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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.

Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum

Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum

Plantation Rum Pineapple

What the what is David Wondrich up to? The celebrated drinks historian, punch enthusiast, and beard-grower has teamed up again with Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand (owner of Plantation Rum, and previous partner with Wondrich on Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac and Dry Curacao) to… well, to do something involving pineapple and rum. Before you read the rest of this, let’s take a quick multiple choice quiz. A pre-quiz, if you will.

Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum is:

a) A blend of Trinidad brown rums matured in young bourbon casks, infused with Queen Victoria pineapples for three months, and further mixed with a distillate of macerated pineapple rinds and white rum (“a bright pineapple essence to blend with the lushness of the infused rum”) before a final rest in the barrel

b) A drink inspired by the favorite tipple of one Reverend Stiggins, who was a character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers 

c) A “liquid thank you” to the members of the apprentice program at Tales of the Cocktail (an annual bar and spirits industry event held in New Orleans)

d) A throwback to original pineapple rum recipes found in the 1824 English Journal of Patent and Inventions, and the 1844 Journal of Agricultural Society

e) All of the above

If you guessed a), you are absolutely right, but I could say the same thing for every other choice. Yes, the true and astonishing answer is that Plantation 1824 Pineapple Rum is all of those crazy things. Thank you Messrs. Wondrich and Gabriel.

Plantation Rum PineappleThis stuff is crazy, and wonderful, and absurd, and absolutely worth seeking out. It was initially planned as a 1000 bottle limited run, focused on the insider crowds attending Tales of the Cocktail last year, but the reception has apparently stoked the flames to extend the run of Pineapple Rum. I was lucky enough to pick up a bottle at H&F Bottle Shop (though I paid $38, a good bit above what other national retailers like K&L carry it for) before it quickly left their premises.

The first thing you’ll notice if you get your hands on a bottle is that Wondrich, ever the writer/historian, has packed the label with all kinds of stories and background (in fact, the label was the source for the above quiz). A quick read will inform you that Dickens’ Reverend Stiggins, “preferred to take his ‘warm’ (i.e., with a splash of boiling water), with three lumps of sugar to the tumbler.”  This is where Reverend Stiggins and I part ways, as this Plantation Rum requires no water, nor sugar. Here are the notes…

Plantation Rum PineapplePlantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
Artisanal Caribbean Rum Infused with Pineapple Barks, AKA Rich Plantation Original Dark Rum infused with Victorian Pineapple, Stiggins’ Fancy 1824 Recipe
80 Proof, Approx. $30-$40 Retail
Tasting Dates: July 21 – 23, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

At first glance, this is clearly rum of the dark variety, in this case a lovely shade on the amber side of mahogany  – not that that tells you much, but we know it is both aged and infused (btw, a great name for a band or movie – “aged and infused”).

Taking it in neat, wow… there are the typical dark rum notes of molasses, toffee and deep honey on the nose, but a pineapple-petrol blast then pours forth, a little banana, a hint of clove, a graham cracker-like toasty note, a touch of vanilla from the barrel. Fascinating stuff, powerful without hitting you over the heard or being too blunt/obvious.

Sipping, lush is the word. Sweet tropical fruit (but again, there’s an elegance to it) that starts rich and ripe, then goes clean and crisp in the mid-palate, then shifts again to a long pleasantly warm, rich finish. The pineapple is there, but it’s also kind of hiding in plain sight behind the dark rum itself – once you know to look for it, it’s totally obvious, but if you had no idea what you were getting into, you might guess all sorts of tropical fruit were playing a part in this. It’s a fabulous sipper all by itself – don’t even bother with a cube of ice unless the summer heat suggests it.

And speaking of heat, I tried Reverend Stiggins’ preferred path of serving it warm, with a splash of boiling water (and then additional sugar). First, the hot water… if it’s winter time (or you’re in foggy London) and/or you’re nursing a cold or a sore throat, this is a lovely idea. The hot water smooths out the rum even further, turning it into a sweet, soothing elixir that is sure to cure any ills. But, please, leave out the additional sugar, which just as surely may lead to a rotten tooth or possibly even diabetes.

Beyond sipping neat, this stuff is made for adventurous cocktail exploration. I’ve seen a few interesting recipes passing around online – using it as the base for an Old Fashioned variation, or really using it anywhere a more tropical side of dark rum or even bourbon would make sense. Me? I have a hard time doing anything other than enjoying every single sip right from the bottle.

Click through the photos to read the stories on the labels: 
Plantation Rum PineapplePlantation Rum PineapplePlantation Rum Pineapple

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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

Cayrum: Review and Tasting Notes

Cayrum: Review and Tasting Notes

cayrum

Last week, I mentioned Kane Family Rum Company’s Cayrum as part of an unusual cocktail with Whynatte and Fernet-Branca. Now, here’s a bit more on Cayrum itself. As mentioned, the company is based here in Atlanta, though the rum is distilled, aged (three years in bourbon barrels) and infused with local Dominican honey and ginger in the Dominican Republic. The distilling is overseen by master rum blender Victor Eugenio, in a distillery owned by Jose Antonio Barcelo, a member of one of the three well known Dominican rum families (the others are Brugel and Bermudez – together they make up “the 3 B’s”). Rum is serious business in the Dominican Republic, but Cayrum is more about sharing what many Dominican locals do with the rum after they’ve bought it.

