American Rum Report #4 — April 5, 2019
Trying a slight format tweak that I think should make this newsletter easier for you to browse—a Table of Contents of sorts at the beginning so you know what you’re getting into.
You like? I think I like it. Really ties the newsletter together. Like a great rug.
Let's dig in.
~ In This Report ~
#1: Reddit asks a question worth pondering: What can American craft rum really offer the market?
#2: Bully Boy Distillers (Boston, MA) announces The Rum Cooperative—a blended rum that combines their eight-year Boston rum with Panamanian, Dominican, Trinidadian, and Jamaican rums.
#3: Richard Seale boils down his TTB thoughts in an interview with Fred Minnick, author of Rum Curious
#4: Two American rum distillers made the short list for a James Beard award!
#5: New releases from Privateer are coming!
#6: A great article I neglected to include in Report #3— “Meet the Distillers Reinventing New England Rum”
Oh, and a friendly reminder that I'm moderating a panel discussion on American rum at the Miami Rum Festival in May! The panel features Phil Prichard of Prichard’s Distillery, Tim Russell of Maggie’s Farm Rum, and Jonny VerPlanck of Three Roll Estate. Get your tickets to the festival and come say hello.
#1: Reddit asks a question worth pondering: What can American craft rum really offer the market?
You may have seen the lovely Imbibe article that came out in mid-March titled, “Meet the Distillers Reinventing New England Rum” (more on this later).
When someone shared it in Reddit’s rum community (thread here), a particular response from a fellow rum enthusiast caught my eye:
“My major question with craft American rum is 'what can this really offer the market'? I'm all about more rum being produced more places, but besides 'American Craft' marketing stories, what will this juice do for me that I won't find elsewhere?”
I resisted my initial urge to respond with, “A lot!” and leave it at that. :)
After all, this is an important question simply due to the fact that it’s something I’ve heard before from rum enthusiasts.
For me, it’s a question with multiple answers because, as I see it, there’s not just one great big beverage market for American craft rum to serve.
The vast majority of craft producers usually start by focusing on their own regional market of consumers, which wants something very different than the global market of rum connoisseurs you’ll find in online rum communities, whether it’s the r/rum subreddit or the Ministry of Rum Facebook group.
To regional consumers, many of which are only vaguely familiar with rum in the first place, those “American craft” marketing stories matter. It’s cool to experience something made by people in your community, often with locally sourced ingredients.
In the case of New England rum, it’s cool for those regional drinkers to know someone local is incorporating traditions from the distillers who made rum the country’s most popular spirit hundreds of years ago (even though the distiller likely had to improve upon some of those traditions).
So it’s obvious why so many American craft producers use those stories to position their products—they resonate with the people most likely to buy their rum.
On the other hand, if you’re a rum connoisseur in London who’s trying to decide which Habitation Velier bottle to buy next, these “American craft” stories likely don’t mean squat to you. Why should you care that Americans are producing small batch rums with American ingredients—especially when the American rum of the 17th and 18th centuries wasn’t supposed to have been all that great in the first place?
This is where the commenter on Reddit was coming from. So I want to take a stab at what I think American rum has to offer that market.
American rum offers you the chance to experience a tradition that’s yet to be fully established—to witness something as it’s happening.
In the very first edition of this newsletter, I linked to an article by Wayne Curtis titled, “How Do You Define an ‘American-Style’ of Rum?”. That article included the following quote from Tim Russell, founder of Pittsburgh distillery Maggie’s Farm Rum:
“I’m curious about American-style rum in that I’m not certain what it is yet...I’m not certain American rum knows what American rum is yet.”
This is precisely why I think more hardcore rum folks should be excited to experience American rum right now.
What you have in American rum is a generation of distillers who are almost all relatively new to making the spirit. They don’t have the generations of passed-down knowledge you’ll find at many Caribbean distilleries.
But what you’ll find in that vacuum is a spirit of experimentation and an excitement to explore all the world's rum-making traditions in a new context. You'll find passion and a desire to contribute something unique and distinctive to the larger rum universe.
