American Rum Report #16 — October 4, 2019

~ In This Report ~

#1: How the Rums of Puerto Rico Program Works: An Interview with Director Alexandra Salgado 🇵🇷

#2: A common American rum misconception rears its head in a rum review from Paste Magazine 🤔

#3: The Manual revealed its picks for the best aged and unaged American rums in its annual awards for the best American craft spirits 🏆

#4: Koloa Rum Company announces a massive expansion + plans to produce more of its own sugarcane 🌺

#5: An in-depth look at Maggie's Farm Rum's (Pittsburgh, PA) production process from Rob's Rum Guide 🚜

#6: Quick links on the first pitorro distillery in the continental U.S., how tariffs on EU goods might hurt American rum producers, and more 🔗

#1: How the Rums of Puerto Rico Program Works: An Interview with Director Alexandra Salgado 🇵🇷

The more I think about the future of American rum, the more convinced I am that we'll see an increasing emphasis placed on regional styles rather than an overarching distinctly American style of rum.

It's easy to imagine, for example, standards emerging for a regional category like New England Rum, or a state-based category in states where a large number of distilleries produce rum from local sugarcane, like Authentic Hawaiian Rum or Authentic Louisiana Rum.

During my trip to the California Rum Festival, I was reminded that one of these regional categories for a type of American rum has already existed for decades—Rums of Puerto Rico.

Rums of Puerto Rico is a program the Puerto Rican government established in 1948 to promote the Puerto Rican rum industry and help it maintain certain production standards. To this day, if a rum produced in Puerto Rico wants to bear the "Rums of Puerto Rico" mark in its labelling and advertising (and be marketed by the program), it must meet the program's standards of identity.

But how exactly does the program work? And could it help us imagine what programs for other rum-producing regions of the U.S. might look like?

Those were the questions I had in mind when I reached out to Rums of Puerto Rico’s director, Alexandra Salgado, to learn more about the program, the pop-up tour it's currently producing across the U.S., and how she sees the Puerto Rican rum landscape evolving.

You can check out our conversation right here.

To be clear (and I mention this in the article), I recognize there are some obvious differences between the rum industry in Puerto Rico and the rum industry in the rest of the U.S.

Domestic rum production is not a $300 million industry in any other part of the country (yet!). There also aren’t any states in which rum producers get some of their excise tax back via subsidies that come from a cover-over.

That said, I still think there are some interesting takeaways to be had for other regions from studying how Rums of Puerto Rico functions.

Here's the link to the article again.

#2: A common American rum misconception rears its head in a rum review from Paste Magazine 🤔

Jim Vorel wrote a rum review for Paste Magazine that offers a glimpse of a key challenge for American rum producers—overcoming the misconception that the category doesn't have much to offer beyond boring, lightly-aged rums.

The review is about The Rum Cooperative, a rum blend from Bully Boy Distillers in Boston that features rum from five countries: 45% 12-year Panamanian rum, 36% 12-year Dominican rum, 10% 8-year rum from Bully Boy, 8.1% 12-year Trinidadian rum, and 0.9% 12-year Jamaican rum.

Vorel opens the review by contrasting his excitement for these kinds of interesting new blends from American craft distilleries versus his idea of the typical aged American rum release:

"In terms of trends within the American distilling industry, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see sourced, blended rums from the Caribbean on the rise. Not to slag on the average microdistillery, but … well, it’s hard to get excited about your average American-made, 1-year-old gold rum release. Just taking some of your sugar cane juice/molasses distillate and throwing it into a barrel for a little while doesn’t tend to result in a product that is very distinctive or interesting. But taking advantage of the bounty of the Caribbean and Central America to offer a blend that no one has ever created before? Now I’m intrigued."

The implication here is that these "average American-made, 1-year-old gold rum" releases are what dominate the category. Vorel also called aged American rum "something of a rarity" when he reviewed Montanya's Exclusiva Rum back in August.

What gets lost in this characterization is the steady rise of longer-aged American rums that you've seen me talk about again and again if you keep up with the Release Radar email I send out every two weeks.

Do 1- to 2-year-old rums make up the majority of aged releases in the category? Yes. But there are more than enough interesting 4+ and 5+ year aged releases to keep you occupied. In the past six months, I've written about ones from Privateer, Montanya, Maggie's Farm, Koloa Rum Company, Flag Hill Distillery, St. George, Bayou Rum, Raleigh Rum Company, Muddy River Distillery, Balcones, Marlin & Barrel, Richland Rum, and Triple Eight Distillery.

Hell, Privateer's 4-year Bottled-in-Bond Rum was nominated alongside rums from Foursquare/Hampden, Bacardi, and Plantation for Tales of the Cocktail's "Best New Spirit" Award this year.

The number of longer-aged American rum releases is only going up (as will their age statements in the coming years). If reviewers are willing to look, they're not too hard to find.

#3: The Manual revealed its picks for the best aged and unaged American rums in its annual awards for the best American craft spirits 🏆

Here are the finalists for unaged rum (with the winner in bold):

  • 4 Spirits Silver Rum from 4 Spirits Distillery (Corvallis, OR)

  • Owney's Distiller's Reserve Rum from Owney's (Brooklyn, NY)

  • Michigan White Rum from Iron Fish Distillery (Thompsonville, MI)

You can view the full article for the unaged rum award here.

