The Portsmouth Distillery makes a truly British rum including the new 1812, the first 3-year-old cask aged rum to be made from scratch in the UK. We talk to the founders about their deep love of all things rum, renovating a historic building and their ‘shelf of shite’ for substandard products.
Rum has been a life-long passion for ex-naval officers Vince Noyce and Giles Collighan. They spent years travelling the world but especially the Caribbean getting to know rum and its culture. In 2015 the duo founded The Rum Club Ltd sourcing unusual rums. But they had always talked about making their own rum, and it was almost exactly five years ago that they threw caution to the wind to pursue that dream.
By 2018, that dream was fast becoming a reality so they hired Dich Oatley, who spent time working in the wine trade, to help market. They had already found the perfect site for a distillery. Oatley says the trio always had three lines in the sand they wouldn’t compromise on: “we wouldn’t make a bought-in, molasses-based rum, we had to be located somewhere historical significance and not some industrial estate, and we had to make something you could drink without making a face.”
Celebrating the heritage of their hometown, and its strong naval connections, they ended up in one of the most impressive pieces of eighteenth-century military architecture in England, the bastion of Fort Cumberland. Filled with a series of casements that once stored weaponry, these spaces are now filled with stills, barrels, bars, offices, and more. Initially there was no running water, electricity, or even doors big enough to fit the stills, so they worked closely with Historic England to create a distillery that won The Portsmouth Society award for “Best re-use of a Historic building-2019”.
Not just jumping on a bandwagon
In order to keep the lights on (or to turn them on at all) while this refurbishment took place, Portsmouth Distillery produced Fort Gin made with locally-foraged botanicals like elderflower, gorse flowers and sea radish. It’s rum, however, that is at the heart of the Portsmouth Distillery. Oatley says they get a lot of calls from distilleries that want to make rum and they always say the same thing: “please make it good.” He explains that there are a lot of good examples out there, but plenty more bad stuff “taking us back to the stone age”. A ‘shelf of shite’ is at the distillery filled with those deemed to be giving British rum a bad name.
With rum sales topping £1bn and overtaking whisky this year in the UK, there’s going to be people jumping on a bandwagon. “Rum is the next big thing and that’s driving people who make gin into rum, and they often just get hold of molasses and stick it through the fastest possible fermentation just to roll it out,” co-founder Noyce explains. “These typically have to be spiced because the unaged stuff they make isn’t the least bit palatable. It isn’t made with passion or understanding. It’s a quick sale. And if you stick it in a barrel when it’s bad, it’s not going to get much better after that. All I would ask them is, ‘why are you making rum?'”
Making British rum as purely as possible
You can make rum three ways: from sugar cane juice, syrup, or molasses. The latter never appealed to Noyce. “Pure molasses-based rums that tastes good unaged are difficult to get right, and we wanted our spirit to be able to be drunk neat, because that’s how I drink unaged rum. I also wanted it to make a Ti Punch, for which you need agricole for those herbal qualities to shine through,” he explains. “But in the UK, we’re pretty limited by raw material. It’s impossible to make a ‘pure’ British rum because you can’t grow sugar cane here, we don’t have the climate”.
Fortunately they discovered a Costa Rican supply of sugar cane juice, all sourced within a 40-mile radius from the site the cane is processed. “It’s organic, high-quality stuff. We made a trial agricole with it, and it was really good. So I boiled it to make a syrup, and it made a really good syrup-based rum,” Noyce says. “Because we’re making a syrup, we’re altering the product but not removing all the agricole character. Getting the UK public to understand and enjoy agricole is tough, because they’re used to British pot still rums. But we wanted a bit of that left because that’s profile I like”.
A unique raw material is one of the Portsmouth Distillery’s signatures. The other is its fermentation process, which lasts for two weeks using a bottom-feeding yeast. “What we get from that is a low wine that’s full of flavours and congeners, and somewhere between 12-14% ABV, that’s actually quite nice to drink,” Noyce says. You’ll find the 300 and 800-litre fermentation vessels in two casemates that were once used to store ammunition for Nelson’s Navy, next to a 500-litre pot still named Sophie Wu and a four-plate column still.
“Most cane syrup rums are column distilled, but I wanted to bring the British pot into it to give us the heavier, more complex flavours. The syrup then gives us the sweetness and the agricole element brings some floral notes, so it’s almost every style in one,” Noyce explains. “The only thing we use the column for is on the wash run, I liken it to ringing the cloth. When we get the heart cut, we run it through the column for volume as it gives us an extra 15 litres, but doesn’t affect the profile”. After all that, some water is added to create what has been the brand’s flagship product: 1968 Portsmouth White Rum.
Other creations include Cinnabar, made with a spice mix added during the second distillation and then sweetened with the same syrup used to make the rum and some vanilla. They’re open about how it’s made, the fact that it’s a spiced rum, and don’t pretend it’s aged at all. Forum Garden Rum, meanwhile, serves an interesting halfway house of gin and rum that’s a clever tool on distillery tours to covert gin lovers, as it uses the 1968 white rum as a base and adds five of the botanicals used in Fort Gin, elderflower, gorse flower, coriander, sweet orange and fresh lime peel.
Creating cask aged rum
The distillery now has the exciting distinction of releasing its cask-aged rum: 1812. It’s made simply by popping 1968 in an ex-bourbon cask, a 200-litre Jim Beam casks, to be specific, chosen for its lighter profile as Noyce was keen for the spirit’s character to shine. Nothing but water is added post-distillation, and all the flavour is being driven by the cane syrup, fermentation, and cask profile. The cavernous old building’s consistent temperature allows for a gentle maturation which means the cask doesn’t overwhelm the rum.
This launch makes Portsmouth the first English Distillery to make rum this age from scratch, distilling, fermenting, and ageing it before bottling at 43% ABV. 1812 is also a single cask release, and Oatley says the priority was always to create something different. “We weren’t interested in being the first 3-year-old cask aged English rum, we were interested in making the best”. They market it as an aged rum and Noyce is passionate that rum should never be referred to by any colour. “It’s aged or unaged. The colour should be what it is when it comes out of the cask. People have criticised us and said we should put colour in it because they think it won’t sell being this light-golden, straw tone, but we never will with our aged rums,” he explains.
Above all, what you see is what you get at The Portsmouth Distillery. “There’s so many producers that don’t say on their website that they don’t make their own spirit. Honesty is what we need in this industry. We don’t hide anything,” Noyce says. He thinks consumers becoming more discerning and scrutinising what they’re drinking will help increase transparency within the industry, and lead them to broaden their horizons. “I’m not saying people can’t import and bottle rum, that’s fine. Just don’t market it as a British product. My advice for people at home is to just be more adventurous, move away from the typical rums you drink and look into how rum is made”.
A lifetime of love informs what they do. “Any expertise I have is assembled from going around the world, asking questions, understanding how the very best do it, and then assimilating all that knowledge and adding our own experimentation,” says Noyce. Of everything they learned, I’m most grateful for those super long fermentations tasting the 1968 and the new 1812, because all that estery fruitiness is beautiful: quince, apples, grapefruit, foam bananas, strawberry… There is some agricole funk in the 1968 too, and as well as delicate vanilla note that’s elevated in the 1812, which I like because the cask influence is understated, just adding hints of toffee, coconut, and nutmeg. Overall, they’re reasonably priced, full of personality, and stand apart as rums that are unique to the Portsmouth Distillery, and there’s lots to be said for that.
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