North Carolina Rum for Winter Sippers
North Carolina is steeped in a rum-soaked heritage, from pirates to rumrunners. But we’re not talking about Blackbeard style hooch, who lit gunpowder in his tipple before quaffing it. Instead, rum has been rehabilitated and reinvented, thanks to North Carolina craft-distilleries producing small-batch, world-class spirits.
Modern distillers still use the same three ingredients of sugar, water, and yeast, but each distiller has their own recipe to master the art of balance and blend. The result is distinctly North Carolina rum that evokes our history but delivers smooth and elegant spirits.
With its easily adaptable profile and rich molasses undertones, rum is the perfect addition to imbibe winter cocktails. So at the risk of offending the bourbonites, the ryeists, and whiskyites, it’s rum’s time to shine. We've rounded up our favorite North Carolina rums with links to cocktail recipes for fireside sippers.
Broad Branch Distillery was founded in 2013 by long-time friends Nick Doumas and John Fragakis. By late 2014 Broad Branch was distilling in earnest, focusing on whiskey and then rum. They embraced traditional distillation and barrel aging methods from the very beginning. By applying those methods and ingredients to the spirits and distillation processes, they were able to craft a uniquely modern take on classic distilled spirits. The teams goal was always to distill and bottle world-class spirits in Winston-Salem.
John Fragakis, one of the distillery founders, spent a considerable amount of time working in the Caribbean. While there, he fell in love with rum, specifically the unsweetened rums that were treated the same way as whiskey. When Broad Branch opened, there was no question of whether to produce rum or not. John had decided that answer years ago.
Sungrazer is a pot still rum distilled from molasses and rested in a bourbon barrel for at least three months. Because of the use of a copper pot still, Broad Branch can produce a rum with an intense flavor and robust texture that isn’t commonly found in other rums at this proof point. Sungrazer is filled with rich butterscotch candy notes that give way to hints of pineapple and mango. The bourbon barrel influence adds a layer of toasted coconut complemented by vanilla and caramel. Finally, there is a subtle grassy note reminiscent of light Agricole rums that provides a nice balance to the rum's natural sweetness.
The Cocktail: The Kingston Negroni
Fair Game Beverage Company was founded in 2013 as the 13th legal distillery in North Carolina. In the town of Pittsboro, in the Chatham Distillery District. “The distillery rose out of the biofuels industry, explains Lyle Estill, Ringmaster and Lion Tamer at Fair Game. “I was making biodiesel fuel when a vintner came down to the end of Lorax Lane and noticed we had an empty building across the street. He wanted to make ethanol fuel from his grape pomace. I told him, "The fuel business is murder." I was making a million gallons a year and losing my shirt in the process. If you are going to make alcohol, make something you can drink for 50.00 a gallon, rather than something you burn for 2.00,” laughs Estill.
An investor group was formed, a distillery building rented, and Fair Game Distillery was born. As they enter their ninth year, biodiesel fuel is long gone, and Fair Game anchors a Beverage District in Pittsboro, where there's a brewery, a meadery, cidery, and a farm to fork restaurant. “This place used to rattle and hum with big trucks, forklifts, and loud pumps. As biodiesel faded and Fair Game rose, we've watched the place transform from steel-toed boots to stilettos,” says Estill.
Fair Game's work distilling a sorghum spirit from locally grown sorghum grass lead them into rum production. When they approached making rum, they were inspired by the rich pot-distilled dark rums of the Caribbean and the elegant rhum agricoles of Martinique. “I think a big part of it starting to make was when we discovered a sugar cane plantation in North Carolina,” says Estill. “Fair Game's whole schtick is local ingredients, and we came out with an agricole. It was a bust in the ABC market, but it sold well in our tasting room and can now only be had there or by special order from ABC.
The Amber Rum, crafted from organic panela sugar, is a rich, raw sugar made from evaporated cane juice in Colombia. It gives a lively floral and grassy aroma and deep sweetness that blackstrap molasses rums don't often achieve. Slow fermentation with Caribbean rum yeast, careful distillation on our alembic pot still, and bourbon barrel aging makes for an incredibly unique and exceptionally sippable Amber Rum, equally at home in tiki cocktails or a brandy snifter.
