tasting Four-Port Rum from Richmond, VA’s tiny Virago Spirits, I’m all the more impressed that they’re selling bottles of this spirit for $31.99. It’s a lovely blend of aged rums that can compete with some of the best of what the Caribbean has to offer in terms of both profile and price, and that is a rare find indeed.”

So, what does this have to do with distilleries that would rather release their own distillate than simply create sourced blends? Well, it turns out Virago is planning to do just that as well:

“All in all, it’s an impressive find, and it makes me curious to sample Virago’s own distillate, which is still quietly aging for a future release.”

This is partially why I find American rum producers releasing their own imported blends (or blending imported distillate with their own rums) so interesting. There's not just a financial case to be made for it. Based on reactions like the one above, you can also argue that it's a way to build brand equity and trust with consumers while you work on improving (and/or aging) your own distillate.

For example, think of Two James Distillery in Michigan, which has made a name for itself in the rum community with its blend of imported Jamaican rums called Doctor Bird. If they decided to distill their own rum, don't you think people would be interested?

I have much more to say on this topic, but perhaps it's best reserved for its own article. For now, let's leave it as food for thought.

#3: An inside look at a particularly unique American rum expression—Thrasher's Green Spiced Rum from Potomac Distilling Company in Washington D.C. 🌿

The small batch, experimental nature of most American rum producers means you frequently see them trying out ideas for rums with unconventional use cases. In the case of D.C.'s Potomac Distilling Company, the makers of Thrasher's Rum, that unconventional use case was creating the perfect rum for complementing tonic. The idea resulted in the distillery's Green Spiced Rum, which local site dcist covered earlier this month.

From the article:

“According to Thrasher, he developed a taste for rum and tonics 'during my days as a dive master traveling through the South Pacific.' When he set out to open Potomac Distilling, Thrasher sent himself to Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, to learn the art and science behind distilling. From the beginning, one of his goals was to create the perfect rum to complement tonic. Says Thrasher, 'Green Spiced Rum really acts like gin, but for rum lovers.'”

According to Justin Owens, the distiller at Potomac Distilling Company, they utilize a gin basket on their hybrid pot/column still to create the green spiced rum. The botanicals used are mint, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lime peel, and green cardamom.

#4: The Uncapped podcast interviews Jaime Windon, co-founder of Maryland rum distillery Lyon Distilling 🎙️

Speaking of rums infused with botanicals, they came up in this interview when Jaime Windon dropped a few hints about an upcoming new line of rums from Lyon Distilling: 

“This next line of rums is something that’s like nothing you’ve ever had before. They are using really interesting botanicals and flavors and they’re all very culturally and historically significant that you might recognize in another bottle or spirit from another country, but you’ve never seen it done before in America with rum as a base.”

Jaime is always a great interview, and her appearance on the Uncapped podcast doesn't disappoint.

(Also, I was very excited to hear she's currently reading Judgment of Paris. More American rum producers should read Judgment of Paris! It will inspire you.) 

#5: Drink of the Week! Rum and sorghum are a perfect match 🥃

Football season is here, which means it's time to start drinking cocktails that look and taste like fall. And that hopefully make the weather change sooner.

Anyway, my sister gifted me a copy of an excellent cocktail book put together by the Southern Foodways Alliance about a year ago, and I kept coming back to a recipe called The Bitter Southerner #1 that featured bourbon, amaro, sorghum syrup, and bitters.

I made some sorghum syrup (equal parts sorghum and hot water) and couldn't get over the aroma and taste. Earthy, bready, sweet—it seemed like the perfect match for rum. So I said forget the bourbon and threw in rum instead. (The bourbon version is great too.)


Specifically, I chose Prichard's Fine Rum. Partially because I thought it would make sense in the drink flavor-wise, and partically because I couldn't resist pairing Tennessee sorghum with a Tennessee rum that Phil Prichard originally intended to distill from sorghum syrup (until he found out you can't do that and call it rum, as Wayne Curtis recounted in And a Bottle of Rum).

I'm no bartender, but I think this drink works really well. My one wish is that Prichard's bottled this rum at 90 or 100 proof to really let its character shine. I suppose I could swap it out for the higher proof (and longer aged) Prichard's Private Stock, but I can't bring myself to mix that rum.

The full recipe:

  • 2.25 oz Prichard's Fine Rum

  • .5 oz Averna

  • .5 oz sorghum syrup (equal parts sorghum and water)

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with an orange peel (which really helps it not just look like a glass of muddy water).

#6: An American rum makes VinePair's list of the 20 best rums for every budget 💸

The list features rums for 4 price levels: 

  • Under $25

  • Under $50

  • Under $100

  • Over $100

It's in the "Under $100" category that American rum makes its first and only appearance, with Richland Rum's aged expression representing the category. From the article:

"Georgia-based Richland Distillery was founded in 1999. The American brand might lack the history of other producers on this list, but its rum is not left wanting when it comes to balance, quality, and complexity. Somewhat unusually, the rum is distilled from sugar cane syrup rather than molasses or cane juice, but we love the results. Vegetal, smokey, and complex, this is a must-buy for craft spirits nerds. Average price: $60"

It's interesting to see "vegetal" used as the first word to describe this rum. While I do pick up on a few vegetal notes in my own bottle, it's certainly not the leading characteristic I'd use to describe it. But hey, no two palates or sets of taste buds are exactly the same. Of course, the same is true of Richland's single barrel bottlings, which each offer their own unique notes.

Just look at the variance in tasting notes for different barrels in the distillery's barrel pedigree tracker. To me, it's part of the charm.

You can check out VinePair's full list here.

#7: Quick Links 🔗

USA Today unveiled the nominees for best craft rum distillery in the U.S. for its annual 10 Best Readers' Choice Awards — Who do you think is missing? I was most surprised to not see Richland, Montanya, Maggie's Farm, or Prichard's on there.

Business Insider did a write-up on Bridget Firtle and her NYC rum operation, The Noble Experiment Distillery, which makes Owney's Rum

Maxim listed Bully Boy Distillers' (Boston, MA) relatively new rum blend, The Rum Cooperative, in its list of the "very best rums to try right now" — its a blend of Bully Boy's 8-year-old Boston rum (10%), Panamanian rum (45%), Dominican rum (36%), Trinidadian rum (8.1%), and Jamaican rum (0.9%).

A new law allows Illinois distilleries to skip distributors and sell a small quantity of spirits directly to bars and retailers — A rare win for sanity? Nice!

Will Hoekenga