Photo by Josh Hallett
Though bourbon has been officially designated the “distinctive product of the United States,” rum is technically America’s native spirit. Traditional rum is distilled from molasses, which was one of the easiest and cheapest commodities to acquire trading with Europe, the Dutch colonies of South America and the sugar-producing French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Grenada in the 18th century. Because it was so cheap to come by from these allies, molasses were also used as a convenient bird-flip to the British during trade negotiations. We didn’t need their stinkin’ sugar! Thus New England distillers (nearly synonymous with “farmers” in those days) were making lakes of rum to sell to sell and trade.
For a really terrific read on the history of rum with insightful passages on its American roots, pick up a copy of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. He explains in detail how irate British lawmakers attempted to curtail the success of colonial rum production. To sum up, they started to fight back with the Molasses Act of 1733, which cuffed heavy fees on molasses from non-British territories. However, the tariffs were pretty much ignored and the rum and its revenue continued to flow. So the Molasses Act was replaced in 1764 by the Sugar Act, which was more highly enforced by British rule, going so far as using their navy to face down ships carrying molasses to North America at sea and divert them away from their shores. A few more subsequent lobs from the British against the burgeoning American rum industry, but the Boston Tea Party was the deadly blow.
courtesy Library of Congress
The rum distillers were at the forefront of the rebellion against the British, backed by tavern-keepers. In fact, according to Curtis, the first blood spilled in the Revolution was that of a local rum distiller, Joseph Whicher, who was bayoneted by a British soldier during the initial standoff with the Sons of Liberty. Molasses and other trade goods were soon blocked at the harbors, and rum, also a crucial provision in the war, became increasingly scarce to the point of fading out almost entirely, forcing distiller/farmers to work with bulky grains transported by land, instead of sugar, transported by boat.
After the Revolution, some rum production started up again sourced from southern sugar plantations in places like Louisiana, but the Civil War largely destroyed these distilleries. Americans found a taste for rum during Prohibition either from visiting places like Cuba and Puerto Rico, where it was perfectly legal to drink, or imbibing on the hooch brought in by rum-runners operating in the shadows cast by moonshine. However, local rum production never really caught on again after Repeal since light and cheap rums were so easily imported and thought to taste perfectly acceptable buried under sweet juice, sugar and loads of crushed ice.
For a spirit made from sugarcane, the next chapter in the American rum industry seems less sugarcoated. Decades after Repeal, along with whiskey, vodka and gin, the craft spirits boom is helping rum once again gain traction as a local American spirit. The brand stories reflect a different past than the other spirits, who often rely on tales of moonshining grand pappies and lost recipes. Modern day American rum distillers are not only reaching back to colonial methods of production, but also taking cues from traditional rum estates and blenders abroad. With the attraction of farm-to-glass, handmade, artisanal, etc. production, American distillers are even tinkering with methods that mix the old molasses-based formulas with the use of fresher, local sugars.
Centuries after rising from the ashes of the Civil War, Louisiana is now home to two new distilleries, Donner-Peltier, who produce the Rougaroux brand, and Louisiana Spirits Bayou Rum. Both rums feature local sugarcane as the star ingredient, using a combination of raw sugar and molasses, fermented with a cane yeast. The resulting finish is distinctly clean and sugary, with less of the herbal hogo effect of molasses-based rums.
For Bayou, owner Trey Litel sources his sugar from M.A. Patout & Sons, who have been operating since 1829. He says the sugar boosts the flavor of the rum in ways sourced 100% molasses rums can fall short. “Here in Louisiana, we raise more cane than any Caribbean island, on a good year we might even beat Florida and they have twice the amount of acreage. Our farmers very dedicated, and it makes a difference in the taste.”
There’s something about that Louisiana cane. Says, Johnny Culpepper of Donner-Peltier, “In Louisiana, sugarcane has been an integral part of our way of life for over 200 years, contributing over 2 billion dollars annually to our economy. In 2012, Donner-Peltier Distillers distilled the first bottle of Rougaroux Rum, making a world class rum, from regionally sourced ingredients, five minutes from our distillery, in Thibodaux, LA. Each bottle of Rougaroux rum is a flavorful link to its heritage, the journey beginning in the sugarcane fields of Louisiana.”
Litel goes on to say about Bayou, “The secret to making great rum is that we have some of the most experienced rum makers in the United States with us. Jeff Murphy was making rum for Privateer up in New England. When we met Jeff, he decided to join the team. We also have a secret weapon, a gentleman named Reiniel Vicente (I say ‘gentleman,’ but he’s actually still a young man). He was born in Cuba and is a second generation master blender. Reiniel learned to make rum with his father. His father was a master blender in Cuba for 20 years, moved to the Dominican Republic and Reiniel worked for him for 10 years at Oliver y Oliver rum company. Having the experience, the understanding of how to age with the solera barrel aging method… he also created our spiced rum and selected which spices to rest our rum in. Those two guys have teamed up for us to win 72 awards, including the  Berlin Spirits Competition.”
