Sunday, March 22, 2015

Privateer Rum Factory Tour

With the weather so cold and the snow so deep, it's tough to think back to last summer. A friend was coming over and we had planned to make piƱa coladas, but we were out of rum. Always interested in local spirits, I picked up an unfamiliar bottle of Privateer True American Amber Rum.

Now, on this first weekend of spring, it was still cold out, and a little more snow was falling. Gail and I had to get out of the house. Gail remembered that the rum came with a voucher for a tour of the distillery in Essex, so despite the snow, we took a road trip.

Our first impression was that we were in the wrong place. Look beyond the pile of wires with the discarded refrigerator. Could that warehouse be the distillery?

Sure enough, there above the door were the broken letters and shadow remnants of the word "PRIVATEER."  In case that wasn't clear enough, it was repeated in stick-on, hardware-store block letters with a mismatched "I." The danger sign on the door reminds you that there might be flammable materials inside: "No smoking or open flame." While this was clearly the right place, it made us question for a moment if it was the right place for us.

I'm glad we decided to go in. The outside doesn't give a clear impression of the inside. Half the warehouse was filled with bright stainless steel vats connected to tall and shiny copper condensers. These were the mixing vats and stills for making the rum. The other half was filled with oak barrels for aging it.

Right in the middle of the large room was a small bar where we started our tour.  In the back of the warehouse, next to a large window where we could see it was still snowing, sat a man working on his computer at a desk in a way that reminded me of Willy Wonka. It was the founder/owner Andrew Cabot. His ancestor, also Andrew Cabot, was an American revolutionary privateer and rum distiller.

Our tour started with a history of rum, which I won't try to repeat here. That can be your teaser to take the tour yourself. You won't regret it.

Then we tasted the sugars that go into making their rum, comparing them to the lower quality ingredients used in other rum manufacturing. I was interested to learn that the brown sugar we buy in the store is "painted" brown sugar. It is white sugar that has molasses added back for consistency. Privateer uses "real boiled" brown sugar, which is an intermediate state of sugar refining that, best I can tell, is otherwise called light muscovado sugar. Suffice it to say that their brown sugar tasted better than the store bought.

The other big difference was their use of grade A molasses instead of the blackstrap molasses used in other rum production. Grade A and B molasses are what we get in the grocery store and are usually labeled "fancy" molasses. Blackstrap molasses is the gunk that comes out at the end of the sugar refining process. It tasted a little like a harsh black licorice. People are not meant to eat that stuff.

Next, we took a tour of the production floor. It was just a few steps between each station in the big room: mixing, first and second distillations, tank aging for the silver, followed by barrel aging for the amber, and finally bottling.

We were intrigued at how each barrel imparts unique flavors to the rum inside it. Privateer carefully blends them to create a style that matches their brand, while aiming to make each batch better than the previous batch. When you buy a bottle, and you should, you will see a hand-written batch number that you can learn more about on their web site. My first bottle was batch #16. While this is the last batch listed on the web site, we bought a bottle of batch #22 after the tour.

We enjoyed a tasting at the end of the tour. Our guide suggested that we cleanse our pallets with a swish of the silver to be spit on the floor. We couldn't bring ourselves to do that, both because ... well yuck ... and because it was too good to waste.

Privateer is good enough to sip straight. In fact, if you handed me the silver and told me it was a good vodka, I wouldn't argue. Certainly, none of the harsh rum flavors that go so well with Coke and lime. I can't wait to try their simple daiquiri recipe: 2 oz silver rum, 0.75 oz simple syrup, 0.75 oz lime juice.

The amber tasted more like a whiskey than a rum, with a hint of top-shelf reposado tequila. Those harsh rum flavors that I assume come from the blackstrap molasses are missing here. Sipping rum: who would have thought?