The Spirit of Rum

oak barrels of Richland Rum
120-proof rum from the copper column still at Richland Rum

When you buy a bottle of Richland Rum – and you should – there are several things you should know:

  • It was bottled by hand in an old brick building in Richland, Ga.
  • It was aged for two years in virgin oak. The modest aging time and the oak are both at least a little controversial, but we’ll get to that later.
  • It was made by fermenting syrup pressed from fresh sugar cane, cooked down and concentrated. (Molasses is the more common source with most rums, and, in large part the reason rum exists. But the folks at Richland see molasses as, essentially, a nasty chemical-filled byproduct of sugar manufacturing and won’t use it.)
  • It may not be the same color as the next bottle you buy – and you will buy another.

We first tried to visit the distillery, about 40 miles from home, back in 2013, on Small Business Saturday, but found them closed. We bought a bottle in nearby Americus, all the same, after encouraging words from Cafe Campesino owner Bill Harris. “My scotch drinkers are liking Richland Rum,” he says, and that was testimonial enough for me.

I’m no liquor snob, but I share that group’s disdain for what we know as rum. One pour of this Richland stuff, though, proved that I had a lot to learn. It had a profile. It had body, character. It had a hint of butterscotch, but where Captain Morgan’s is overpowered by the flavor of that yellow candy disc, this was like the insane sauce I cooked on my stovetop with actual butter, brown sugar and whiskey, and not overwhelming. We would not be mixing this in a cola, not once, not never.

Sugar cane stalks also make handy walking canes! Photo by The Dew Abides.

Erik and Karin Vonk talk about their passion at the Richland Rum distillery.

A little more than a year after that first attempt to get inside the place, we came back, with an appointment this time. Owners Erik and Karin Vonk greeted us, as did distiller Roger Zimmerman. The two buildings that make their current operation were built in 1896 and 1901, but sat long neglected until the redevelopment-minded mayor convinced them to put their operation in the heart of the city instead of on the remote acreage of their nearby farm. First we shuffled into the distillery building, with its enormous fermentation tanks, column stills made of copper, and empty barrels, their innards blackened with char.

The virgin white oak barrel was something Richland stumbled on almost accidentally, as they played with different variables in the manufacture. It was initially a source of derision from other makers. “As many barrels as there are in the world, there are as many theories about aging,” Karin said.

But it was an easy decision for them after a sip, said Erik. “I said, ‘Wow! Have you tasted the rum from the new barrels?’

Photo by The Dew Abides

Those smokey notes in Richland Rum? That’s from aging in charred oak, explains distiller Roger Zimmerman.

“Aging in American oak has a big influence,” he said, during our tasting. “It’s a bit peppery. That’s white oak – excellent balance between full flavors. And then there are the floral and vegetable notes that the cane leaves in there.”

That they bottle after 24-30 months is another rule set by trial and error, he said.

“The notion that the older a distilled beverage is, the better – that’s not true. With our rum, at 36 months, it’s over the hill.”

They grow their own cane on about 70 acres of their farm. In fact, the Vonks chose to retire in Richland after finding it was the furthest north they could suitably grown cane. “It was a tired, old cotton farm,” Karin said of their homestead. But Erik had long been gnawing on the idea of distilling rum, and for them it was a perfect, and affordable, match.

Photo by The Dew Abides

Jenn checks out the bubbling fermentation tank at Richland Rum.

Locally grown cane accounts for only 10 percent of what they need to produce, with the rest coming from farms in Florida and Louisiana, shipped after it’s already been boiled down to concentrated syrup. Since the Vonks don’t control the farm sources, they don’t claim it’s an organic product. But they can state that there are no additives for color, and no ingredients save the fermented cane juice and water from the Georgia Aquifer. It’s 120-130 proof when it drips out of the still and cut down to 80 proof before bottling for sale. Currently the market is Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and, surprisingly, rum manufacturing center Puerto Rico. Erik points to this as proud proof of his product’s superiority to most common rums, and you’ll find no argument from the Dew.

From our perspective, we’re just grateful we can can hop down to a local liquor store and buy a bottle of this handcrafted, locally produced magic and enjoy a pour with friends.

You can read lots more about Richland Rum on their own website and in a great Garden and Gun profile. And lest you think this is a fad, you can read about the snowballing rum renaissance in this just-published piece on The Daily Beast.

Also of note:

  • We asked Karin about possibly buying a few used barrels to turn into the coolest rain barrels on the block. From an environmental perspective, she advised against, telling us that wooden barrels need to keep water in them constantly or risk drying out and falling apart. And not being able to use the water in the barrel seems a little counterproductive. But fear not, as those barrels have found another life right here in the region. Athens’ Terrapin brewery is aging batches of beer in them, in an effort to impart the rum and char flavors in a brew they call Rumzilla.
  • Before launching this venture, Erik led the U.S. arm of the worldwide temp agency Randstad, and while there he authored a book called “Don’t Get a Job, Get a Life,” on a founding tenet of controlling your own career in an attempt to achieve work-life balance. Sounds like he’s followed his own good advice.

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