"We shouldn't be surprised when American rums are judged to be really good." — A Q&A with Rob Burr of Rob's Rum Guide
Few people have been paying attention to American rum longer than Rob Burr. When I first started working on American Rum Report, his website, Rob’s Rum Guide, was one of the few corners of the internet where you could find meaningful information about the distilleries that are producing it.
For years now, he’s hosted and showcased U.S. producers alongside stalwarts of the Caribbean and Latin America at his annual event, the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. In fact, this year the event featured two panel discussions on the category (I know because Rob was gracious enough to invite me to moderate them).
I still remember one of the first things he said when I arrived at the festival: “It’s great to have someone else talking about this, too.”
So when I started working on an in-depth article about the rise in craft rum production in the U.S. for Rum Reader a few months ago, Rob was one of the first people I turned to for insight.
Unfortunately, due to personal failings beyond my explanation, I wasn’t able to work any of the quotes from our hour-long conversation into the article’s final draft. So I thought, why not publish the whole damn thing right here on the blog?
Rob touched on a little bit of everything, from how the category has evolved over the last decade, to what he looks for in new American rum brands, to the future of the category, and beyond.
Here are the highlights from that conversation, edited for clarity and length.
How has American rum evolved since you first started really paying attention to it?
At first I was surprised, you know, 2009, ‘10, ‘11, we'd get some [American] rum in, they'd win an award, and I couldn’t believe it. But then I was like, ‘Well, why wouldn’t they win awards?’ The good analogy is you can go to 7/11 and buy a cinnamon bun, right? Or, if you're lucky enough to have a talented bakery in your town, you can go down there and get a cinnamon bun that was made that morning hot out of the oven. And you can't even compare those two cinnamon buns. One came from a factory wrapped in plastic. And God knows what's in it to keep it preserved.
So somebody with a talent as a baker can really impress you...So why couldn't it also be true—and it is—that small producers of rum know they've got to make something really good? They have something to prove. So I have come to believe, and to see, that some of these people are taking it so seriously and creatively...And we shouldn't be surprised when American rums are judged to be really good.
Now, it takes a long time to catch up to Appleton and Mount Gay...They've got legacy stills, they've got their fermentation really nailed down, and their wood management is tried and true. But there are rums out there that have reached two and three and five years old that are pretty damn impressive on the American side.
What do you wish you saw more or less of from American rum producers?
There's not a really quick, easy answer to that because I'm so open to not judging them. It would be easy to say less flavored rums, but, then again, that's innovation. It would be easy to say that adding a bunch of wood chips or using small barrels is not going to get the desired effect you think it's going to get, because you just want to get to wood quick. But I also don't want to throw a wet blanket on that either. But there's some tried and true logic to letting the rum sit for a long time, and really understanding wood management.
Imagine how many talents you really need to have [as a distiller]. You really need to understand organic chemistry. You need to understand the physical mechanics of your still. You need to understand wood management. You need to understand tasteful blending. Who the hell has all these talents, you know?
And once in a while you find a real renaissance guy or girl who just understands it. Those are the people that stand out. But it's like that in any business, isn't it?
When you hear an American distillery is going to start making rum, what are the first questions you have? What do you want to know about them?
I first want to know what's the backstory? How’d you get here? What brought you to this and what angle are you taking with it? For example, Don [Davies] from Sugar Sand Distillery. He built a cane field in a former citrus grove. And there’s just a still out in the middle of the field in an open building. So wow, what a unique story!
And by the way, how basic and how simple and how unusually unusual, why is this not normal? Why isn’t there a bunch of guys with 15 acres of cane and a still in the middle? Why is this not common throughout the south?
He cuts enough to make 250 gallons, the size of his still, and he sells it to tourists on the weekend. He sells 30 to 50 bottles a weekend for 30 bucks each and that's enough to keep him going. Now, he's learning as he goes. His first batch was kind of smoky...but he's willing to learn and he's willing to make mistakes. And if you follow the theory of upward failure you're eventually going to get real good at this stuff.
When I look at someone like him...his potential is great, because if he plants the right cane and he's got a good story, let’s say an heirloom cane, it's small batches, it's out in the open—it's an authentic, rustic American story. And if the rum doesn't suck then he's got notoriety.
What other backstories stand out to you?
Take someone like Trey Litel [co-founder of Bayou Rum]. When I first met those guys—now, they always had in mind to sell this thing—but they knew that Louisiana had [sugar]cane and that there was no serious brand there, and they built it for tourists and the rum is good. They've turned the corner now and they're going to put out limited editions that I'm looking forward to. But again, that’s a completely different angle, isn't it? And they are one of the bigger American rum distilleries in terms of volume.
