New England Rum

Type of Post: 
What's in my Glass?
Destination: 
New England
Best of Show: 
Medford Rum from GrandTen Distilling
14 New England Rums compared with some island rums

New England has a long relationship with rum, dating back to colonial times. Rum was invented in the Caribbean in the 17th century, and in the years just before the Revolution, over a hundred and fifty distilleries were making rum throughout New England, mostly wherever molasses was imported. In those days, American colonists drank more than 5 gallons of rum per capita annually.

The pot still and column stills at Privateer Distillery, Ipswich

Today I count 23 distilleries actively making rum in New England, with a handful of them that have not yet aged enough product to release an amber rum.

This article is an exploration of what is known about colonial rum and rum made today to see if we can identify the characteristics of a New England Rum. I'll start with a brief discussion of the steps in producing a rum, and then I will highlight four areas where New England's climate and economy would contribute to making a distinctive style that can be called New England Rum.

This article is not an attempt to identify what Paul Revere drank in his Hot Buttered Rum or his Hot Flip on a cold Boston night; then as now the great majority of rum was distilled, bought, and consumed for the simple and ancient purpose of inebriation, with no thought to "crafting a fine artisanal spirit". Nonetheless competition was fierce and each distiller had to maintain a reputation, if not for thrift then for quality.

Hot Buttered Rum

So what makes a New England Rum? the answer lies in the unavoidable differences between New England and the Caribbean islands.

For the cocktailian, in general, island rums lovecitrus fruit juices in punches (see Jamaican Rum Punch) and New England Rums play well with bitters and liqueurs in the classic cocktail arena.  

The flavor of an amber rum comes from these four components of flavor:

The base flavor comes from molasses or cane sugar. New England rum was said to be thicker and less sweet than its Caribbean cousin. Some Caribbean rums, especially those from former French colonies, are made from fermented cane juice, or molasses mixed with cane juice, but those from the Spanish and English-speaking islands are made from molasses. Molasses was key to the colonial economy. It figures in much colonial cooking, and it was used to make rum, but the difference lies deeper.

Molasses can be blackstrap molasses or table-grade molasses, there is no way of knowing what was produced with 18th-century sugar-refining technology and shipped in the holds of those wooden ships of the triangle trade. 

Ingredients used to make rum, at Dirty Water Distillery, Plymouth, MA

Some rums made in New England today are made with cane sugar, with cane juice, or with one of those ingredients making up a large part of the original fermentable sugar. While colonial rums might have added a little refined sugar to help the fermentation or for other reasons, it was cost-prohibitive to use in quantity. For purposes of identifying a classic New England Rum, I will use only rums made primarily from fermented molasses

The next area of difference is in the fermentation. Fermentation tends to be long and cool in New England, fast and warm in the tropics. Cool fermentations produce different esters, and thus different flavors. Some distillers in New England produce a fine product that competes on an even footing with some fine island rums, and a higher-temperature fermentation helps to achieve that lighter, cleaner flavor. But for a classic New England Rum style, I will use only rums fermented at cooler or more variable temperatures.

The still at Ryan and Wood in Gloucester, MA

Distillation is very important. It can be in a comparatively inexpensive, low-tech single-batch pot still or continuously over a series of plates in a column still, or in a combination. Column distillation produces smoother, less flavorful product sometimes referred to as "cleaner".

Pot stills are less expensive and less complex, but they require a lot of skill to get a good product. Pot stills can be direct-fired or heated by steam, and they can be of the old alembic variety or even completely custom-designed - Duncan Holaday of Dunc's Mill in St. Johnsbury Vermont designed and built his own!  

For all distilling (not just rum), cuts are referred to as heads, hearts, and tails.

The cuts from a batch at Dirty Water Distillery in Plymouth

The skill of the distiller is important in selecting "cuts".  The image here shows a dozen cuts from Dr. Evil, the pot still at Dirty Water Distillery in Plymouth. The hearts are the best flavored, cleanest part of the batch. The heads and the tails have some unwanted congeners that can contribute off-flavors and a harsh chemical flavor. Judicious selection of the heads and tails closest to the hearts can produce a unique and delicious flavor. For a classic New England Rum style, I consider only rums distilled in pot stills of any variety, because the column still technology was difficult and expensive in colonial times.

White and Amber Rum

The strong spirit can be aged for varying times in oak barrels. As you saw from the cuts photo, the distillate is clear. The color comes from aging. Aging also changes the flavor, muting any harshness and imparting some vanilla-like and other notes. The spirit interacts more with the wood as the temperature fluctuates, a phenomenon much more pronounced in an unheated New England warehouse or barn than in the tropics.

This is a problematic area with regard to historical recreation. Most rum made in New England today is aged in charred oak barrels that were used for whiskey first. Ironically, as the young nation grew and the grainfields of the midwest opened up, rye and then Bourbon whiskey displaced rum as America's favorite spirit. Colonial rums thrived because there was no whiskey to compete with, and no whiskey barrels to age in!

Privateer rum aging in a controlled-temperature warehouse in Ipswich

So here's a conundrum. Many colonial distillers probably would have used charred-oak barrels for aging, if they could have. Today's distillers could put themselves at a terrible disadvantage with regard to today's tastes by using only new oak or their own recycled uncharred barrels. 

In fact, barrel aging in New England is very exciting these days. Most use recycled Bourbon barrels, some use wine barrels, some use new American or Hungarian oak barrels, and there are more. Maggie Campbell, of Privateer Rum in Ipswich, learned sophisticated blending techniques in France's Cognac country and Privateer produces fine sipping rums that show that sophistication.

It is impossible to declare a single barrel style as "New England", but we do know that the aging environment matters, too. Aging in a variable environment promoted movement of the young rum into and out of the pores of the wood, so New England rums age faster than their tropical brethren, and get more of that woody character. 

The Foodie Pilgrim suggests that a definition for a classic New England Rum embrace the characteristics that make New England different from the Caribbean: 

 

  • The source is predominantly molasses
  • Fermentation is cooler and slower than in the tropics
  • Distillation is in a type of pot still
  • Aging is allowed to take advantage of temperature swings that are greater than those seen in the tropics. 

 

Here's a link to an article about New England rum, with a suggested New England Rum Trail and an interesting article from the New York Times with a lot of interesting details

Here is a list of rums made in New England that I sampled for this article:

State Producer Rum

How about The Real McCoy? That has appeared on shelves lately but (ironically) it's made in Barbados, so I did not include it here.