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When people think rum, people usually think about the Caribbean—palm trees, coconut shells and sugar cane fields as far as the eye can see. While its spiritual center most certainly resides in the islands, rum, which can technically be produced anywhere in the world, has an important connection to North America.
Before there was bourbon and rye, there was rum. “North America was producing a ton of rum in the 1700s,” says Fred Minnick, the author of “Rum Curious” (Voyageur Press, $25).
Much of the production was concentrated in New England and the Gulf states. Legend holds that the first North American rum distillery was on Staten Island in 1664, but Minnick says that although there was indeed a distillery on the New York borough, there’s little supporting evidence that it produced rum.
Ships coming from the Caribbean to the Northeast would use molasses as both ballast and trade, according to Maggie Smith, the head distiller for Massachusetts’ Privateer Rum. After the War of 1812, a combination of steep import taxes, the gradual abolishment of the slave-trade triangle, and a meteoric rise in the popularity of whiskey in America would soon crowd out the cane-based spirit. It would again be produced, albeit poorly, during Prohibition—hence the term “rum runner.”
The explosion of craft distilling over the past decade includes North American rums, which are in the midst of a renaissance, with labels appearing all over the country, from California to Minnesota to Massachusetts.
The moose-infested plains of northwest Minnesota don’t exactly leap to mind when you’re sipping spiced rum. Far North Spirits, near Hallock, Minn. (population 981), sources turbinado and demerara sugars from Florida and Louisiana, from which it makes its rum. Whole spices are infused into the liquid by hand, and the result is not your average spiced rum. It has notes of ginger, banana, mint and even root beer, and it’s also certified kosher.
“Rum is the original American spirit,” says Bayou founder Trey Litel. Bayou, based in Lacassine, La., distills rum from regional sugar cane and molasses. Litel says that Louisiana produces more sugar cane than any Caribbean island. “We’ve been growing cane since 1750,” he says. “It grows in this rich Mississippi topsoil, and we believes it produces a very different cane sugar than in the Caribbean.”
Using American-made copper pot stills and a blend of molasses and raw sugar crystals, Bayou makes four rums: silver, spiced, Select—a dark rum aged in bourbon barrels—and Satsuma, a unique blend of rum and the juice of satsuma oranges, a variety long grown in Louisiana. Litel says the taste is similar to an orange liqueur.
The inventive folks at Los Angeles’ Greenbar Distillery, where organic spirits and social causes are as important as great-tasting booze, are responsible for two rum expressions. Both rums combine traditional distillation methods with modern wine techniques and are fermented with white wine yeast and “micro-oxygenated” like many California wines. The unaged silver rum is grassy and slightly sweet, while the spiced rum features notes of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and California orange zest. Each bottle purchased allows Greenbar to plant one tree through Sustainable Harvest, an organization that plants indigenous shade trees in rural communities in Central America to help farmers, reduce slash-and-burn practices and offset the carbon footprint of rum lovers.
A “high-altitude” rum from Crested Butte, Colo., the 9,000-foot elevation distillery exemplifies one of the characteristics that distinguishes North American rum from its Caribbean counterparts. Cooler less-humid temperatures mean a slower, distinctive aging technique, which affects color, flavor and density. Non-GMO Louisiana cane sugar is fermented in Colorado aquifer-fed well water, then distilled in old-school alembic pot stills. The rums (there are three expressions) are aged in old Colorado whiskey barrels and sweetened with a touch of honey. Founders Brice and Karen Hoskin emphasize green and sustainable production processes, using wind power in both the distillery and tasting room and recycling biomass in the still boiler, among many other initiatives.
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Named for a Prohibition-era New York City rum runner and distilled by Brooklyn’s Noble Experiment, Owney’s is a classic Northeast-style rum. Created in a hybrid copper-pot-column still using non-GMO molasses and featuring no added sugars or colors, the silver rum is dry and mineral-driven on the palate. Noble Experiment founder Bridget Firtle says she sought to create an “edgier” style of rum, perfect for adding character to classic Daiquiris.
This award-winning Ipswich distillery has been seamlessly blending American rum history and contemporary craft distilling since launching in 2011. “It’s exciting to see the American rums come on the scene,” says head distiller Maggie Campbell. “They tend to be dry and distilled very cleanly, with a sort of linear palate and a hard edge to the flavor definition.”
Privateer makes white and amber rums, either of which can take your Daiquiri to new heights. Navy Yard is a single-cask, 100-percent-molasses rum that pays homage to Privateer’s New England heritage. Then there’s Queen’s Share, a rich cask-strength rum that Campbell describes as “an old style of Caribbean rum that has kind of died out.”
Minnick calls this “the best rum made in the U.S.” A cane-to-glass distillery with a patriotic flair, Richland Distilling grows its own sugar cane. Pure cane syrup undergoes a long fermentation process, distilled in open-fire alembic pot stills and aged in well-charred new oak barrels, making the rum appealing to bourbon drinkers. The brand emphasizes true “single barrel” bottling, which means each batch is just a little bit different depending on the intricacies of barrel aging, but look for fruit, chocolate and espresso notes. It’s an excellent accompaniment to cigars.
Wicked Dolphin incorporates Florida-grown sugar cane and a dollop of lighthearted beachside fun not found in many U.S. craft distilleries. Founder JoAnn Elardo launched Cape Spirits (Wicked’s parent company) in Cape Coral after downing one too many terrible cocktails over the years and deciding it was time for Florida to make its own pot-still pirate juice.
If you’re looking for a rum to get the party started, this label is perfect. In addition to classic silver, spiced and gold rums, you’ll find intriguing flavors like pineapple, coconut, mango, vanilla, “black” (a blend of fruits and molasses) and a unique 100-proof blueberry infusion.