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Rum distilling returns to the peninsula

Sugar Cane Spirit

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A sharp, sweet aroma strikes your nose inside the High Wire distillery. It's a tempting and almost homey scent, like bread baking, but even sweeter.

"That's the champagne yeast," Scott Blackwell says.

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A wisp of steam rises from the open port on the big German-made Kothe still, its cylindrical stainless steel body capped by a shiny copper head the shape of a gigantic board game piece. Clustered along one side of a wide warehouse floor, the still and the bright silver fermenting tanks gleam in the afternoon sun.

Blackwell is part of a new wave of local distillers who are bringing commercial spirits-making to the Charleston peninsula. Or, to be more accurate, they're bringing it back to the Peninsula: over two centuries ago, in the wake of the Revolutionary War, the Holy City was home to a vigorous but short-lived distilling industry.

The equipment and methods may be more advanced today, but one thing unites this new crop of distillers with those that came before them: they're making rum.

The Legacy of Charleston Rum

From its very founding, Charleston was a rum-drinking town. Sailors guzzled rum-laced bowls in waterfront punch houses, and merchants and visiting country planters gathered in taverns to knock back rum slings, flips, and toddies.

After the Revolution, though, Charlestonians suddenly found it hard to get their hands on their favorite spirit. The British government forbade rum makers in the British West Indies from selling to the crown's former colonies, and embargoes and military actions cut off American access to the French and Spanish islands, too.

With rum selling at nearly three times the price it had before the Revolution, a few enterprising Charlestonians decided to take matters into their own hands.

In 1784, Aaron Loocock, Nathaniel Russell, and Andrew Lord bought a 10-acre tract on a spit of land extending out into the harbor north of town and constructed the Rumney Distillery. It was no small-time operation. Two stills had capacities of 1,250 gallons each, and a third held 625 gallons. The stills, the South-Carolina Weekly Gazette noted, were "allowed to be the best and most substantial ever imported into America." (The hand-hammered Kothe still at High Wire, for comparison, holds 530 gallons.)

The operation was short-lived. Andrew Lord died in October 1784, and the distillery's equipment, including its three copper stills, were put up for sale. The land was divided into housing lots and sold as the "Village of Rumney," whose name morphed into "Romney Village" in the 19th century. Today, most of that land lies in the shadow of concrete overpasses where the down-ramps of U. S. Highway 17 and the Ravenel Bridge meet Interstate 26. Romney Street, a six-block stretch of modest houses and small warehouses, is the last remaining vestige of the old Rumney Distillery.

Other local distilleries met with more success, and Hasell Street became the center of Charleston's nascent rum industry. By 1785, John Michael was operating a distillery there, and in 1787 the Charleston Morning Post declared, "The profits arising from this Distillery when carried on to any considerable extent are too obvious and well-known to require any enumeration."

Michael's former partner, Jonathan Sarazin, built a competing distillery on the same street, as did Col. Richard Lushington, a respected merchant and commandant of the Charleston militia. He operated "Lushington's distillery" until October 1785, five years before his death from "putrid fever," which couldn't have been pleasant. By that point, Daniel Latham was operating a distillery on Lushington's old lot with "three stills, a horse and dray, and stock in trade."

Somewhere along the line, much of the equipment from the old Rumney Distillery ended up in the hands of Edmund Egan, Charleston's first successful beer brewer (and the guy the new Edmund's Oast brewpub is named after). Egan planned to launch his own distillery on two leased lots on Coming Street, but, as was the fashion among Charleston distillers, he died.

Egan's land and equipment were acquired by Peter LePoole and Henry Geiger, who finished the distillery and started making rum. The business changed hands several more times over the next decade, and it seems to have been in operation until at least 1796. Despite the changes in ownership, it was still popularly called "Egan's Distillery."

A 1796 City Council ordinance listed seven active distilleries on the peninsula: Michael's, Lushington & Co's, and Sarazin & Co., all on Hasell Street; Lawrence's on Charles Street, Egan's on "Comyn" (Coming) Street, Hornby's on King Street, and Savage's at the west end of Broad.

This marked the high point of Charleston rum making, and within a few years all of the distilleries were gone. The same forces that made imported rum so expensive also made it difficult and costly for distillers to get the molasses they needed for their stills. At the same time, cheap rye whiskey was pouring in from Pennsylvania, flooding the market and giving Charlestonians a new option for an inexpensive spirit.

The Return of the Rum Makers

It has taken a good two centuries for rum distilling to return. Firefly Distillery got the ball rolling in 2008 out on Wadmalaw Island, and for many years it was the only micro-distillery in the state. Partners Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt started out making muscadine vodka and then struck gold when they decided to sweeten their distillate and infuse it with tea leaves, creating a new category called sweet tea vodka.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

For their next act, Firefly brought out Sea Island Rum, which is available in a barrel-aged gold version as well as a spiced rum and a coffee-infused Java rum. A small-batch product distributed primarily in South Carolina, for several years it was the Palmetto State's only local rum.

