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High Wire Distilling, South Carolina Rum and Watermelon Brandy

High Wire Distilling, South Carolina Rum and Watermelon Brandy

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

Whenever I see ratings from magazines like Whisky Advocate on spirits that are basically impossible to find, I impulsively groan. Why do they bother telling us how great these things are that 99.999% of us will never get to taste? It just further fuels the imbalance in supply and demand. But, you know what, I’m about to do the same thing they do – tell you about two spirits that are almost impossible to find. Why? Because they are unique and interesting, and because hearing about them might lead you to check out the very cool craft distillery that is making them.

I’m talking about High Wire Distilling Company in Charleston, South Carolina. I tasted their lineup last year and came away impressed, especially with their sorghum whiskey. Not long after, I saw that High Wire was doing their annual limited holiday release of a couple spirits – a rum they dubbed “Lowcountry Agricole” made with South Carolina sugar cane, and a watermelon brandy made from one particular type of heirloom watermelon grown on one single farm. The limited releases were pricey ($79.99 each), but I had heard and experienced enough about High Wire to give me confidence in the purchase. And I have to admit, the minuscule amount of each that was made (only 164 bottles! of the rum, and 259 bottles of brandy) simply added to the allure.

You’re not going to find these on a liquor store shelf, nor are you likely to find them in a bar, but hearing about them will hopefully pique your interest in the cool things one little distillery is doing on the “drink local” front in Charleston. And, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to secure a bottle of whatever they turn out later this year as their new limited releases. Co-founder Ann Marshall tells me the next release of the South Carolina rum is in barrel, made from sugar cane that was harvested in November in Darlington, South Carolina (a different farm than last year). And on the watermelon brandy front, they will be using the same variety/farm this coming year, though those watermelons are still just dirt and seed at this point. The other big news from High Wire is that their Jimmy Red Corn straight bourbon, which has been resting in barrel, will also be coming out as a limited release just in time for the holidays.

Back to the two bottles I procured this past holiday season, here are my tasting notes, along with a brief description from the distillery:

High Wire Distilling Company Watermelon Brandy
80 Proof
Distilled July 23, 2015, rested 4 months (not in barrel)
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: A storied spirit with a cult following, this Watermelon Brandy is distilled from the fermented juice of almost 300 Charleston Gray watermelons. The Charleston Gray varietal is the direct descendant of the famed Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon and was originally cultivated right here in Charleston. Sweet and distinctive, this brandy boasts a light and fruit forward flavor with soft, vegetal undertones. We recommend serving slightly chilled and neat. Only 259 bottles produced!

My notes: It’s funny, looking at this water-clear spirit and then sniffing it, my first impression was that it reminded me an awful lot of an unaged corn whiskey. The first notes that hit me were corn silk and a malty, grainy note. But right underneath that, especially towards the end of a good long whiff, there was indeed a subtle hint (OK, maybe a nudge) of watermelon. It does not whack you in the hand with watermelon (thank goodness, that would hurt), but once you look for it, it’s clearly there.

Sipping neat, the brandy is indeed light and subtle. You wouldn’t confuse it for vodka, but it does have kind of a pure, clarity to it that defies definitive description in terms of particular fruits (the watermelon is more present on the nose). The malty note becomes a bit more yeasty here, in a nice way. And the finish is long, warm, tingles the tongue.

Over ice, the nose doesn’t change much vs. neat, though the malt/grain note is a bit stronger. Sipping, the body is a bit more lush, as is typical with brandy over ice, and the biggest distinction is that a green vine note (rind?) comes in stronger

Intriguing stuff and totally unique, though I do wish the watermelon fruit were a bit more present in the final product.

High Wire Distilling Company “Lowcountry Agricole” Rum
80 Proof
Distilled December 5, 2014, barrel rested 12 months
Retail price $79.99
Tasting dates: March 21-25, 2016

Their description: Our Lowcountry Agricole is developed in the true style of the famous French West Indies rhum makers. Distilled at a very low proof from the juice of fresh-pressed sugar cane grown in St. George, SC by farmer, Manning Bair, and barrel rested for 12 months, our rhum agricole has a complex, earthy flavor with an incredibly long, sweet finish. A true terroir spirit, our rhum agricole is only the second true agricole made in the United States. Serve neat or with a single ice cube. Only 164 bottles produced!

