IPSWICH – The smell of molasses turning into rum is once again wafting from North Shore distilleries, much as it did from Medford to Newburyport during Colonial days and the Revolutionary War
But tapping into the region’s historic ties to the favorite drink of sailors is proving to be as much of an art as crafting a fine beverage. The past wasn’t ideal, it turns out, and harking back to it requires strategic finesse.
Three new craft distilleries have revived rum-making in the region within the past five years. Ryan & Wood makes Folly Cove Rum along with whiskey, gin, and vodka in Gloucester. Ipswich is home to two operations: Turkey Shore Distilleries, which makes a line of Old Ipswich rums, and Privateer International, which sells two rums under the Privateer label.
Entrepreneurs behind these ventures celebrate – though only to a point — the region’s rum-soaked heritage. In the 1700s, New England was a world leader in rum production. Hundreds of coastal distilleries made it from the same three ingredients as are used today: molasses, water, and yeast. Medford, with its Mystic River access and sources of fresh spring water, led the industry in producing rum for local consumption and export.
Today’s resurgence rides the coattails of a beer microbrewing boom and exploits friendly state laws, which let craft distillers sell directly to package stores and restaurants. Reclaiming history is part of the charm that fuels sales, but there’s one problem: Colonial New England rum was famously cheap, and for good reason: It tasted terrible.
“I don’t say that I am making a traditional New England rum because, in fact, it was a commodity. It wasn’t good,” said Bob Ryan, president and plant manager for Ryan & Wood. “If you had a bottle of rum that had survived 200 years and you took a taste of it, you’d probably call your lawyer and say, ‘Someone is poisoning me.’ ”
Then there’s the slave trade: New England-made rum was often traded for West African slaves. That unsavory link to a dark past need not hamper local rum’s future, especially if producers are able to tell a more positive story, according to Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.’’
“Each of them has to come up with a different product, a different taste, or a different story” from the mass-produced rums, Curtis said. “It seems a lot of the stories that [North Shore distillers] are telling are local. They’re capitalizing on a locavore movement.”
To build on the saleable parts of rum’s heritage in the region, distillers are framing their stories selectively. And the tales are flowing as freely as the rum, with help from some local boosters.
In downtown Ipswich, local rum lore has a new platform at Salt Kitchen and Rum Bar, which opened in February. Waiters and bartenders personalize local rums on the menu. One night, a Salt bartender casually informed a patron that the person sitting nearby was Privateer master distiller Maggie Campbell, who enthusiastically explained the process. Waiters also explain how Turkey Shore proprietor Mathew Perry grew up beside an Ipswich River wharf, where workers unloaded molasses for local rum-making more than 200 years ago.
“We educate the staff enough so that [local distillers’] stories become their stories,” said Salt owner Dave Gillis.
A short drive from Salt, Perry’s operation hums away in an industrial park. It is so close to Ipswich Ale’s plant that the microbrewery’s excess steam, piped through a wall, helps power Turkey Shore’s pot-bellied copper still. A giant molasses storage tank takes up one corner of the space. Steel-hooped, rum-filled oak barrels, lying on their sides, fill another corner. In between, a still with a pointy spout turns fermented molasses into booze.
A former high school history teacher, Perry was quick to note how his still’s relatively inefficient design reflects those used in simpler times. It eliminates more unwanted elements, he said, than do cylindrical units used in large-scale rum operations.
The North Shore’s climate helps producers turn out unique tastes, distillers say. As rum ages some 18 months in oak barrels, seasonal temperature changes cause liquid to move in and out of the wood. In hot climates, by contrast, there’s minimal contraction/expansion and therefore fewer opportunities to release flavor.
“Now at the end of winter, we’re getting into our rum-dumping phase before the temperature starts rising and that distillate goes back into the wood,” said Ryan, who cultivates caramel and butterscotch notes in his rum. “If it starts expanding back into the wood, we might have lost our peak of flavor.”
Another local advantage: the coastal environment. The process of making rum still holds some mystery, Curtis said, including how natural yeasts – which vary from one region to another – affect the spirit’s characteristics. Kathy Ryan, who oversees the blending process at Ryan & Wood, said minerals in Gloucester’s water help the fermentation process. And Campbell, who relocated to Ipswich last year from the craft distilling mecca of Denver, loves working alongside a salt marsh.
“We get this beautiful, salty, briny quality in here,” Campbell said inside Privateer’s 10,000-square-foot plant. “When barrels respirate, they soak up that salty air. When you put [that rum] in your mouth, it just starts watering instantly.”
The region’s long history is another asset, one that producers invoke discreetly. Privateer co-founder Andrew Cabot proudly tells how his namesake ancestor of six generations prior was both a rum-maker and a patriot. His Beverly-based privateer vessel helped colonists defeat the British by capturing commercial loot, Cabot explains. Recreating his ancestor’s rum, however, is not on today’s agenda.
“We’re doing something that they could have done back in the day,” said Cabot, a former high-tech entrepreneur. “But the motivation in the industrial Northeast was to produce a lot, cheaply and fast. That’s not our motivation. We’re trying to make less and make it better.”
Bob Ryan and his family, meanwhile, draw upon more recent history. The name Folly Cove Rum refers to a local inlet where Prohibition-era rumrunners from the Atlantic Maritimes used to drop their hooch. It conjures images of getting rum past hurdles to those who can appreciate it. Today, that might mean carving out a market niche that alcohol conglomerates can’t touch.
The target consumer for North Shore rum “wants to know that it’s an artisan rum, produced in small batches, and has an aura about it,” said Ipswich resident Joseph Carlin, author of “Cocktails: A Global History.’’ He notes that cocktail recipes in Colonial times insisted on Caribbean rums because the quality was superior to New England’s.
But those days are gone.
“Local rum distillers today are trying to outdo one another,” Carlin said, “in producing the finest rums possible.’’
G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at email@example.com.