Out west in San Diego, renown craft beer brewery, Ballast Point, has expanded to a distillery producing vodka, gin, whiskey and rum. Brewer/distiller Yuseff Cherney explained how brewing informed the process of rum production. “The fact that our distillery was born from a brewery is a fundamental difference that will separate us from most other distillers. The beer process demands exact control over temperature and cleanliness, which is not so much a concern for most distilleries. We make sure our fermentations are kept cool, like beer, in a conical stainless fermentation vessel with cooling jackets. The longer, cooler fermentations give the yeast time to digest the sugars and create an alcoholic ‘distillers beer’ with reduced levels of the congeners (fusel alcohols and esters) that would be created in a high temperature fermentation, which is the standard of most commercial rum production. The brewer’s concept of sanitation is bordering on laboratory levels and shines through in clean fermentations without bacterial fermentations tainting the purity of the product. In general, the fermentation is much more of a science than just fermenting sugar as fast as possible to make a base for distillation, and the art is in the ingredient selection and the cuts that the distiller makes throughout the run.”
Rougaroux at Donner-Peltier
Why chose to offer rum along with the more typical spirits products in the first place? “San Diego, situated right on the water with sailboats rushing by and our nautical theme here at Ballast Point made the choice to make rum at the top of the list. There is the allure of the Tiki tradition that goes along with the rum and being a tikiphile myself, the ability to create classic tiki drinks (in the appropriate ceramic drinkware) was also part of the fascination with rum. We commission a custom Tiki mug each year to commemorate the tie between our spirits and the whimsical fun of Tiki.”
Instead of adding molasses to the mix, BP goes for a base made exclusively from raw sugar, almost like an American version of rhum agricole, which is distilled from fresh cane juice. Explains Cherney, “Molasses is basically the final stream of the sugar making process and I felt that we could make a more refined taste with something that was closer to raw sugarcane juice. By using an organic evaporated cane for our substrate we get the fermentable sugar in the rawest form other than fresh pressed juice, which is hard to come by in San Diego. The raw sugar also gives a slight dulce de leche flavor in the white rum which pairs well with the tropical fruit notes derived from the esters created during fermentation by our yeast.”
It sure took a while for rum to find its place stateside again, but as with most things, patience leads to reward. Here are a few American rums to try from the new revolution:
Ballast Point Three Sheets Barrel Aged Rum: Made from California raw cane sugar and aged in virgin American oak like a bourbon, this two year-old rum has a unique, smoky flavor mixed with caramel sweetness. Perfect as a neat sipper or stirred cocktails. Silver medalist, 2015 New York International Spirits Competition.
Rougaroux Full Moon Dark Rum: Rougaroux is a mythical, werewolf-like creature that some say appears in Louisiana cane fields on a full moon. Made from a mixture of raw cane sugar and domestic molasses, it’s dark and satisfying without being cloyingly sweet – the perfect after dinner sipper. Also tastes great mixed with spicy ginger beer and lime.
Bayou Spiced Rum: While the entire line of Bayou rums (including its Satsuma rum liqueur made from local fruit) is impressive, this one is a game changer. Many spiced rums taste like a stale spice rack met an unfortunate end in a rum barrel. This one shows notable finesse, with subtle, fresh-tasting spices that are fun to pick out over a few sips. Try it neat at first, then mix it in cocktails for a spicy kick. It also makes a fabulous rum cake, or you can buy one by Chef John Folse direct from Bayou (Note: these were enjoyed over the holidays and guests full from dinner still devoured them like hungry raccoons.)
Taildragger Amber Rum: Tailwinds Distillery in Illinois was started by a family with roots in the American aviation industry. Their Taildragger rums are distilled from locally sourced molasses, boiled only once and used immediately for fresher flavors. The amber rests in ex-rye whiskey barrels resulting in a complex spirit with vanilla, butterscotch, tropical fruit, rye bread and spice notes.
Owney’s White Rum: One of our favorites in recent years (and 2013 NYISC silver medalist), straight outta Brooklyn! Owney’s, named for a Prohibition era rum-runner, is distilled by Bridget Firtle right in the heart of Bushwick, made from Florida and Louisiana-grown, non-GMO, Grade A, black strap molasses. Looking for a cleaner tasting unaged American white rum for your Daiquiri? Fuhgeddaboudit! For more on Owney’s, see full article here.