Of course, you won't find that in every American rum you try. Many are unremarkable. Some are bad. But, increasingly, you’re just as likely to come across something unique, unaltered, and damn good.
Take, for example, this beautiful bottle of High Wire Distilling's Lowcountry Agricole I was lucky enough to get my hands last week:
Unlike many of the fresh cane juice rums you’re likely to find on shelves, it’s 100% pot-distilled (technically distilled on a hybrid still, but they bypass the column). It's fermented with wild yeast. It's aged in new American oak barrels. The cane comes from a single source farm in South Carolina. It's a distinctive rum that captures the taste of a region in a way nothing else could.
And it’s just one of many unique American rum examples I could have pulled out of my cabinet right now. (It's also fantastic, by the way.)
So my answer to any rum enthusiast who's wondering what American rum has to offer would be to ask any wine enthusiast if they'd like the chance to travel back to Napa Valley in the 1960s.
It's the chance experience something increasingly great, before it's obvious to everyone else.
#2: Speaking of exploring all the world's rum-making traditions, check out this upcoming rum blend from Boston's Bully Boy Distillers.
It's called The Rum Cooperative, and it's a blended rum consisting of:
10% Bully Boy’s 8-year Boston Rum
45% 12-year Panamanian rum
36% 12-year Dominican rum
8.1% 12-year Trinidadian rum
0.9% 12-year Jamaican rum (presumably high-ester given the low amount)
This release is labeled as “Volume 1,” so it looks like Bully Boy is leaving the door open to future releases.
I have to say that I love the philosophy behind this rum. Check out this paragraph from the website:
"There are almost as many ways to make rum as there are to drink it. No one technique better than the other, the means and methods dictated by artistic discretion of the distiller. We wanted to celebrate the various rum making traditions by bringing them together into one transcendent expression. We hope you enjoy drinking it as much as we've enjoyed making it."
More of this attitude, please! It gets to part of the reason why I like seeing blends like this in the first place. As American rum continues to develop its own identity, tasting it in the context of other rum styles offers us the chance to experience it from a different angle.
I’ve enjoyed the 50/50 Dark Rum from Maggie’s Farm (a blend of their white rum and a 12-year Trinidadian rum that’s then aged an additional 6-9 months in used rum casks) and Owney’s Rum from The Noble Experiment Distillery (a blend of their unaged rum and a 2-year Dominican rum).
I'm also keeping an eye on Virago Spirits out of Virginia, who recently released a blend of rums from Barbados, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Panama called Four-Port Rum. They've started distilling their own rum and already have some of it barrel aging, so I'm thinking we'll eventually see it incorporated into an international blend and/or released on its own as well.
By the way, I recommend checking out the website Bully Boy built for The Rum Cooperative. It’s the rare craft distillery/spirit website that’s as visually gorgeous as it is informative. I mean, look at some of these illustrations:
First of all, let me say that you should read this article simply to appreciate Richard Seale’s smorgasbord of little-used words. Included in this 2,000-word interview, he dishes out:
But of particular relevance is his view that the TTB, which controls what spirits producers can and can't print on labels in the U.S. (among other things), should enforce more standards of identity within rum. If you’ve heard him speak before, you’re likely familiar with his views, but I thought they were presented succinctly here:
“One of the most idiotic statements I have seen repeatedly is the claim — ‘unlike cognac, bourbon or scotch, rum has little or no rules’. This is comparing apples to oranges. The former are three specific forms of brandy or whisky being compared to the generic word rum. If you look to specific rum types you can find the same kind of rules. Just like in whisky or brandy, different standards apply in different countries. Some good, some less so.
“But the difference is that the US does not recognize them. So cognac and scotch are protected terms in the US. The US TTB will enforce the standards of identity of France and Scotland for those products when they are sold in the US. Let’s contrast that with agricole- you can put agricole on anything in the US. I could sell our Barbados rum in the US as agricole and the TTB will not care, they will not protect the term. Likewise, it has been illegal in Jamaica to adulterate Jamaican rum for maybe one hundred years or more. But today you can find adulterated Jamaican Rum selling in the US with impunity. You can’t find adulterated Scotch whisky, the TTB will not allow it.”