I met up with Zach Kane, who, along with his father, helps run the business. He explained a bit about how his family came to make Cayrum, and why. They had been making a similar concoction for years at their vacation home in the Dominican Republic, just for friends and family. As they shared it, they realized how much everyone seemed to appreciate this unique spin on rum, and also realized that there could be great opportunity to introduce this kind of local Dominican infusion to the states. They tried all kinds of recipes before settling on a 3 year aged rum as the base, and even considered opening a distillery in Georgia before realizing that they couldn’t beat the quality and history of Dominican rum.

In essence, Cayrum is simply rum infused with honey and ginger. It’s primarily meant to be imbibed chilled, by itself, but it also works well as a sweet and spicy component in cocktails or mixed simply with complimentary drinks like iced tea or (for ginger lovers) ginger beer. Cayrum has been available in Georgia for a bit over two years now, has made its way to New York, and is expecting distribution soon in Colorado and Texas. So, on to the tasting notes.

CayrumKane Family Rum Company Cayrum, rum infused with honey and ginger
80 proof
Approx. $20-$25 retail
Tasting Dates: June-August, 2013

Cayrum shows a bright medium amber color in the bottle. When you pour it out, the somewhat thick but not yet syrupy body is evident . On the nose, the ginger hits you first, not overly powerful, but very present. Burnt honey/Bit-o-Honey undertones come in, and some warm wood notes, too.

I much prefer this over ice rather than neat. Neat, it comes across a bit too sharp – a bit too much burn from both the alcohol and the ginger. Over ice, Cayrum is indeed quite full in the mouth. The ginger is prominent, starting off with a warm rush then kicking into a tingling spicy almost-burn. There’s something mildly medicinal, maybe a touch soap-y, lurking in the background.  There’s no denying that Cayrum is sweet – both the rum and the honey bring a syrupy, raisin-y character to it that comes in behind the bite of the ginger. The finish is long, both spicy and sweet, with a touch of heat.

I’ve played around with Cayrum a good bit – you can mix it with ginger beer for an extra ginger-y Dark and Stormy. It also works well with ice team and lemon, or, for something a bit more unusual, blood orange soda and a squeeze of lime. Really, you can use Cayrum in any aged rum-based cocktail where you might want an extra hit of sugar and spice. It can also take the place of a ginger liqueur like the King’s Ginger or Domaine de Canton.

Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff* For ginger lovers – Cayrum is a home run. For everyone else, it’s a unique spin on rum that is fun to experiment with in mixed drinks or simply enjoy sipping cold over ice. Like a quick trip to the Caribbean.

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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

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample was provided by Kane Family Rum Company.

A Taste of Home at Prichard’s Distillery, Kelso, Tennessee

A Taste of Home at Prichard’s Distillery, Kelso, Tennessee

Continuing our tour of Tennessee whiskey

A visit to Prichard’s Distillery in little bitty Kelso, Tennessee, is like a visit to someone’s home. It’s a family affair. Phil Prichard, his wife Connie, his son, his friends, everyone seems to be pitching in. It’s decidedly un-corporate, and the fact that the distillery sits in the town’s old schoolhouse and community center just reinforces the feeling. The basketball goals are still up in the gym that now houses bottles and labels and empty boxes waiting to be filled with fine rum and whiskey. The disco ball still hovers in the air, calling to mind all the dances and good times that must have happened here in the heart of tiny Kelso. Prichard’s Distillery is certainly keeping the flame, as much a product of Kelso as all the kids who walked through the schoolhouse’s doors years ago.

Prichard’s has been turning out award winning rums for over ten years now, a bridge between the old stalwarts of Tennessee distilling and the new breed. While their image is not as edgy and progressive as Corsair Artisan up in Nashville, they are certainly not slackers when it comes to pushing the envelope and trying out new things. There’s a long line of rums (including a Key Lime version), an array of whiskeys (from a “single malt” to a “double barreled” to a “Lincoln County Lightning”), and experimental bottles of things like aquavit, cranberry liqueur, and chocolate-infused bourbon sit on the old school desks that sit in what is now Prichard’s office. There are even small custom barrels filled for progressive bars and liquor shops around the country (ever hear of The Violet Hour in Chicago? I happened to see a barrel with their name on it).  Prichard’s is a small batch craft distillery when it comes down to it, with two beautiful Vendome pot stills that do most of the heavy lifting, and that small batch mentality is a perfect precursor to trying new things.

While rum has been Prichard’s calling card for many years, the whiskey line-up is what seems to be gaining steam and is an increasing focus for the distillery. A new rye is on its way, and time in the barrel is the main thing that sits between some Prichard’s whiskey and a large number of thirsty fans. True to their roots, Prichard’s prefers to use a local white corn that has a particularly nice sugar content, ground at the historic Falls Mill down the road in Old Salem. That Lincoln County Lightning gets bottled fresh out of the still, and boasts a tremendous corn character that reflects the fine local ingredients. Phil Prichard is a storyteller at heart, and he shared a few cocktail names he has for his Lincoln County Lightning. A Bloody Mary becomes a Bloody Bubba, and his name for a white lightning-based spin on a Margarita is almost enough to make a bootlegger blush (I won’t share that one here, but would love to hear your guesses in the comment section below!).

Prichard’s is definitely worth the stop if you’re heading up to their much bigger neighbors up the road a bit. Jack Daniel’s is just a bucolic, fifteen mile jaunt, but Prichard’s is indeed a world away. Be sure to call ahead, though, if you’re interested in visiting. You wouldn’t want to make an unexpected house call, after all.

Prichard’s Distillery in images, continues below… 

And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.

and out onto the roads of Lincoln County…

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