Look at the range in these stories. There's no cookie cutter thing here. Look at Maggie's Farm [Rum] being located in a bar. You've got a glass partition and you're looking at the still when you're sitting in the bar. How cool is that? If I was in that bar I’d want to taste that right now.
I was so proud of guys like Troy Roberts over at Siesta Key. You know, they come to you and they say they're going to make some rum and you're like, ‘Uhh yeah...you can do it, man.’ And then when it turns out to be pretty good, you're just so happy for the guy. Now they'll come out with a very limited edition and people will line up down around the corner at the distillery on a Saturday to get it.
And listen, as much as the rum snobs—and we can all be rum snobs from time to time—want to tell you, ‘Well, that's not rum…’ people are lining up and spending money. So you can say what you want. He's not making bubble gum rum, but let's face it...not everybody's cup of tea is a toasted coconut rum. But he's found his customers and they've found him and they're in love.
I wrote recently about the new Cruzan watermelon rum, and you know people are going to make fun of it. You know that right away. I mean, what can you say? I’m not a big fan of that stuff, but I’ve used stuff like that in a punch...But I also know people who are like, ‘Oh, I love that!’ That’s sort of a pedestrian rum buyer, but it isn't like those people are a tiny minority. There's a lot of people like that.
So American rum producers who stretch out and put some rum in a barrel that had maple in it, or do something with interesting wood, or finish it in a sherry barrel, or play up the fact that they're using a high grade molasses, or try their hand at an agricole style, distilling to 78% and having more herbal background. There's no end to the potential innovation, is there? I don't think we have to stick to any style in the U.S. With so many different people getting their toes wet here, the sky's the limit.
I talked to a distiller the other day who said that saying “American rum” is kind of like if you said “Caribbean rum.” Not in terms of quality or style, but in terms of the regions being so large and geographically diverse with different climates. It may not have as many different cultures that bring their own distinct backgrounds and perspectives, but they’re both vast geographic regions. So it’s hard to talk about it like a singular category.
Although the fact that it's unique in the big world of rum, you get away with that for awhile. Right now if you said, ‘I have an African rum...’ Well, Africa is the biggest continent in the world! So what does that mean? But right now it works. Because people say, ‘Wow, it’s coming from Africa.’ So that'll play itself out for awhile.
What do you think it’s going to take for more craft rum producers to go from being regionally successful to nationally or globally successful with their rum?
I don't think that should be a goal. Unless, like we mentioned Trey Litel earlier with Bayou, right? That was their goal all along. But I think if your focus is on making some good rum, that whole other part of the business is like making sausage. I'm not sure you really want to look too closely at how it all works. By the time you get 50 different distributors, it’s like you have 50 marriages going on. So as a producer, you would have to have a whole different staff that just oversees all these relationships and the logistics. When you come from the perspective of a producer with verve and commitment who thinks they have something to say with their rum...that's like an alien business, isn't it?
You can go to the craft beer model and see how the big guys are always looking around to buy craft beer so they can a) kill them, or b) take them on if they believe it'll help their portfolio. But who's to say it's the same craft beer when you start making it in the hundreds of thousands of cases? Now, this is America, so everybody believes they can start off with that one little bakery shop and then have one in every town. But would the cinnamon bun be just as good if you're hiring people to make them in another town? I remember the first time I drank a Lowenbrau that was made in Detroit I spit it out. I'm like, what happened? I looked at the bottle and it was the same green bottle with the blue label, but I'm like, what’d they do to this fucking beer?
But look, Budweiser is made in how many places, and they have good quality control. When you start expanding—and it doesn't matter if you're a bakery or a distiller—you could make that 250-gallon, or that 1,500-gallon, or even that 15,000-gallon still sing. You could make that thing operate day and night with consistency. But Bacardi couldn't get by with a 15,000-gallon still, could they? So it just becomes a whole different business I think.
A big part you’ll see with some [distilleries] is [they’re] finding that in their town there was a local history of a distillery, or their town was known for making good rum. And part of [their] whole thing is bringing it back and respecting the original locale. People loved the rum from Medford, you know? That's something you can really build on and hopefully not disappoint. Again, it comes back to when you meet somebody who says they're going to make rum, what's the story? What's the angle? What's their philosophy? But if you want to get big, I think you have to have that in mind right from the beginning.
Where do you see American rum 10 or 20 years from now?
Here is the biggest picture that maybe [people] are not looking at as a whole. I often quote that I've been to just about every distillery in the Caribbean, and I think I remember counting up 51 distilleries at some point. And yet we both know that there are at least a few hundred rum distilleries in the U.S.
So if you stretch this arc out for 20 years...there's going to be more rum being made by more producers—not more rum, but more producers making rum—that if even the top 10% or 25% of it turns out to be really worthy of being drank and enjoyed and recommended, that's a lot of producers, right? And we're just getting going. So American rum has potential 12, 15, 20 years from now to be a world standard.