Whether they’re fermenting and distilling molasses from scratch, adding spices or botanicals to imported distillates, or blending and bottling ready-to-drink rums from overseas, Britain’s diverse, dedicated and highly experimental rum brands are carving their own niche. Keen to find out what the future holds for the burgeoning British rum category, we spoke with distillers, blenders, spicers and bottlers from across the UK…
While Britain has a long (often very dark) tradition of importing rum, because the UK’s temperate climate is inhospitable to sugar cane, few have attempted to make it from scratch. The first British distiller to make rum on a commercial scale was English Spirit Distillery back in 2011. From its Essex base, the team produces the widest variety of spirits and liqueurs in the UK – all under one roof, all distilled using raw ingredients under the trained hand of head distiller Dr John Walters.
When the distillery first opened, Dr Walters “started making a whole slew of spirits at once,” explains general manager James Lawrence. “He dived in headfirst to see what kind of vodka he could make, what kind of malt he could make and so on, and realised nobody had commercially produced rum in the UK before – everything before that was imported from elsewhere.” At the time, all the well-known famous brands – “Pussers, Lambs, all the ones with the Union Jacks on” – consisted of rums sourced from the Caribbean and other rum-making, which were transported to the UK and blended together, sometimes with spices added.
English Spirit has released three rums since – Old Salt Rum, English Spiced Rum, and St. Piran’s Cornish Rum – all distilled from 100% sugar cane molasses from across the globe. “A lot of the larger commercial rum distilleries will use sugar cane juice or sugar cane syrup, which is a lot easier to work with, cheaper, and less messy,” says Lawrence. “But using pure molasses gives a Golden Syrup-y, treacly consistency that makes a really great base for rum.” After a long fermentation – around two to three weeks – and a triple distillation in copper pot alembic stills, around 200 litres of molasses wash has been transformed into approximately 20 litres of rum.
Despite pioneering rum distilling in the UK almost a decade ago, English Spirit remains the exception rather than the rule, illustrating just how time-consuming and expensive the process is, and the difficulties in sourcing and transporting the raw ingredients. Just a handful of distillers have followed in their footsteps – including Dark Matter, a Scottish distillery that makes spiced rum; BrewDog Distilling Company, which last year released botanical rum Five Hundred Cuts; and unaged rum SeaWolf, created by bar owners Mike Aikman, Jason Scott and Craig Harper and made at Ogilvy Spirits distillery.
Of course, that’s not to say blended rums are any less authentic. In the south west of England at Devon Rum Company, founder Dave Seear worked closely with a Caribbean rum blender and importer to create his take on a premium ‘English style’ spiced rum. “English style rum is categorised by heavy and powerful rum types – mostly pot and column-distilled from molasses and sourced from previous British colonies of Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica and St Lucia,” he says.
Devon Rum Company Spiced Rum combines two pot-stilled Jamaican rums – a column-still rum and a pot-still rum from Guyana – which are imported at 80% ABV. “Once landed in the UK, we infuse the base Caribbean rum in vats with natural Devon spring water to reduce the ABV to 40%,” Seear explains. The rum is then steeped in a secret blend of spices and citrus zest, with the latter being sourced from local businesses. “Unlike many alternative spiced rums, we add no vanilla, sugar or colouring and have concentrated on the quality of our base rum, our carefully crafted recipe and sourcing quality natural ingredients,” he adds.
Rather than masking low-quality spirit with punchy spices, today’s spiced rum producers seek to create harmony between the base liquid and botanicals. “[Our founders] were frustrated by the lack of respect for the base spirit exhibited by established spiced rum brands, where spices were dumped into poor quality base spirits,” says Hannah Burden-Teh, brand manager at Kent’s Rumbullion. To create their small batch spiced rum, the team layers “carefully blended natural spice tinctures” of Madagascan vanilla, orange peel, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom into their “top quality” Caribbean rum. “Although some of the process finishes in Kent, we want to champion our original locale where the sugar cane grows and is fermented,” she adds.
