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.
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).
- 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.