My notes: The color of rich hay, this rum has an elegant nose that’s easy on the sugar – light vanilla, light caramel, a whiff of banana bread baking off in the distance, and some soft floral grassy-ness. It’s really quite lovely, and shapeshifting over time, with the time in the barrel providing a fleeting mellow bourbon character.

Sipping neat, again the sweetness is subdued compared to typical rums, and the herbal aspects of the sugar cane comes out more prominently (as with rhum agricoles) over the top of a funky (almost barnyardy) bass note. The year of aging has given this a nice balance of sharp, young assertiveness and smooth, vanilla depth. It’s not nearly as grassy-green as most Caribbean rhum auricles, but you certainly get the family resemblance. It makes me wonder how different South Carolina sugarcane is from what you’d find in the fields of Martinique.

Over ice, the earthy grassy elements dial up, and the sugar sweetness remains in check. In the hands of a good bartender, this could make some really interesting cocktails, though it doesn’t quite fit the mold of what you’d typically do with either a young rum or a traditional rhum agricole.

Fascinating spirit, and, like the watermelon brandy, one you’re not going to duplicate anywhere other than South Carolina.

HighWire Distilling Watermelon Brandy Lowcountry Agricole Rum

More info on High Wire’s limited releases at Charleston’s The Post & Courier.

Coming Soon: OMG Rye and More…

Coming Soon: OMG Rye and More…

Industry events are a great way to get a feel for what’s “hot” (at least from a marketer’s perspective), and, if yesterday’s Quality Wine & Spirits “Holiday Show” is any indication, gin and rye are super hot. The “Holiday Show” is a showcase of the wines, spirits, and more that this great Georgia distributor carries (they are a distributor, so sell to liquor stores / bars / restaurants, not the public directly). The room was filled with wine from all over the world, and some of the very best artisan spirits available anywhere. It would be impossible to give a full account of all that was there, so I’ll try to share some of the highlights (and regrets of missing potential highlights) of what I tasted.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by two of my favorites – Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, who has been instrumental in bringing some incredible vermouths and other rare spirits to the US (Dolin, Cocchi, Zucca, etc.); and David Perkins of High West Distillery in Utah, who has been doing some great things with rye and interesting whiskey blends.

I was really impressed with High West’s new (coming soon!) “Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye.” The OMG is actually a play on “Old MononGahela” – a river in western Pennsylvania which ran through the heart of America’s original whiskey country – and this unaged 100% rye (20 % malted, 80 % regular) is meant as a tribute to the old ways. What really hit me was the yeastiness on the nose, and I mean that in a very good way, that balanced out the spicy rye. Perkins made a point of sharing that there are three yeast strains that go into this, and also offered a taste of a test single yeast version as well that didn’t have the same complexity of the finished product. There’s a lot that goes into figuring out a whiskey like this, and the attention to the yeast blend is really interesting (to me at least!), especially given that an unaged whiskey doesn’t have the flavor of the barrel to fall back on. This is a Wow. Highly recommended. I also got another chance to taste their 21 year old rye which has been out for a while, and it is simply spectacular.

Back to Haus Alpenz, I love their Cocchi Vermouth, Barolo Chinato, and Americano, but passed on those to try something new – the Rothman & Winter Peach Liqueur from Austria. This joins Rothman & Winter’s Creme de Violette as a knockout cocktail ingredient for those seeking something unusual, and the Peach will be much more crowd friendly (the Creme de Violette is extremely SUPER floral). Great intensity of flavor.