Honouring the base components is an ethos shared by Devon-based independent blender Hattiers. To create his flagship sipping rum bottling – Hattiers Premium Reserve Rum – founder takes a blend of eight-year-old double retort pot and twin-column coffey still rums distilled from sugar cane molasses in Barbados and combines them with pot still rums from Guatemala, Panama and The Dominican Republic before adding water drawn from a well in the nearby village of Beesands.
“We typically blend at 62% to 70% ABV, then marry with our local Devon water to bring each blend down to bottling strength,” says Everett-Lyons, who explains that traceability is paramount. “We are completely transparent on all components, which are stated on the label along with full details including still type, maturation, location and cask,” he continues. “We only blend rums with no additives or colourants and choose not to spice or use botanicals in our blends. In our opinion, the quality of the rum shouldn’t be overshadowed by these things.”
Some distillers take this approach further still by bottling single estate rums – East London Liquor Company, for example, which made its first foray into rum with the release of Demerara Rum from Guyana. “What you’re drinking at your local in Bethnal Green is exactly what the locals in Georgetown are appreciating half a world away,” says founder Alex Wolpert, “delicious molasses-based rum made from sugar cane grown along the Demerara River, distilled in the world’s last working wooden Coffey still, aged in ex-bourbon barrels until you get notes of caramel, baking spices and toffee. Basically, perfection. And we’re not about to mess with perfection, so other than proofing the rum down to 40% ABV, we haven’t touched it.”
Their latest release East London Rum from Jamaica is similarly unadulterated. “We’ve developed a blend of three of the most famous rum distilleries in Jamaica to come up with a funky, ester-led white rum that is my new favourite in Daiquiris,” Wolpert says – an 80:20 blend of medium to high-ester rums, with 80% coming from column and pot distillation, and 20% from funky Jamaican pot still. “As a huge rum fan, I’m loath to mess with a good thing,” he continues. “And as a distillery, we understand the amount of thought and hard work that goes into making these distillates, and trust that we can’t make them better than they already are.”
Industry folks regularly refer to the runaway success of the gin category when forecasting the burgeoning interest in rum. Will rum be the ‘next gin’? The answer might be less about the liquid, and more to do with the practicalities of production – especially if, like English Spirit Distillery, you have designs on making the liquid from scratch. “Everyone in the UK was able to pile into making gin quite quickly as opposed to importing it,” says Lawrence. “Whereas with rum, there’s such a massive capital investment needed. You need a lot more room, a lot more experience. You need more time to perfect your product before it’s ready to sell. There is a completely understandable reticence to completely investing, finding a distiller who’s willing to put in the work, and affording someone the time to practise over and over again, as we know full well that you have to do to make a decent rum.”
That British rum consists primarily of independent spicers and blenders is a trend that’s set to continue, at least in the short term. But regardless of whether brands import rum or raw molasses, future-proofing the sector, as Everett-Lyons, points out, brings benefits for everyone. “We believe that there is absolutely room for all, and that either adopting an international definition of rum classification or developing a British standard on labelling would be the next step,” he says. “As other rum-producing nations seek to adopt their own guidelines, now would be a great time to mirror the Scotch Whisky Association and bring some accountability and compliance to our trade. For this to happen, the industry would need to tread ensuring not to ostracise but instead to unite all sub-sectors of British rum.”
It’ll also support the immense creativity already bubbling away within the category. There are so many different directions you can take rum in, as Lawrence rightly points out, by playing with botanicals, barrel-ageing, and even the distillation process. When English Spirit Distillery produced Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum, they added three wood varieties – date palm, pine, and sequoia – to the still, which pulled “all that really interesting wood complexity into the spirit” without the need for maturation. A dark rum called Daymark 1683, produced for a company based on the Isles of Scilly, is infused with hand-picked samphire and Cornish sea salt. The British rum revolution really has only just begun. “Give it a few years, there’s going to be some absolutely amazing rums out there,” says Lawrence. “It’s really exciting.”