Lessons Learned from Distilling Rum

I thought we knew what we were doing before we secured our own Distillers Licence but that was nothing compared to how exciting and rewarding it is to make your own spirit from scratch. We were, and still are, so proud that we get to have the final say in every aspect of our rum- from what grade of molasses we use to what type of yeast goes in the fermentation. There are so many things a distillery can tweak to alter the taste of the final product, there are hundreds of different yeast strains you can experiment with and they are all tailored to provide a specific flavour profile. We spent a fair amount of time, and money, experimenting- there are even some “super yeasts” that are cultured to ensure a really rapid and successful fermentation but we found that in doing so, it cut off some of the deeper, heartier flavours that only come from slower ferments that we really enjoyed.

One of the most obvious changes to our business was working with molasses.  Molasses are actually a by-product of the sugar making process and originally weren’t intentionally produced. For rum to be legally classified as rum in the EU (which still applies to the UK even though we’re no longer in the EU), the distillation has to be based on a fermentation of a sugar cane derivative, i.e. molasses. You can get molasses made from sugar beet which could be used to make rum in other countries, but not here in the UK.

I bet you’ve always been desperate to know exactly how molasses are made.... well let me fill you in very quickly. Firstly, the sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice which contains all the sugars and it’s then boiled down so that the sugar crystallises. Molasses is the thick brown, syrupy liquid that’s left behind after the sugar crystals are scraped off. There are often several stages of boiling and each stage produces a different grade of molasses, starting from light molasses and ending in blackstrap molasses (popular for making moonshine in the USA as its got a very distinct flavour).

Working with molasses is probably one of the most difficult aspects of making rum. In big distilleries, everything is automated and connected with pipes so no one ever actually has to touch the stuff but in a micro rum distillery like ours, we do everything by hand and molasses has to be the stickiest thing I have ever come across. No matter what we do, or how careful we are, we are always covered with sticky brown molasses every single time we scrape out a barrel of the stuff into the fermentation tank!! Not to mention that they weigh 25kg and we have to lift them up to the top of the 200 litre fermentation barrel to pour them in. I remember the first time I tried to pour in a bucket by myself- I thought I could definitely do it as I can lift 25kg without too much trouble. What I didn’t take into account was lifting it up so high and by the time I managed to get it up there, I got stuck and poured half of it all over myself, the floor and the fermenting barrel. It was horrendous and took about 3 days to get all the stickiness off the floor. It’s definitely a team effort now (although to be entirely honest, I just leave it to Matt!). One of the many reasons rum has more flavour to it than gin. Gin starts with a neutral grain spirit which is then distilled with botanicals to layer flavour into the spirit whereas rum is distilled from molasses which produces a very heart, complex flavour.