Sticking to the row of spirits producers, I got to try a LOT and also passed up the chance to try a lot more that I would have loved to sample. There was simply too much. Some of the things I tried that were very impressive:


Pur Likor Blossom
, Elderberry Liqueur, Germany: for all you St. Germain fans, finally a worthy alternative, very expressive

Neisson Rhum Agricole Vieux Reserve Speciale, Martinique: crazy good aged rhum, a treat to try this

St. George Terroir Gin and Dry Rye Gin, California: two stellar and unique gins, the former is like a hike in Northern California, gaining its “terroir” from using local botanicals, and the latter is an intriguing bridge between gin and rye, aggressively spiced with juniper and the rye’s peppery notes

Small’s American Dry Gin: a new entry from the folks behind the wonderful Ransom Old Tom Gin, this one has a great, crisp spice profile made with a bit of raspberry!

I regret not having tried the Bas Armagnacs from Marie Duffau and Dartigalongue (how often does one get to try those risk free??) as well as the Chaffe Coeur Calvados (ditto).

On the wine side, I missed out on a lot, but just about all the wines from Jon David Headrick Selections were excellent, especially the Dosnon & Lepage Recolte Rose Champagne and the Claude Riffault Sancerre “Boucauds.” I somehow missed out on the Hirsch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir; so it goes at a massive event like this.

I was happy to walk away after much swirling and spitting with at least a few things to seek out in the future, as well as an appreciation for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for these producers trying to get their products out into the hands and mouths of the people.

Photos of some of my favorites follow, including some great oysters and ridiculous TRUFFLE MAYO there to accompany the drinks. Thanks to Quality for the opportunity to taste:




Java and Spice with Sea Island Rum

Java and Spice with Sea Island Rum

Our recent visit to Firefly Distillery in Wadmalaw, South Carolina, was a great experience, and also provided a chance to taste the Sea Island rum that Jim Irvin is crafting there. They have three varieties – the Carolina Gold, the Spice, and the Java, which is a coffee and spice infused bomb of a rum.

The donkey-driven sugarcane press from Guatemala
Rum aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels

All of these rums start with Southern sugarcane, sourced from John’s Island near the distillery as well as Louisiana and Florida. There’s a cranky old sugarcane press out in the yard that they found in Guatemela, which, with the help of a donkey, presses out the sugarcane. Distilled in small batches, the rum then sees some time in used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, up to three years or so. The high quality sugarcane and the bourbon barrel aging come together to create a distinctive product, and Irvin’s experiments with infusing all-natural flavors and spices into these rums takes it up a notch or two in the “wow” category. They currently have distribution around South Carolina,  and at the distillery itself of course, but are expanding now to Georgia and hopefully beyond. Here’s a taste of what you can expect if you can get your hands on some of the Sea Island Rum.

Sea Island Spice Rum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

A clear pale straw gold in the glass, with a nice viscosity that clings to the glass. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla jump out on the nose, a hint of nutmeg and baking spice lingering behind, like a warm, buttery cinnamon roll. On the palate, the spice and sweetness of the sugarcane are incredibly well balanced, this is not an overly assertive spiced rum, more like a spiced banana bread with an almost creamy (well, cream ale) presence. Warm lingering finish, a touch of heat that manages to hold the sweet and sharp notes in harmony. The folks at Firefly recommend trying it with an assertive ginger beer or ginger ale like South Carolina’s Blenheim for a spin on the Dark and Stormy, but it works great straight as well.

Excellent* – a great marriage of rum quality and balanced spice, a true treat if you’ve only tried Captain Morgan’s.

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Sea Island Java Rhum
70 Proof
Approx. $22 Retail
Tasting Date: August 5, 2011 (and prior)

Dark walnut brown in the glass, nearly impenetrable.  Huge coffee and deep dark chocolate brownie nose (yet again, that bourbon barrel-aged sugarcane rum makes baked good comparisons come naturally), tart dark cherry notes underneath that massive coffee and chocolate, burnt brown sugar as well. Incredibly full when it hits your tongue, warm and deep, obviously coffee driven, but the dark chocolate brownie presence rushes to the front, then subsides under a chewy bite of a finish, which alternates back and forth between coffee, chocolate, dark but bright cherry notes, and the miraculously long lingering pleasantly sweet burn of the rum.

Excellent* – dessert in a glass, an amazing dessert at that, and will blow away comparisons to Kahlua (try it in any cocktail recipe that calls for Kahlua and see what you think).

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck