While viewing the results of the 2008 International Rum Competition, sponsored by Polished Palate, I was quite surprised to notice that several American companies were awarded medals. I was under the misguided, but probably common belief, that rum wasn’t produced in North America. Upon further research I learned that in fact, there are over a dozen micro-distilleries in the United States crafting several styles of rum from sugar cane.
The history of rum is closely aligned to the history of the Americas. See And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. In brief, Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane into the West Indies from cuttings he obtained from the Canary Islands. Sugar production became integrated with the slave trade and it was plantation slaves who first discovered that molasses - the bi-product of sugar cane refinery - could be fermented into alcohol. In some cases, rum is also produced from fermenting pressed sugar cane as is the case in most French speaking Caribbean islands. Eventually the actual production of rum moved to colonial New England, with its abundant supply of skilled artisans (metalworking and cooperage). The rum trade was so vital to the colonial economy that the introduction of the Sugar Act in 1764 was one factor that sparked the American Revolution. However, over the next century grain became cheaper than molasses and simultaneously consumer’s tastes drifted towards grain spirits and beer. In the 20th century, the consumption of rum received an unexpected boost from Prohibition. Consumers headed to Cuba in search of sun and alcohol and discovered Bacardi while at the same time rum runners competed with Canadian whiskeys to supply the underground economy. Today there is a renaissance in the rum market as the versatility of the spirit is displayed in multiple white, dark, spiced, and aged styles. Rum is no longer just an ingredient in daiquiris and mohitos.
There are currently over a dozen American micro distillers producing rum from some form of sugar cane. And in most instances, these craft distillers use only local ingredients – including domestic molasses. The most logical place to start is Hawaii – where sugar cane flourishes as in the Caribbean. On Maui, Braddah Kimo operates Haleakala Distillers - the only licensed distillery operating on the island. Mr. Kimo is a skilled artisan. Not only is he the master distiller, but he also built the entire distilling facility himself. His rum is made using fermented Hawaiian molasses diluted with Maui rainwater, double distilled, and then aged in used Bourbon casks. Haleakala Distillers offers several styles and the Braddah Kimo's Extreme 155 Rum and Maui Dark Rum were awarded silver medals at the 2008 International Rum Competition.
Hawaiian molasses is also distilled on the mainland. Dave Classick - both Sr, and Jr. - use an Alambic Pot Still to distill fermented molasses into rum. Their distillery, Essential Spirits Alambic Distillery, located outside of San Francisco in Mountain View, sells two styles of rum, a Silver and a Gold. Further north in Napa, Charbay Winery & Distillery triple-distills Hawaiian sugar cane syrup in their Alambic Pot Still. They also sell two styles of rum, the platinum Tropical Island’s Cane Rum and the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Rum. The later is “made with our distillers' own extraction of pure beans.”
Elsewhere in the United States, Louisiana is the most likely source of molasses. New Orlean’s Celebration Distillation won several awards at the 2008 International Rum Competition, a gold for their Old New Orleans Crystal Rum, a silver for their Old New Orleans Amber Rum, and a bronze for their Old New Orleans 10 Year Old Rum. As expected the company uses Louisiana grown molasses and then ages the rum in used bourbon casks. Celebration Distillation also uses a custom made distilling system that is a combination of a pot still and column still.
The first legal post-Prohibition distillery to open in Tennessee is best known - not for sour mash whiskey - but for their rum. Prichards' Distillery makes several styles of rum, but the best selling is the Prichards’ Fine Rum. This spirit is made from Louisiana molasses distilled in a copper pot still and then aged in new charred white oak barrels. Their white Crystal Rum is made from the same molasses distilled five times in the copper pot stills. A couple other distilleries that use Louisiana molasses are Triple Eight Distillery (Nantucket) and Tuthilltown Spirits (New York). Another New England rum maker, Newport Distilling Company (Rhode Island), found a different source: Westway Feed in Chicago. Each of these companies age the rum in American oak to create three separate brands: Hurricane Rum, Hudson River Rum, and Thomas Tew Rum.
Both Graham Barnes Distilling and Railean Distillers proudly state that they use only Texas ingredients in their rum. Graham Barnes uses molasses made from Rio Grande Valley sugarcane and a proprietary process that removes several insoluble particles before fermenting. After fermentation, the liquid is distilled using reflux column stills, then blended with filtered Hill Country water, and then double filtered through activated carbon. The finished product is their Treaty Oak Platinum Rum. Railean Distillers is located near Galveston Bay in San Leon – once home to Jean Lafitte and an assortment of other pirates, sailors, and fishermen. The Railean family distills the Texas cane molasses using a Bavarian Holstein copper pot still that the distillery believes creates an” ultra-pure cane spirit”. The Railean White Rum is bottled after diluting with water whereas the Railean Reserve XO is aged in new charred American Oak casks. No used bourbon barrels here. These rums were also entered into the 2008 International Rum Competition and received a silver and bronze respectively.
In the Pacific Northwest, rum is created from an unorthodox source: brown cane sugar. Bardenay Distillery in Boise, Idaho prefers the brown cane sugar since there is more molasses in brown sugar than in processed white sugar. This means that the sugar has a higher mineral composition – basically more nutrients for the yeast to feast on. An added benefit is that the rum is distilled directly inside their restaurant providing a sweet aroma for their patrons. Rogue Distillery and Public House in Portland Oregon follows a similar approach - distilling fermented brown cane sugar.
There are several other rum distillers producing small batch rum not mentioned in more detail. Like those listed above, these craft distillers deserve a look from any interested party. There’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Delaware), Forks of Cheat Winery (West Virginia), New Holland Brewing Company (Michigan), Penobscot Bay Distillery & Brewery (Maine), Charbay Winery & Distillery (California), and Temptryst (Texas). In fact, Temptryst was the most highly awarded distillery at the 2008 International Rum Competition. It will be interesting to view the next few year's results to see if American rum distillers can continue to compete with the traditional sources in the Caribbean and Americas. Or was this just a one-time chance occurrence?