Meet the Distillers Reinventing New England Rum

Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

During Colonial times, New England was a hotbed for rum, with almost 200 distilleries producing the spirit at its peak of popularity in the late 18th century. “Rum didn’t just fill the holds of merchant ships returning from the West Indies. It was also one of the first mass-market products manufactured in America,” writes Wayne Curtis in his book And A Bottle of Rum. The spirit impacted almost every aspect of Colonial life, from economics and culture to politics, and “by the time of the Revolution, more than half the rum consumed in the northern colonies was produced by local distillers,” Curtis adds.

After the American Revolution and Prohibition, American’s taste for homegrown rum and inclination to manufacture it almost disappeared, but today a handful of distillers are working to turn things around, developing a new regional crop of rums with a distinctly American style.

One such producer, and the one that’s often cited as the pioneer of modern American rum production, is Privateer Rum. When proprietor Andrew Cabot discovered his ancestor made rum six generations ago in Essex County, Massachusetts, where the current distillery is located (just north of Boston), he set out to make a spirit that would carry on his family’s legacy. Cabot hired Maggie Campbell, a distiller with a background in whiskey and brandy production, to helm operations. “We started on this journey of paying respect to the history and traditions of rum while also being aware that rum [in Colonial times] wasn’t known as being good,” Campbell laughs. “We wanted to take inspiration from the past and make a new rum using what we know today to make it better. Being one of the regions that’s starting fresh with their rum history, we got to make a bunch of really great choices.”

The Raw Material

In the 18th century, most distilleries opened near ports of call to be in proximity to where the molasses arrived from island trade routes. “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.

Up the road in Portland, Maine, New England Distilling owner Ned Wight followed a similar route when devising Eight Bells. “As I was writing the recipe for the rum, I tried to think about what would have been available 250 years ago, which is molasses,” he says. “I assume the molasses would have a higher sugar content than the molasses we get today. So we use a high sugar content molasses and we ferment with brewer’s yeast, because brewer’s yeasts don’t ferment out as dry as your typical distiller’s yeast would, meaning we have some residual sugar coming out of the fermenter, too.”

The Magic of Fermentation

Wight and Campbell both adopt a long, slow, temperature-controlled fermentation for their rums. “At the time, brewing and distilling were extensions of agriculture, so people would’ve been focused on farming and other activities in the summertime. A lot of the distilling would’ve been done in the wintertime, the off-season,” Wight says. At New England Distilling, fermentation takes up to two weeks using brewer’s yeast, and Wight says this choice is also a nod to the region’s rum history, because back in the 1700s, brewers, distillers and bakers would have been using the same type of yeast. At Privateer, Campbell uses a custom blend of yeast (different for each style of rum) and also allows natural yeast to play a role in the fermentation, which tends to go for about six days. “A long, slow, cool fermentation creates a lot more delicate aromas, and the longer and slower it goes, you’ll get a lot of natural acidity which is very important for aging and flavor development,” Campbell says. “We enjoy the character we get from the long, slow, cool ferment.”

Matthew Nuernberger of GrandTen Distilling makes an array of different products at the Boston distillery, including a Caribbean-style rum, but the flagship Medford Rum made with molasses sourced from Louisiana is the one that pays homage to the famous Medford style of rums produced in the 1700s. “Boston is one of those places that was known for rum, and now it’s gone, so we wanted to bring a piece of that history back from the dead,” he says. For the fermentation, he uses a blend of wild yeasts to develop a distinctive flavor. “We don’t use a traditional rum yeast that already exists because they’re all Caribbean-focused rum yeasts. We use wild yeast that would have been similar to the kind of stuff that might have been in the air [in New England] back then,” he says. “Our fermentations are open to the air and hot, and there’s no temperature control or anything,” he adds, citing four days for summer ferments and about a week for wintertime. “It’s a very stressful situation for the yeast, and that creates some delicious flavors.”

Distillation Alchemy

In a recent interview, Wayne Curtis explained that the most common stills used during colonial times would have been pot stills, likely ones similar to the ones used in the West Indies. “The Coffey still didn’t come around until the 1830s, although some continuous stills predated it. But simple technology would have prevailed in the 18th century,” he says of the tradition. Campbell adds, “A still from that era would likely have been far less efficient, producing a less pure spirit,” which is why they use a German Christian Carl still at Privateer. “We have a still that can run as a pot still (less efficient) or as a column still (more efficient) with total control over the number of plates we engage. This allows us to get different levels of purity and flavor,” Campbell says of their double-distillation method. “We went with this still because of the range and nuance we have when running it.”

At New England Distilling, the stills are heated with natural gas instead of steam. “The difference comes down to the amount of heat that’s generated there,” Wight says. “Steam is relatively low heat, in the 300-350 degree range, so the bottoms of our stills will approach temps pushing 1,000 degrees [with a natural gas source].” At those temperatures, the sugar left behind during fermentation gets caramelized, adding depth of flavor to the spirit. “That echoes what they would have been doing in the past: distilling over wood or coal fires,” says Wight.

Not All Woods Are Created Equal

“Back in the Colonial era, they would ship everything in casks, so if you got a cask of salted cod or filled with nails, you might scrape it and re-char it and fill it fresh,” says Campbell.

New American oak barrels are used to make the rum at Privateer. | Photo courtesy of Privateer Rum.

For this reason, Privateer’s Navy Yard rum—the one Campbell calls “distinctly American and New England in style,”—is aged in a single new American oak cask with a level 3 char and bottled at cask strength. “Historic rums would have been released at cask strength too, which is ideal for colonial winters,” she says. “Navy Yard has that American oak pop on the nose—the cinnamon spice and vanilla bean, along with earthier leathery, tobacco and molasses flavors on the palate.”

Assuming Colonists likely wouldn’t have used whiskey barrels to age rum as many producers do today, GrandTen also uses fresh, new American oak as a nod to history. Owner Maura Connolly at Mad River Distillers in Vermont does several interesting things with barrels; for the First Run, the first round of aging happens in new American oak, then they do a second round of aging in used maple syrup barrels sourced from nearby maple producer Al Wood. “When you talk about New England, you also talk about maple syrup, so we try to tie that back and bridge our relationship with rum to Vermont. The result is a very beautiful sipping rum that is not sweet. It’s whiskey-ish,” she says. Connolly also has a second rum release that’s aged for two years in massive 120-gallon PX sherry barrels. As a nod to trade routes traveled during Colonial times, this choice gives the rum a “very complex, raisiny, chewy, smoky flavor, which is lovely,” she says.

A Pure New England Spirit 
With producers going to great lengths to create high-quality rums that echo the region’s history, the final topic of conversation that usually comes up is back-sweetening, or adding sugar to the product before bottling. Curtis says additives were likely used in Colonial times. “Probably some sugar, maybe some flavoring elements (leather? tree bark?). It was common practice,” he says, adding an important caveat: “Today’s distillers want to convey purity of process, which I’m all behind, but I’m also willing to wager much of their output is far better than Colonial producers and is less in need of correcting or adjusting.”

Nuernberger says the misconception that all rums are sweet is one they’re trying to correct. “New England rum isn’t necessarily dry, but it’s not sweet. With ours, you get a nice molasses note, but it’s dry and clean and has a nice earthy sweetness.”

Not adding sweeteners is also about more than just flavor for some. “Being from New England and pointing out that we don’t sweeten any of our rums is a very good conversation starter for people who don’t know a lot about rum,” says Campbell. “It’s been fun to reteach a lot of locals about a big part of our history. Rum is something that, even 100 years ago, everyone here would have known like the back of their hand, and now it’s foreign. Especially when it comes to food and drink, we’re re-teaching ourselves about a lot of historic foods and cooking techniques here in America.”

With sights set on making high-quality rums with a distinct sense of place, and the right education for American rum drinkers, Campbell and others think the future is bright for modern rums coming out of the region. “I’m excited to see New England rum come back, and hope it gets recognition as a category,” says Nuernberger.


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