Craft and Tourism at Privateer

The tourism aspect of craft is booming. To that end, I recently visited Privateer, a premium rum-maker in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The company plans to expand from 7,500 square feet to 20,000, including increased room for hospitality and merchandise sales.

“I think it’s an educational component,” says Chris DeStefano, Privateer Director of Tours and Hospitality. “People are becoming more aware of what goes into the process. It’s impressive to them. And it’s fun to tour these places. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, coming here and seeing how and where it’s all done. It’s a lot different than just walking into a package store and buying a bottle of rum.”

Privateer remains in the early stages of its tourism program. Nevertheless, the company sells merchandise like t-shirts and glasses, and each week holds 4-6 tours, lasting about 90 minutes, with up to 25 people per group.

“There’s such fatigue in people’s lives with all the huge entities and companies,” said Privateer founder and owner Andrew Cabots. “It’s nice to have something you can believe in, something local, something craft. It makes you feel human.”

Rum starts with sugar

Head Distiller Maggie Campbell, who has 13 years in the business, took me through the Privateer tour, which began with a lesson on sugar.

Privateer’s tour includes tastings of rum and sugar.

Privateer’s tour includes tastings of rum and sugar.

“The big misconception about rum is that it’s sweet because it’s made from sugar,” says Campbell. “But all the sugar in rum-making is converted into alcohol. Rum is not naturally sweet unless it’s re-sweetened at the end.”

Simple cane juice sugar, used in normal rum, has a neutral flavor. Privateer’s sugar (a propriety source) contains notes of apple, pair and quince.

Sometimes when a company sells brown sugar, what they’re really selling is white sugar dyed brown. The difference in taste is dramatic between real and knockoff. So too is there a noticeable difference between Grade A molasses and “blackstrap” molasses. The latter is the more common (and cheaper) way to make rum, but introduces a sulfur taste that must be removed later in the process.

“A lot of rum is made to be cheap and fast,” Campbell says. “It was once made as currency, and you want to print your currency as fast as possible. But then a lot of sweeteners, artificial flavors and filtration come in at the end. We start with the best ingredients, and treat it very well and simply. We don’t have to alter it much at the end.”

Distillation is quite the process

The Privateer process begins with 2,100 pounds of sugar becoming 2,000 gallons of fermentation wash in a kettle. This is pumped into a fermentation tank and cooled with cold water. Next Privateer pitches the yeast, which eats sugar while the liquid sits for six days at a temperature between 74 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

Privateer's spirit still.

Privateer’s spirit still.

This is longer and colder than in the distillation of normal rum. Privateer pampers its yeast. “We want to make the yeast here as happy as possible to make sure it does a good job,” Campbell says. “When yeast gets upset, it throws off a lot of chemicals to protect itself and those can damage the flavor.”

The sugarless liquid is pumped into a wide pot still and heated. Alcohol vapor rises into the still’s helmet and runs through the lyne arm into silver tubes. Here, the addition of cold water liquefies the alcohol (which is now what’s considered “low wines”) before it’s analyzed and eventually collected in receiving vessels. Every 2,000 gallons of wash produces 400 gallons of low wines.

These are put through Privateer’s narrow spirit still. “The big, fat, round pot still gives us big, fat, round flavors, but those are less-pure,” Campbell says. “The narrow column spirit still gives us more-focused flavors. Because we have both, we can really balance purity and flavor.”

Privateer uses only the “hearts” – or middle part – of the alcohol run from the spirit still. This alcohol is put into silver or ripening tanks, and gradually proofed (with a gravity feed) to lower the alcohol percentage. Every 400 gallons of low wines produces 100-120 gallons of this alcohol.

Rum at rest

For 18-24 months, Privateer ages its rums in used bourbon or brandy barrels, or new American oak barrels. Some barrels are combined and re-barreled. Campbell tastes throughout the aging process, and Privateer reuses barrels, so that Campbell now knows what flavors specific barrels tend to yield. Privateer’s Northeast location – rum is traditionally distilled in the Caribbean – also adds flavors.

Head Distiller Maggie Campbell tastes the rum throughout the aging process.

Head Distiller Maggie Campbell tastes the rum throughout the aging process.

“I really love the big temperature swings of summer and winter, because this imparts a lot of character in our flavors,” Campbell says.

Privateer hires PTO organizations to bottle and label the rum by hand, channeling money back into local school systems. Each label is signed by the bottler, and also receives the batch number. With this info, buyers can look up Campbell’s notes posted online about that specific batch — yet another personal, educational component of the modern craft experience.

Photos courtesy of Privateer.

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