Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum

Although rum is most frequently associated with the Caribbean and Central America, its production has a long history on the eastern seaboard of the United States, going back to the colonial era. Using molasses imported from the Caribbean, rum was produced in distilleries in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. Eventually, nearly all the Northeast’s rum distilleries went under, victims of economic forces, prohibition, and a swing to other spirits such as bourbon, which could be produced from locally grown grains rather than imported goods. With the recent upswing in craft spirits, distilleries such as Boston’s Bully Boy and Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, have revived the east coast rum tradition. Lyon Distilling has three different rums for sale, and here I’ll take a look at their most popular version, Lyon Dark Rum.

I first came across Lyon Distilling on Instagram via nicely photographed posts from user @blondeboozehound, aka Jaime Windon. Jaime and her partner, Ben Lyon, started Lyon Distilling in early 2013 and do nearly everything themselves. Ben’s main focus is the distillation, while Jaime handles sales, marketing, and numerous other things. In early 2015 Ben and Jaime undertook a driving tour of the U.S., and when I noticed they were perilously close to Seattle we decided to meet up. Time was running short for them, but in that short meeting I could see their enthusiasm, and they generously donated a bottle of the Lyon Dark Rum to the Cocktail Wonk cause. I subsequently chatted with both of them for an hour via phone and got more of the Lyon backstory.

Ben’s history with distilling and brewing started straight out of college, when he worked for Triple Eight Distillery in Nantucket, Massachusetts. At Triple Eight, Ben learned all aspects of the brewing and distillation process, and his passion remained during the intervening years while he worked as a PR professional and lobbyist. In 2012, he and Jaime decided to pursue his “passion project” (in Jaime’s words) and started Lyon Distillery, the first new craft distillery (producing everything on site) in Maryland in forty years. Today, in addition to the White, Dark, and Barrel Aged rums, they also distill an unaged corn whiskey and an unaged rye whiskey, although rum is still the majority of their production.

Something very clear from my conversations with Ben and Jaime is that they believe the spirit should taste good coming off the still. That is, it shouldn’t need to undergo a massive transformation via aging to be something worth drinking. As Ben puts it, “Older is not better.” I’m fairly confident this mirrors the ethos of early colonial American rum distillers, who I imagine weren’t tucking away their distillate in barrels for five or more years before selling it. Ben is also adamant about wanting to personally be involved in every drop that’s made. He seems in no hurry to upgrade to bigger stills and more automation.

To create the Lyon rums, Ben starts with raw, unfiltered blackstrap molasses from the U.S. This is combined in a 50:50 ratio (by weight) with evaporated cane juice. To help maintain consistency, the starting mash includes up to 10 percent of the prior run’s spent mash after the first distillation. Adding spent mash, which contains organic matter including dead yeast cells, helps add flavor and aids fermentation. In whiskey making, the same process (albeit with a grain mash) is what makes sour mash whiskey.

For distillation, Lyon has a growing set (five currently) of 26-gallon pot stills from Hillbilly Stills of Barlow, Kentucky. (For you still wonks, Ben says they have short copper head and a Liebig condenser.) During the second distillation, the spirit comes off the still in the 140 to 150 proof range.

The unaged rum is diluted to proof and bottled immediately, while the aged rum goes into the three gallon ex-bourbon barrels. In photos from Lyon’s web page, you’ll see that the aged rum is lighter than the dark rum. That begs the question, where does the dark rum get its coloring from, if not from the barrel? The answer is caramel, aka cooked sugar. It might surprise some folks, but the addition of caramel to rum for both color and taste is a well-established tradition. Two other rums that are open about their use of caramel are Coruba and the Hamilton Jamaican rums. Ben and Jaime whip up a batch of caramel for each batch of Dark Rum using the same cane juice used in the mash – ninety three batches at last count when we spoke.

With all that background in place, let’s look at the Dark Rum in its final form. For starters, there’s the bottling. You wouldn’t guess Lyon Distillery is a boutique operation given the very striking, picturesque bottle and labeling. The bottle feels very substantial, due in large part to its large, ten-sided base. Ben says the bottles are from Anchor Hocking and modeled after a rye bottle from 1900.  The label is signed and includes the batch number, along with the required elements such as proof. A synthetic cork tops it off.

Nosing the Lyon Dark yields a strong, noticeable caramel note. Sipping it, the initial taste is an intense, dark caramel flavor, without being overly sweet. After the initial caramel hit subsides, the rougher flavors and burn you’d expect from an unaged rum come to the front for a few moments. The finish returns to the caramel tones, although lighter and creamier. This is not a subtle rum – it’s packed with flavor and tastes like you’d expect a dark rum to taste. It’s a decent sipper but with a very different flavor profile than aged dark rums like Zacapa. It’d be marvelous in spirit forward classics like an Old Fashioned or a Palmetto (swapping the rum for whiskey in a Manhattan).

Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana made his own interesting twist using the Lyon Dark, which he calls the End of the Line:
  • 1.5 oz Lyon Dark rum
  • 0.5 oz Swedish punsch
  • 0.5 oz Genepy
  • 0.5 oz Campari
  • Two dashes creole bitters

Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe.

The Lyon Dark rum retails for about $40. The distillery makes up to about 200 bottles per week, with a typical batch size of 50. Jaime says that for the first eight months of operation, they were selling everything they made as soon as they made it. In addition to being able to pick up Lyon bottles at the distillery, there are now about a dozen liquor stores carrying the Lyon lineup, including online stores that will ship. Well worth picking up a bottle or two if you find yourself in a position to grab one.

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3 thoughts on “Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum”

  1. I was fortunate enough to have given a sample and I enjoyed the taste of Light and dark rum however I cannot find a beverage store in Prince George’s Co. Md that has that rand in stock.

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