His argument makes sense, and I’ve yet to encounter rum drinkers who aren’t in favor of stricter TTB standards, but what an ideal solution would look like has always felt a little murky to me.
The debates I’ve seen usually speak in terms of “for” or “against” rather than acknowledging the spectrum of opinions a solution would have to reckon with.
For example, one can think that an American distillery producing their own fresh cane juice rum should be able to put “Agricole” on the label, while also thinking that a distillery producing an evaporated cane juice-based rum should not.
I’m not saying one is right or one is wrong—I’m just saying both of those opinions exist, and sometimes between the ears of a single person.
You'll even find American distillers choosing to observe some rules of certain styles they're emulating, even though they're not legally required to. Take this quote that High Wire Distilling's Scott Blackmore gave to NPR on their Lowcountry Agricole, for example:
"'The beautiful thing about agricoles,' says Blackmore, 'is that you cannot add flavoring, coloring or sugar. It has to be distilled from raw sugar cane juice. We follow those rules, although since we are not located in the French West Indies, we call ours a Lowcountry agricole.'"
Can anyone point me to additional thoughtful conversations/opinions on this topic?
#4: Speaking of American distilleries that have used the word "Agricole" in their products, two of them are finalists for a James Beard award!
Specifically, the co-founders of the aforementioned High Wire Distilling, Ann Marshall and Scott Blackmore, along with Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits are up for the “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer” award.
A win would mark the first time a rum-making distillery has won the award (although, sadly, St. George has suspended production of their California Agricole due to cane juice sourcing issues).
And, look, while neither distillery is known exclusively for the rums they’ve made over the years, both have contributed noteworthy releases that garnered their fair share of press.
Hopefully, if either takes home the award, the ensuing coverage will shine at least a small bit of the spotlight on the distinctive (and labor-intensive) rums both distilleries have produced.
*fingers crossed emoji*
#5: Privateer Rum is releasing four single barrel "Distiller's Drawer" rums next month!
Distiller’s Drawer is the moniker Privateer uses for their limited single barrel releases, which have developed a cult following over the years.
Here’s what their newsletter announcement had to say:
"We have pulled five stellar barrels from our cellar to be released in May on Distiller's Drawer Day. Three barrels are one of a kind rum expressions, we also have a barrel of our Navy Yard Bottled in Bond (it's back!), and one barrel of an American Single Malt Whiskey, yep we just said that... Door's will be open from 11am-2pm, mark your calendar!"
If I were going to be in Massachusetts in May, you could bet on seeing me there. But alas. Someone grab me a bottle.
#6: And last but not least, the story I neglected to include in the previous report: "Meet the Distillers Reinventing New England Rum"
Since we’re already talking about Privateer, I’ll mention that I loved this explanation from president and head distiller Maggie Campbell on why Privateer uses Grade A molasses to emulate colonial rum rather than blackstrap molasses:
“‘Back in the Colonial era, they would have used blackstrap molasses, but blackstrap to them is very different than what blackstrap molasses is to us today, because the technology used to refine sugar has advanced so significantly,’ says Campbell.
“The molasses from the 18th century was likely sweeter and more pure tasting, because it was less processed. ‘When you’re making molasses you take fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and simmer it, and as it simmers and the water evaporates, crystals form. If you refine those crystals enough they become white sugar, and what’s left in the pot is the blackstrap molasses,’ she explains. ‘That process of removing white sugar has advanced immensely. Now they can add chemicals to extract more sugar or process it more aggressively, so what’s left behind has a lot more impurities and is very different.’
“Campbell makes two rums using 100 percent Grade A Fancy molasses. ‘Grade A means the fresh-pressed cane is barely simmered and only one scraping is taken out,’ she says.”