American Rum Report, June 2019
by Will Hoekenga
One of the quirks of American rum is that most of the 250+ distilleries producing it split their time making other kinds of booze.
Entry into the spirits business is a tough, capital-intensive game, so young distilleries often find themselves making whatever is necessary to keep as many customers coming through their doors as possible. And most distillers are tinkerers by nature anyway—taking a crack at a spirit they’ve never made often looks just as much like a learning opportunity as a business one.
So it’s not uncommon for a distillery that starts with rum to develop wandering eyes for liquor that’s more familiar to American palates, like whiskey.
It is, however, uncommon to see a distillery discontinue its whiskey in order to focus exclusively on rum—especially when that whiskey has garnered ink from outlets like Esquire and the New York Times. So when Jaime Windon, co-founder and distiller at Lyon Distilling in Saint Michaels, Maryland, told me she was doing exactly that, I had to know more.
If American rum is to continue growing in both output and quality, it’s going to need as many passionate people as possible. And what could indicate more passion for making it than retiring a whiskey plenty of customers specifically seek out just so you can focus completely on rum?
I caught up with Windon to find out more. 90 minutes later, we’d covered everything from the dangers facing the American rum category, to added sugar controversies, to the reasons why she still chooses not to age Lyon rum after six years in business.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Esquire named your rye whiskey the best whiskey in the state of Maryland. The New York Times mentioned it in an article about the return of Maryland rye. And yet you’ve decided to stop making it so you can focus 100% on rum. Why?
The first thing you should know is that we started a distillery to make rum. That was the goal, but also with the intention to nod to historically significant and culturally appropriate spirits. So within a few months we were also dabbling with rye because rye whiskey is a historically significant spirit in Maryland that had not been distilled here for 42 years.
However, I noticed immediately that people would assume our story was the same as almost every other new, small distillery—that we were laying down these aged spirits and, in the meantime, we just have these “easy, quick” clear spirits for you to drink.
So I started to have to really educate people—letting them know that yes, the whiskey is in barrels, and will be released over time, but for now we have fantastic rums. I’d ask them what they liked to drink, the flavors they were looking for, because I’ve got a rum that drinks like a scotch. I’ve got a rum that you can sip like a bourbon. I’ve got this robust overproof French oak finished rum that drinks like a rye. Our motto quickly became, “All you need is rum.”
And that’s when I realized…there is something that doesn’t sync up for me when someone walks in my distillery, tells me how much they like a whiskey, I find them a rum they love, but then tell them to come back in a few months to try our whiskey. Of course I like whiskey. I enjoy all spirits. But I love rum. How can I believe that all you need is rum and spend my time making anything else?
How have customers reacted when they find out you’re not making whiskey anymore?
People are shocked when they hear that this is our last batch. One woman said, “Even after the New York Times article? Even after that?” And I said, “Exactly after that.” We feel like we contributed to the Maryland rye conversation. We released six incredibly small, wonderful batches of rye whiskey, and now we are closing that chapter. There are a lot of other Maryland distillers now. Most are working on rye, and I’m super excited to drink theirs. But, for me, I want to make rum. That’s it.
Lyon’s rums are made from a 50/50 base of blackstrap molasses and evaporated cane juice and double distilled in 26-gallon pot stills.
How would you describe your style of rum at Lyon?
We are focused on making young, delicious American rum, and those four words don’t often appear in the same sentence. It might be interesting or unique American rum. Or bold, young rum. But it’s usually always delicious old rum. And none of our rums are aged. We use smaller barrels for finishing and resting some of our rums, like the Sailor’s Reserve Rum, which rests for 6-12 months in used bourbon barrels from Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. The Overproof Oak Rum gets hit at a super high proof with new, charred French oak in a stainless steel container.
This isn’t necessarily because I don’t like aged rum—aged rum is lovely. But lots of people are focused on that and doing it great already. I always want to do the thing no one’s doing. If you look at some of my favorite American rum distilleries like Privateer or Montanya, they have some fantastic aged rums. And that’s great, but that’s not what we are doing. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s not right for us. I prefer a younger, robust spirit, with very minimal oak influence. I really love our white rum and I want it to shine through in every expression we bottle.
If there’s one main goal I have, it’s to destroy the perception that white rum, or rum in general, is a fucking placeholder for another spirit. And that’s what was happening. People were under the impression that, “Oh, so you have this rum until your whiskey is ready.” And I say, “Oh hell no.” Even when we were making whiskey we made exponentially more rum on purpose because that’s what we always really wanted to make.
So that’s when I realized [the whiskey] had to go away. I have the last remaining cases of the rye and malt here at the distillery, and they’re beautiful. They’re wonderful. They’re super unique expressions. People come specifically to try them. But the truth is I cannot wait until the last bottle is gone. For the last few years we have been making 100% rum all day every day, and I’m anxious to focus our customers’ attention on all the varieties and expressions of our rum.
How do people react when they hear you’re not aging anything in the traditional sense?
Of course that disappoints people. This past December they all said, “Oh, it’s your five-year anniversary! Do you have something that’s five years old?” And we don’t. There are no special barrels tucked away. And maybe that will change, but not for now. Because how can I talk about the beauty of a young rum and then pour you an older rum that’s maybe richer or closer to what your palate’s used to? I’d rather highlight the youthful, bold, delightful flavor of young rum. I’d rather make you love something unexpected instead.
