In the coming weeks, celebrated bartender and sommelier Todd Thrasher will join what seems to be a mini-movement across the country of distillers making craft rum. Potomac Distilling company, operating at the Wharf and including a restaurant and tiki bar, will join the ranks of a burgeoning group of distillers studying production traditions from the islands where rum came from and from the distilling and aging methods used to make other spirits around the globe. And they’re looking to the rums of America’s past to bring the sugar-cane-based spirit into the American present.
Thrasher’s venture is getting a lot of attention for a distillery from which no one has tasted a drop, but that’s only natural when the guy behind it is a bartender of his stature. PX opened in Alexandria in 2006, and its complex drinks and speakeasy style — along with those Thrasher concocted over the years at Restaurant Eve, Tiki TNT and Society Fair — helped put the D.C. area on the craft cocktail map, luring locals and many a “Why would I leave the city?” Washingtonian across the river with its follow-the-blue-light beacon.
For his part, Thrasher seems to waver between the confidence and ambition of an old hand and a newbie’s nervous excitement. When I tease him about the massive smokestack that marks the distillery (marked in huge white letters “THRASHERS RUM” on one side, “MAKE RUM NOT WAR” on the other), he complains that it’s not as big as he wanted. “People should see it from the highway!”
He wants to build a global brand, he says, even as he acknowledges the degree to which launching such a venture is unnerving. “I hope the rum doesn’t suck,” he jokes, noting with gratitude that distillation is an art that allows the distiller room to learn and grow. “When I first started bartending, I sucked. I’m sure I’m going to suck at the beginning. Just give me a chance!”
The distillery will be socking away rum to release an aged spirit down the line, but its initial lineup is to include four rums: a white, a gold, a traditional spiced rum (which typically leans toward notes of vanilla and allspice) and a “green spiced” rum that takes the botanicals in a new direction.
“I love gin and tonic, but I love rum more than I love gin,” Thrasher says. “So the green spiced rum came about because we wanted to make a rum that people who drink gin and tonics would want to drink. Not that it’ll be a heavy juniper rum, but a rum that has a lot of character and flavors that people don’t really know,” an herbaceous spirit that will include such botanicals as lemon verbena, lemon grass and cardamom.
While you’re waiting to taste Thrasher’s new spirit, you might consider exploring other new American rums. Ferreting out the good ones can take a little time, but you could start with the spirits from Privateer Rum in Massachusetts, Maggie’s Farm Rum in Pittsburgh, Montanya Rum in Colorado and D.C.’s District Distilling; all have won awards at spirits competitions.
Rum was one of America’s foundational spirits. Though its popularity was crushed by Prohibition and then eclipsed by the rise of whiskey in its aftermath, rum was a huge part of early colonial distilling, with a long tradition running up the Atlantic coast. Before the Revolutionary War, more than 100 rum distilleries were operating in the colonies; millions of gallons of rum more were imported here.
But with the exception of a couple of holdouts, that tradition had pretty much vanished by the time the first edition of Wayne Curtis’s book “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails” came out in 2006. Back then, Curtis says, there were only two craft rum distillers working in the United States. In the time since, as the craft cocktail movement has burgeoned and interest in quality spirits across all categories has grown, the number has grown exponentially.
“I was hired earlier this year to come up with a list of all the people making craft rum in the United States. And I think I came up with 217,” says Curtis, who released a substantial update of his rum book this year. Some of these new American rums, he notes, won’t ever make waves in terms of quality; they’re from distillers who, for example, set up in a beachy area near a boardwalk and make something cheap, relying on high traffic to make a profit. “No one’s going to buy a second bottle, but they’ve got enough turnover,” he says. “But then there are those that are taking it more seriously.”
The distillers in that group often have to battle popular conceptions about rum, one of the most common being that all rum is sweet, which can put off some customers in this era of increased worries about sugar consumption. The spirit’s origins in sugar cane obviously contribute to the notion, and many rum makers do add sweeteners post-distillation. But that’s not a universal thing, and in fact, the sugaring and flavoring of rums — and the frequent lack of transparency around those practices — is one of the biggest sources of debate and controversy in the rum-geek world today.
Distiller Maggie Campbell, president of Privateer Rum — which appears on many fan-lists among people tracking the category — finds herself talking about the sweetness question all the time. “I’d say every time I give a tour, I discuss how the yeasts consume the sugar and convert it to alcohol, and how we know our fermentation is done when we measure the sugar and no sugar’s left,” Campbell says, “and I always have to go over that four to five times.”
Another challenge for consumers is understanding a category in which labeling and categorization can be really confusing. The American definition of rum is fairly broad, but — unlike spirits such as bourbon or tequila, which can be made in only one country — rum is made and has roots in multiple nations. Nation to nation, rum regulations vary widely, as do base materials, production and aging techniques. The difference between a rum made from fresh sugar cane juice and one made from molasses is substantial. Someone who adores a light Puerto Rican-style rum may be put off by a rich and funky Jamaican; a Jamaican aficionado may find the grassy notes of Martinique rum too vegetal.
And some of the standard liquor-store descriptors of rum (terms like “white,” “gold,” etc.) are easily misunderstood: “White” rums, for example, have a colorlessness that in other spirits signifies no barrel-aging, but many white rums have been aged and had the resulting color filtered out. And color can be misleading, points out Tim Russell of Maggie’s Farm Rum: “A gold or dark rum can be a truly aged and unadulterated one, while another noted as being of the same style can be a young white rum base that’s just been dosed with sugar and food coloring.”
Deceptive labeling is common across many spirits categories, but it’s particularly prevalent in the rum world, says Karen Hoskin, president and CEO of Montanya Distillers. Consumers interested in finding high-quality rum may have to dig a little deeper than just going by an appealing label; sadly, “what’s on the bottle often doesn’t always reflect what’s in the bottle,” she says.
While arguments about sugar and other additives continue, these days a growing group of rum producers argue not for the superiority of one style or process over another, but simply for more transparency and more informative labeling so consumers have more understanding of the spirit they’re drinking and what they like.
The relative looseness of American rum regulations makes rum-making an intriguing prospect for craft distillers, who find a flexibility they miss in American whiskey. By law, points out Matt Strickland, head distiller for District Distilling, most American whiskeys have to be aged in new oak barrels, but American rum has no such rules. “Cask management is so much more exciting,” Strickland says. “I can put a new make rum into whatever cask I want, and it’s still a rum, and I don’t have to fight the [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] on it.” Aging in barrels previously used for other spirits or wines can have a huge impact on the final spirit, and many American rum-makers are taking full advantage.
For Campbell, the openness of rum isn’t just about what’s in the bottle. Compared with the communities around some other spirits, she says, rum is much bigger, naturally more inclusive and more interesting culturally. Privateer has had visits from distillers from around the world. “It’s a much bigger global community, a huge variety of styles of spirit, totally different artists doing totally different things inspired by their own story and history and culture, and we get to be a small part of that,” she says.
Now Thrasher will be part of it, too, driving his new spirit out into the wild West of American rum. A passionate community of rum lovers will be waiting for a taste. Only time will tell if the juice lives up to the smokestack.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.