The Cocktail: Fair Game's Nutty & Nice
The story starts the way it does for many entrepreneurial leaps of faith: left unfulfilling jobs to follow a passion. Robbie grew up on a farm in Wake Forest, went to ECU, then worked in construction, traveling all over the southeast. Caroline went to NC State and was in accounting. “Our early days of research and development triggered an obsession to create a fine spirit that we were proud of and one that others would enjoy. Our passion is distilling rum,” says Co-owner Caroline Delaney.
In 2011, after renting 500 square feet of space in an old textile mill found on Craigslist, they opened the first rum distillery in North Carolina roughly 50 yards from the “muddy” Catawba River, which gave Muddy River Distillery its name. By 2013 the project had grown by leaps and bounds, forcing them to make the daring transition from day jobs to full-time distilling duo. Muddy River Distillery renovated a previously unusable 6,100-square-foot space in the same mill, designed two new cutting-edge stills called Liberty and Democracy, and later added a 450 gallon still named Independence.
“We’ve built Muddy River Distillery from the ground up and now make seven rums in total with barrels and barrels of rum barrel aging for future long-term releases,” explains Delaney. “There are no investors, no trust funds, no sugar daddies. Still, our greatest point of pride is the superior quality of our product, which we believe is the best damn rum you’ll ever taste.”
“My goal when starting the distillery was to make an excellent aged rum,” says Delaney. “Whiskeys and bourbons are popular in America, but there was a hole to fill in the rum category. It’s easy to make rum, but not easy to make GOOD rum. Back in 2011, there were already many breweries in North Carolina, but only a few distilleries. Tasting Queen Charlotte’s Reserve for the first time brought tears of joy to my eyes, and I knew we had done it. I knew when we made QCR that we could fill that hole. Knowing that I have future aged releases coming up keeps that same excitement alive for me day after day.”
Muddy River Distillery produces six rums.
Silver Rum: "This is smooth rum, and you can taste the hint of molasses sweetness coming through with no sugar or any ingredient added after distillation," explains Delaney. With each of our flavored rums, we took the time to find the perfect ingredients and create a flavorful product.
Spiced Rum: The distillery's best seller took two years of mixing different spice combinations -- notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and a hint of root beer.
Coconut Rum: "Many rums have a bad reputation for fake tasting sunscreen but put our Coconut Rum up against any, and it is the best," says Delaney.
Basil Rum: Uses fresh basil leaves and has a light herbal nose with hints of rum and sugar.
Coffee Rum: Is a unique blend made by Javesca Coffee in Charlotte.
Queen Charlotte's Reserve Rum: "Many customers drink all our rums straight. Our use of new American white oak barrels for our Queen Charlotte’s Reserve aged rums is key to making us unique for an aged rum," says Delaney. "We call our queen Charlotte’s Reserve Rum the gateway rum for the whiskey drinkers. They are easy drinking, oaky, rums with hints of dry caramel, molasses, and vanilla."
The Cocktail: Muddy River Walk
Outer Banks Distilling was a dream for owners Adam Ball, Kelly Bray, Matt Newsome, and Scott Smith, who met while working at Outer Banks Brewing Station. With a background in brewing beer, they wanted to switch gears to their passion for rum, so they attended courses on distilling at Michigan State University and at a distillery in Arizona.
“We’ve always had a love of rum and wanted to make the history of rum in our area come alive,” says co-owner Scott Smith. “We all live in Kill Devil Hills. A town named after rum, Kill Devil, was the first term used for the spirit during colonial days. Being on the Outer Banks, we are surrounded by thousands of shipwrecks from trade ships carrying barrels of rum on board, and when they wrecked on our shores, the barrels would wash up on the beaches. So locals began to collect these barrels and hide them in the hills. One of these hills became known as Big Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Being immersed in the history, we wanted to see it come back to life,” says Smith.
“The thing about rum is that each place that makes it has its own style, flavor, and terroir. We use molasses for most of our rums here at Outer Banks Distilling. We source high-grade molasses, and our goal is to bring that flavor to the forefront of your palate. Our rum has a lot of depth and an array of flavors, making it unique to the Outer Banks. In our aged rum, you get some of the saltiness on the finish from the salt air. Aging in our environment, the salt air, and temperature changes have a lot to do with the flavor profile of the finished product.”