[When I tell people] our Sailor’s Reserve is unaged and merely barrel finished, they say, “Ohhhhh, is that because you’re new?” They assume we don’t have time to age it properly. But now we’ve been open six years and we still choose to never put it in a barrel for much longer than a year. Maybe that was a constraint we started under, but now it defines our category for Lyon rum.
I borrow from tequila and say, “This isn’t an aged rum. This is a reposado rum.” I want you to still know this is a young rum. I’m pulling just a little hint of that butterscotch [from the barrel], a little waft of vanilla, a little bit of caramelized sugar. It’s a young American rum that’s delicious in its own right and simply finished in a barrel.
Jaime Windon co-founded Lyon Distilling Company in 2012. She’s also a founding member and current president of the Maryland Distillers Guild.
I imagine the first question you get from rum aficionados is, ‘How do you get your Dark Rum so dark if you’re not aging it? Where does the color come from?’ How do you approach transparency and the conversation around additives in rum?
Our Dark Rum is what really throws everybody. It’s our flagship rum and our most popular spirit. It’s the entire reason why I’m running a company today instead of having a little project that lasted just a few months. People love this spirit. But when I talk to a rum aficionado, I tell them: We hand cook the sugar that we make [the rum] from into a rich caramel until it starts to smoke, and then we blend in the smallest amount necessary to change that white rum from bold, grassy, and funky, to rich, sweet, and smoky. And it’s only the smallest amount necessary. It’s not like, oh my god this rum is a sugar bomb. We bottle it at 90 proof, and it drinks wonderfully. It doesn’t have a cloying, sweet taste because it’s not full of coloring and flavoring and syrup.
But often they’ll say, “So you just add sugar.” And it’s like, no—you missed the process. That’s why processes and transparency are important. So I agree with my friend Andrew [Lohfeld, of Roulaison Distilling] and many of his proposed changes to TTB regulations, and I agree with Richard Seale when he talks about overly sugared rum masquerading as aged rum. Because while I love that rum falls into such a wide open category, with far less regulation than other spirits, I also know that if a consumer consistently opens bottle after bottle of super sweet, syrupy rum, they’re going to give up on rum as a category. So perhaps we need to work on redefining the category.
You’ve mentioned that you want to help define the category of American rum. What do you think is the current state of that category? How has it been defined so far and how do you want to influence it?
I’m not ready to fully define American rum, so what I tell people is—for us—when we looked at what it would take to make an American rum, that meant pulling from the global styles of rum. We took inspiration from pot distilled Jamaican/British-style molasses-based rum. And also French agricole rum made from raw sugarcane. We created a rum that is bright and grassy and funky, and yet still heavy and full and slightly smoky. And there you go—what could be more American than combining all of that into our own unique product? That’s where the idea of combining raw sugarcane and molasses (from Louisiana), and committing to a double distillation in classic pot stills to hone all of those flavors. The best of all worlds.
There are things I believe and there are things that I know [about American rum]. I know that if you’re going to make American rum, your distillery has to be in America. I know your sugarcane should be grown in America. Could you make an American rum without American sugarcane? I guess, but that doesn’t seem right. That defines American rum in the broadest sense.
Then there’s the things that I believe. I believe that rum deserves to be distilled in a pot still so it can have the most authentic character to represent the substrate of sugar you’re trying to showcase. I’m just not into column stills. I totally understand their purpose, but I think it does a disservice to rum. I want to capture the fullest flavor. Why would I take so much care in selecting raw cane sugar for our fermentation—even though it’s four times more expensive than the molasses that we use in conjunction—and then strip out those notes in a column still? But that’s an important decision for us. Still choice is incredibly personal for each distiller.
Is there anything you’d like to see more or less of in American rum?
I don’t really love seeing American rum distilleries blending [Caribbean] rum with their distillate. And what’s unfortunate is that it seems to be becoming a trend. There’s at least a few distilleries I know of—that I count among the true American rum distillers—that have started doing it. My immediate reaction is that it does disservice to American rum. It feels like they’re saying [American rum] needs help from Caribbean rum to be worthy. But maybe I could sit down with someone who’s doing this and they could tell me all their reasons and I perhaps could get on board with their decision. I’m just not interested in sourcing anything. We are incredibly proud that every bottle that comes out of our distillery is made 100% from scratch, every time.
What do you think American rum looks like five years from now?
The thing that breaks my heart about what’s happening with rum right now is that it’s becoming a placeholder at many distilleries that don’t care about rum at all. They see it as a revenue source while they wait for their other spirits to age, namely whiskey. It upsets me to see rum being treated as a throwaway spirit, because it is seen as “easy to make” and fast to market. That’s why I make it my mission to make young, remarkable American rum, to show that it can be done…that older spirits aren’t inherently better. That youthful spirits can have so much character and flavor and even interesting terroir.
So I just really hope we don’t see a rum bust. I love that people are drinking more rum, but I want them to be drinking good rum and I want them to be drinking well-crafted cocktails. I want people to make rum not just because it’s a fad, because we all know what happens to fads—they boom and then they bust. If people get oversaturated with too much unremarkable rum in the next five years, I think the category might be in worse shape than it was 20 years ago before there were so many new, interesting people adding to the conversation surrounding rum.
But it all starts with distillers making their spirits with purpose. I don’t want to be the purveyor of what makes a rum good; I just want to know that there was real passion behind it. It deeply upsets me when someone is distilling with no passion for the spirit. Please don’t tell me to drink your rum while I wait for your whiskey…because I’m not going to drink your rum.