For a while, it looked like the Upstate, not the Lowcountry, was going to become the epicenter of craft distilling in the state. The Greenville-Spartanburg area boasts a half-dozen distilleries, and up there they tend to focus on white whiskey (often called "legal moonshine"), which is appropriate, since that region was a hotbed of moonshining back in the 19th century.

The new generation of distillers in Charleston aren't averse to making a little whiskey, but they're more focused on using sugar cane instead of corn.

Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall, the husband-and-wife team behind High Wire Distilling Co., know a lot about sugar. They started Immaculate Baking in North Carolina, which makes natural and organic cookies that feature colorful folk art on the packaging. Back in December, on the heels of phenomenal growth, they sold the bakery to General Mills and got into the distilling game.

"We wanted to get back into a more local craft business," Blackwell says. They considered setting up shop up in Greenville, but they wanted to focus on rum, and Greenville just isn't a rum kind of town. Besides, Blackwell says, "We wanted to live here."

When they came across the building on King Street, which formerly was the headquarters of a paint contractor and shares a parking lot with Butcher & Bee, they knew they'd found their spot.

Blackwell and Marshall aren't the only ones who think that Charleston is primed for a locally produced spirit. In North Charleston, the Striped Pig Distillery is just completing its first production runs.

Head distillers Todd Weiss and Johnny Pieper, met fortuitously. Weiss, who originally came to town to work as an instructor and physical trainer at the College of Charleston, was working on a business plan for the distillery when he learned that Pieper and Casey Lillie were planning to launch their own distilling venture. "We realized we were on two converging paths," Weiss says, and along with two other partners — Jim Craig and Boris Van Dyck — they consolidated their efforts into Striped Pig.

Though they share a passion for good spirits, their tastes are not identical. "Johnny is more of a whiskey person," Weiss says. "I'm more of a rum person." At Striped Pig, they will produce both and, in doing so, aim at developing flavors that are unique to Charleston.

Creating a Local Spirit

For now, Charleston's new distilleries are keeping their focus squarely on the local market. "We don't want to grow the way we did with the bakery," Scott Blackwell says. "It felt like a wild run, out of control."

They plan to rely primarily on word of mouth at first, hoping to win over local bartenders and restaurants, and then let it play out from there, working their way up and down the coast and maybe sneaking inland to Columbia.

The guys at Striped Pig are taking a similarly measured approach. "We want to be as local as possible," Weiss says. He believes that Charleston is primed to embrace its own distinctive style of spirits, and he adds that the Lowcountry climate is perfectly suited for rum production, too. "Rum yeasts love these temperatures," Weiss told me one August afternoon as we stood sweating on the un-air-conditioned distillery floor.

Using local ingredients is important, too. At Firefly, they start with whole Southern sugar cane. Due to their volume, they have to buy some of it from Florida and Louisiana, but they get as much as they can from Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms on Johns Island. They squeeze out the juice using a Guatemalan press, boil it down to a molasses-like consistency, then distill it in a pot still.

Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall are using local cane, too, which they buy from a farmer up in Cameron and plan to use to make rhum agricole, a spirit made from pure sugar cane juice rather than the more common molasses. The sugar cane has to be local, Blackwell explains, because "you have to harvest it, squeeze it, and get it in the fermenter within 24 hours."

The final lever for determining flavor is the aging process — how long it sits in the barrel and the type of barrel used. Striped Pig uses new American oak barrels which are custom-charred and toasted to their specifications. High Wire is going a little different route, purchasing used barrels and letting their former contents influence the flavors of the new spirits.

"For a rhum agricole," Blackwell says, "we might use Madeira or sherry barrels."

A rum produced from local cane and aged in Madeira barrels might be the ultimate mashup of Charleston drinking history, infusing the city's favorite spirit with the flavors of the imported wine once prized by elite planters.

A lot more creative experimentation promises to lie ahead. While Firefly's Sea Island Rum has found a secure home in the market, the products from High Wire and Striped Pig are just getting started.

High Wire opened its distillery and tasting room to the public last week, offering tours Thursday through Saturday between 1 and 5 p.m. You can pick up a bottle of their silver rum or vodka while you're there, too. Blackwell says they expect their unaged rum to be available in local bars and liquor stores by mid-October, and their barrel-aged products will be launched in the future as they're ready. Striped Pig recently released a limited edition Striped Rum, which Weiss distilled two years ago in another facility while working on recipe development. The company has their distributor all lined up and expects to have their locally distilled product on the market within a month or two.

So, expect to see a lot more rum drinks popping up on cocktail menus around town. When it comes to having its own distinctively local spirit, Charleston's prospects look very bright indeed.

Striped Pig Distillery is located at 2225-A Old School Drive and is open for tours Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (843) 276-3201.

High Wire Distilling is open for tours at 652 King St. Thurs.-Sat. 1-5 p.m. (843) 755-4664.

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