Silver Rum is unaged and all about the raw ingredients. “Tasting the Silver Rum, right away you get the molasses flavor, but it finishes with hints of creme brulee and toasted marshmallow. It works well in refreshing rum drinks like daiquiris and mojitos.”
Pecan Honey Rum is incredibly unique with no artificial ingredients or extracts. “We infuse the rum with pecans that are grown right across the sound from us in Manns Harbor,” explains Smith. “After the infusion, we add a small amount of honey, which we source from Wanchese. The honey we add gives the rum texture and balance. The finished result is an earthy taste with a bold body. I love using this rum with apple cider and holiday eggnog.
Gold Rum is aged for a year and a half in 53-gallon American white oak barrels. “The back of our distillery is open with airflow and is not temperature controlled, which allows the barrels to expand and contrast over the seasons and becomes very smooth and sippable rum. Because of the salt air, notes of banana saltwater taffy finish out the flavor profile,” says Scott.
Seasonal, small-batch rums are offered throughout the year, so keep checking in.
The Cocktail: Broad Branch Rum Punch
Raleigh Rum Company was founded in 2014 by Matt Grossman, Chris Mendler, and John Benefiel. The three long-time friends and home-brewers looked to take their appreciation for craft alcohol to the next level by stepping into distilling. They achieved their goal of being the first distillery in North Carolina's capital city.
“We focused on rum because first and foremost we enjoy all varieties of rum ourselves, but also because of its history in North Carolina with rum-runners off the coastline and stories of Blackbeard on our beaches,” says co-owner Chris Mendler. “Plus, rum fits our personalities as it's known for the fun and laid-back mood that often follows its consumption."
Raleigh Rum Company has four primary rum products and one limited release reserve rum.
White rum is the base for all of their products. It's a double-distilled, unaged rum with notes of molasses and a profile that dances on the line of fine tequila. This rum is perfect for mixed tropical drinks and goes well with citrus.
Spiced Rum is a natural take on a classic rum variety. Made by aging the rum in white American oak barrels and finishing with vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger.
Sweet Dark Rum is a fan favorite for anyone that has visited Raleigh Rum Company and stands out as a great example of what a craft rum can achieve.
Carolina Reaper Rum is a combination of classic white rum with Carolina reaper peppers. A true product of the Carolinas, this utterly asinine spirit burns in more ways than one. Perfect for spicy margaritas, bloody marys, or just to burn the dickens out of your favorite "hot-head" friend.
Procrastinator's Reserve is a 4+ year barrel aged rum with a limited release (currently only a few cases remain at the distillery) that delivers high-end refinement to the more discerning pallet. A very strong rum with smooth edges, that will satisfy those stubborn bourbon aficionados.
The Cocktail: Raleigh Rum's Santa Espresso Martini
TOPO ORGANIC SPICED RUM
CHAPEL HILL, NC
Top of the Hill Distillery was started in 2012 by former army officer Scott Maitland. He established North Carolina’s first USDA Certified Organic distillery and was recognized by the NC Department of agriculture for helping create a local organic wheat market in the state. The base of all TOPO’s products, with the exception of the rum, comes from locally grown organic soft, red winter wheat.
“We decided to distill rum because it has such an amazing history with the spirit! That’s why we put Blackbeard on our label,” says Esteban McMahan, distillery and spirit guide at TOPO. “A good rum should be well distilled - leaving no methanol or acetone in the distillate. We distill TOPO Organic Spiced rum from organic evaporated cane juice and molasses, and use organic botanicals to flavor it, instead of artificial colors and flavors. Another big difference is that, unlike the majority of rums, we do not add sugar or molasses into the spirit post-distillation, known as “back sweetening.”
"This small batch rum explodes with the flavors of the coastline: allspice, vanilla, orange peel, peppercorns, cinnamon and clove," explains McMahan. "It's a marriage of the finest organic botanicals with an incredibly smooth rum. We make a tasty white rum from organic evaporated cane juice and molasses and then use a mortar and pestle to grind spices to add more flavor. You can smell and taste the difference."
The Cocktail: Colony Records
IF YOUR LOCAL LIQUOR STORE OR FAVORITE WATERING HOLE DOESN'T CARRY THESE FINE SPIRITS, PLEASE ENCOURAGE THEM TO DO SO.