From Scotland to Stevenage, there’s a gang of intrepid British distillers making rum from scratch. Lauren Eads takes a closer look at the thriving UK rum scene. 

Great Britain is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of rum production. Sure, there’s the historical links with the Royal Navy, the slave trade, and piracy, but actually making the stuff? We don’t have access to bountiful sugar cane crops nor do we have a climate remotely capable of ageing rum in the same way that the Caribbean does. And yet, rum is finding a niche in the world of Great British craft spirits. How? 

Cornish Distilling

Tom Read from Cornish Distilling with his Istill

Rum, the next step

The gin boom has helped create an interest in spirits, giving rise to hundreds of new distilleries across the UK. Now, many of those distilleries are diversifying, and rum is a great next step. But British producers aren’t only importing, blending and finishing rums in the UK. They are fermenting their own molasses and distilling the spirit from scratch.

On the face of it we have no business making rum, because it’s a crop that’s not grown in the UK, but we do have Europe’s only cane sugar refinery about 15 miles from the distillery,” explains Will Edge, owner and distiller at Greensand Ridge in Kent. Greensand’s Wealden Rum is made from surplus molasses from the Tate + Lyle sugar factory. “There’s nothing wrong with bringing rum into the UK and finishing it here, but I choose to do it this way because it’s a passion and it doesn’t compromise on our ethic of using locally sourced produce.”

A messy process

The English Spirit Distillery was among the first to start distilling British rum, founded by Dr John Walters. English Spirit has released three rums – Old Salt Rum, English Spiced Rum, and St. Piran’s Cornish Rum – distilled from 100% sugar cane molasses sourced from across the globe. Now, there are many more making British rum, including Scratch Faithful Rum, distilled in Hertfordshire, Two Drifters in Devon, Seawolf White Rum and Matugga Rum, which are both distilled in Scotland. 

“Traditionally rum has been imported from elsewhere and blended, either as a combination of different rums or a combination of high esters and other things that go towards making the rum,” says Dr John Walters. “Making rum from scratch is quite a complex and messy process, fermentation is quite tricky and it takes up a lot of space. People are now deciding it’s worth doing because of the authenticity that customers are looking for.”

For Walters, operating from scratch gives total control over the end flavour and product. “It all starts with molasses which is challenging because yeast doesn’t like the high acidity in it, so it struggles to grow. Yields are low, so commercially in terms of alcohol content you get less ‘bangs for your buck’, but you get more flavour. It transforms the flavour profile which is paramount to us and makes us very distinct in the marketplace.”

Morvenna rum

Morvenna spiced rum

Making rum from scratch

The Cornish Distilling Company, founded in 2016, makes a trio of British rums – Morvenna spiced, Morvenna white and Mooncurser. All are made using UK-refined molasses by head distiller Tom Read. “For us doing it from scratch was important, because we wanted that point of difference,” explains Read. “If we were going to be taken seriously as a rum distiller it had to be made from scratch, and it had to include a white rum so that we weren’t just spicing or sweetening everything that we made. Hopefully, there’s longevity in the way we are doing it.” In the longer term, aged rum is Read’s focus, with the distillery only now at a capacity where it’s able to lay down rums. “Ageing and un-spiced rums are important to me but it’s going to take time. Other brands that import can get an eight-year-old rum the next month. We have to make it then wait eight years.”

While say Jamaican or Agricole rum producers have had decades to perfect their character, it’s not possible to generalise a style of British rum. What you can assume is that it will be “radically different” from other rums, says Dr John Walters. “The rums we’ve been producing for the better part of a decade have improved steadily. We’ve understood more and more where we can go, and the weapons we need to use to direct the final outcome of the product. And you end up with a greater layering of flavours.”

John Walters in the thick of it at the English Spirit Distillery

A non-tropical climate

Obviously, the UK lacks a tropical climate, which is crucial to creating a style typical of a Caribbean rum. But that doesn’t mean producers can’t experiment with temperature control, from fermentation to barrel rooms. Read has considered heating his barrel room by using waste heat from the distillery, which could create a pseudo-Caribbean environment.

But equally, he thinks that the British climate could produce a style of its own. “For us, it’s getting the balance right and thinking about how we can create a British product that’s exposed to a UK climate. There could be an advantage to that. We are coastal so maybe the environment would have an effect on the barrel?” Cask finishing could also add a point of difference, with Read working with ex-bourbon, sherry and whisky barrels of different sizes and ages. “We can’t find out what kind of barrel a spirit will mature best in overnight. It’s going to take time, but finding out what works is going to be really interesting.”

For Edge, the aim has been to introduce a character of the local environment, including Kentish cobnuts. He uses wine yeast and controls fermentation and duration to bring out floral esters as much as possible, without high ester Caribbean tropical fruit flavours. “We are going to be at the stage for years where there’s a lot of experimentation,” says Edge. “What you can say is that a British rum is not going to be a Caribbean rum.”

Legal definitions

Currently, there is no legal distinction between rum (distilled in the UK) and those imported, blended and finished in the UK. It would be helpful for consumers to be able to distinguish between the two, but for now, it’s the responsibility of distillers to communicate the point of difference. British rum isn’t trying to compete with other rum-producing countries, but it’s nice to see a brown spirit other than whisky making strides in the UK. “In the long term I really think we can become a respected region for rum production, but it’s about playing the long game,” says Read. “Nothing’s going to happen overnight. We need to put in the hard work to benefit in the future.”