And here are the finalists for aged rum (with the winner in bold):

  • Queen's Share Rum from Maggie's Farm Rum (Pittsburgh, PA)

  • Alander Aged Rum from Far North Spirits (Hallock, MN)

  • Lawley's Small Batch Dark Rum from Boston Harbor Distillery (Dorchester, MA)

You can view the full article for the aged rum award here.

Okay, so...I have some thoughts.

Let me start by saying that I'm a fan of anything websites do to send more attention to craft distilleries (particularly ones that make rum).

But here's what I don't love about these awards:

The Manual provides little to no detail about how these finalists and winners were selected, which means we have no idea what they were being compared to. The article offers the following about the selection process for the awards:

"We spent months tasting candidates across the country, from large craft distilleries to mom-and-pop operations discovered during our travels. From those, we narrowed it down to three finalists in each category. Did we try every spirit produced in 2019? No, not by a long shot, sadly. But we promise we tried our very best."

Listen, I get that you can't try every rum produced in the United States. I wouldn't expect any organization handing out awards to do that. But with so little context around how many rums were sampled, it's hard to derive any meaning from these awards. Were 30 rums sampled? 50? 200? That number makes a huge difference in how we should interpret the results.

As a consumer who is always on the hunt for resources that will help me discern which craft spirits are worth seeking out, more context on how "best of" decisions are made is always a good thing.

#4: Koloa Rum Company broke ground on a major expansion that will double the size of its distillery + HQ (plus, a few details on Koloa's plan to increase access to Hawaiian sugarcane) 🌺

On September 18, Koloa Rum Company in Hawaii (Kauai, specifically) officially began construction on a new 45,000-square-foot distillery and storage facility at the site of its new headquarters.

The groundbreaking ceremony coincided with the company's 10-year anniversary, which makes it a grizzled veteran in the relatively young American rum landscape. 

The expansion, as you may have guessed, is designed to allow for increased production that can match the brand's steady growth (Koloa has achieved "year-over-year double digit sales and revenue growth since year one," according to local coverage).

To me, however, the most interesting part of the expansion is the company's plan to increase its supply of local sugarcane. From the article:

“To recognize and honor the agricultural heritage of the town of Kōloa, where commercial sugar production operations were first introduced in 1835, expansion plans also include the planting and cultivation of 10-12 acres of sugar cane fields on site. Additionally, Kōloa Rum will refurbish old plantation camp structures into workforce housing and a museum that will tell the story of the rich history of sugarcane production in the area.

“'Cultivating and using our own sugarcane is a big part of our history on Kauaʻi, and that’s very important to us,' adds Gunter. 'We will be growing and processing cane on site to make our rum, and we are actively partnering with local farmers to increase sources of cane sugar on the island with the goal of one day being able to use only Kaua‘i-grown cane in our products.'”

Access to Hawaiian sugarcane has been difficult for rum producers like Koloa since the last major mill on the islands shut down a few years ago. While other small producers like Ko Hana Distillers and Kuleana Rum Works grow their own supply of heirloom sugarcane to produce fresh cane juice rums, no one is doing it at the scale Koloa is aiming for (or with the intention to process the juice into byproducts like molasses, crystalized sugar, etc.).

As if we all needed another excuse to get a Hawaii trip on the calendar, right?

#5: An in-depth look at Maggie's Farm Rum's production process from Rob's Rum Guide 🚜

Rob Burr recently visited Maggie's Farm Rum Distillery in Pittsburgh and published a great article with loads of production notes and details on all of the distillery's rums.

Rob included some excellent photos of the distillery as well, including a few shots of its beautiful alembic copper pot stills, so be sure to check it out.

I've chatted with and interviewed Maggie's Farm founder and head distiller Tim Russell several times and he's a great example of the qualities you love to see in a rum producer—curious, willing to experiment, and always pushing to learn more about rum production. If you have a chance to try their rums—particularly the recent Queen's Share releases—don't pass it up!

#6: Quick Links 🔗

The U.S. announced a 25% tariff on EU goods (including Scotch whisky and other spirits) that could result in retaliatory EU tariffs on American rum — Maggie Lehrman, CEO of the American Craft Spirits Association, had this to say: “The threat of additional retaliatory tariffs from the EU on American rum, vodka and brandy imports from the US will further limit our market access, directly affecting not just our distillers and their families – who collectively make up a workforce of more than 20,000 employees across the US.”

A Bronx distillery is producing a little-known type of Puerto Rican rum called pitorro — I enjoyed this look at Port Morris Distillery and its founder, Rafael Barbosa, which is the only pitorro producer in the continental U.S. (and the only distillery in the Bronx). Pitorro is essentially Puerto Rico's version of moonshine. It's produced from sugarcane—usually white or brown sugar—which makes it part of the rum family. It's then often infused with fruits. Port Morris's version features New York apples and honey.

Uproxx asked bartenders to name their favorite non-whiskey spirits for fall, and one selected an American rum — Privateer's Queen's Share, to be precise. Rum is a great spirit for fall, and I hope more people start realizing that!

Will Hoekenga