Maggie Campbell glances at the clock again, then toward the still. Even from twenty feet away, she knows the thin stream of still-warm rum coming off it is the “hearts” – ethanol, aka “the good alcohol” that we drink. She frowns a bit. Normally this is the raison d’etre of a distiller’s day, but for some reason, this distillation is taking far longer than she’d estimated when we began hours ago. In the hours since we started, Maggie has done the near-impossible – answered every single one of my wonky questions about every aspect of Privateer Rum’s production process, from cane sourcing to distilling to bottling. I’ve literally run out of questions to ask – a first for me.
This is no ordinary distillation, however. What I helped fill the still with hours earlier wasn’t thick brown fermented molasses and water. Rather, it was a high-proof colorless liquid, filled with lots of propanol and butanol, colloquially known as “tails” in distillation vernacular. This is what comes off the still after the hearts have completed. They’re nasty smelling, not at all what you’d want your spirit to taste like.
While many distilleries dispose of tails as distillation waste, Privateer Rum saves them up over dozens of runs, then redistills them to extract the remaining small share of ethanol present in the tails. What results from this unusual distillation is dubbed the Queen’s Share, due to its especially full, rich flavor: From the waste, a crown jewel emerges. Privateer’s very limited Queen’s Share bottlings are considered among the crème de la crème of North American made rums. If only this Queen’s Share distillation would finish…
My first experience with the force of nature known as Maggie Campbell was a year earlier in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail 2016. Maggie had asked to meet me at Latitude 29, and while I’d heard great things about Privateer from rum expert friends, I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next.
Shortly after sitting down with Maggie and her husband, Peter Newsome, Latitude owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry arrived at our table bearing a bottle of Privateer’s Navy Yard rum. Never having tried it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I don’t remember my exact words after the 122 proof sip, it was along the lines of single handedly restoring my faith in American rum. Finally! An American-made rum standing toe-to-toe with Caribbean rums. From that moment, digging into Privateer Rum and Maggie’s story was a priority.
The tale of how Privateer Rum came to its lauded position in the American rum pantheon has several threads. Around 2008, Andrew Cabot, a sixth-generation descendent of Revolutionary war privateer Andrew Cabot, decided to step away from the unpleasant realities of being a tech CEO and do something more hands-on. In researching his family history, Andrew learned that the elder Cabot, in addition to keeping the Brits at bay during the revolution, had also owned a rum distillery in Beverly, Massachusetts. He’d been successful enough in his endeavors that by the time he died, in 1791, he was invested in many enterprises and had accumulated a substantial fortune.
Intrigued by his family history but not knowing much about rum, the modern-day Andrew ventured to the Caribbean distilleries to study up. He came away realizing there was an opportunity for a well-made American rum — something that hadn’t really existed in many decades.
While rum was once the foremost American-made spirit, the rise of whiskey after 1800 (especially in Kentucky) diminished rum’s popularity. Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s killed off whatever American rum industry remained. Seventy five years later, with the American craft distillery movement well underway, every new distiller wanted to make whiskey, or so it seemed. But Andrew knew that rum was his destiny.
He set out to secure an ideal site for a distillery and find a master distiller to run it. In 2011, having found a spot in an Ipswich, Massachusetts, industrial park, Privateer opened its doors, and the rum soon flowed. Unfortunately, Andrew soon realized the rum his first master distiller was making wasn’t fulfilling his vision for what it could be.
Concurrently on the other side of the country, a young Maggie (still in her twenties) was amassing her distilling credentials. After catching the distillery bug from a 2004 Scotland visit and working at Denver’s Stranahans distillery, she went all in and earned a Craft Distilling Technologies degree from Chicago’s Siebel Institute. While still working toward her Siebel degree, she landed a job at the legendary Germain-Robin distillery in California, an experience most so-called “master distillers” can only dream of.
Germain-Robin’s namesake, Hubert Germain-Robin, comes from an old-line Cognac making family in France. Cognac techniques are among the most refined and celebrated of any spirit category – from grape selection through advanced cellar techniques, every aspect of Cognac production is incredibly detailed oriented. Having left France behind for California, Hubert worked with the state’s legendary wine country bounty to make California brandy, turning the distillery into one of the pinnacles of American distillation. All this was decades before the current craft spirit boom took off.
In her role as assistant distiller at Germain-Robin, Maggie learned spirit making the old school, old world way. She tells an amusing story of a bell mounted on a wax strip attached to the still: When the still had sufficiently warmed, the wax melted and the bell fell to the floor, alerting the distiller that the still was finally simmering along properly.
Her education in French spirits is reflected in this élevage-like approach. Each rum Privateer produces is unique and clearly tells the story of both ‘how’ and ‘why’ it came to exist.Martin Cate
After leaving Germain-Robin and the end of 2010, she returned to Denver and looked for another distillery position. An avid (but then unemployed) learner, Maggie dove into the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program in 2011, and by 2014 had earned her WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, the highest degree awarded. However, the job search wasn’t quite so cheery. In a male-dominated industry, even the talented and degreed Maggie had a tough time getting anyone to take her seriously.
After many fruitless months searching in vain, her mentor Hubert suggested she talk to Andrew Cabot, who was looking for a new master distiller for Privateer. Without knowing much about rum, Maggie grabbed a book on rum distillation and hopped on a plane to Boston to interview with Andrew, reading the tome on the cross-country flight. In March 2012, she took over as master distiller and immediately began reworking much of the distillery core with equipment and a layout better suited to her team’s workflow. In those early days of Maggie’s tenure, the team laid down the rums which are now getting serious attention from rum connoisseurs.
New England Distillery
It’s a warm June morning when Maggie, Mrs. Wonk, and I depart from the rustic farmhouse where Maggie and Pete live, driving the fifteen minutes to Ipswich. The journey travels tree-lined lanes and crosses a beautiful salt marsh. (Obligatory stop for photos, of course.) It really couldn’t be any more quintessential New England.
The distillery resides in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable industrial park comprised of two oblong, single-story buildings. From the outside, there’s no indication what lies within. Opening the giant garage doors, the first thing you spot is the visitor’s center –four retail counters arranged in a square, like you might find in a department store checkout. Behind it are four squat fermentation tanks.
To their right of the fermenters are Privateer’s two stills. A steam-coil heated, 1,000 gallon Vendome still from Kentucky handles the stripping runs. The Privateer staff has dubbed it “Pilgrim,” after one of the elder Cabot’s more successful privateering ships. It’s even called that in the distillery management software – I checked!
A few feet away is the distillery’s crown jewel – a gleaming, 200-gallon copper eau de vie still, made in Germany by CARL GmbH. It’s named “Baldwin,” after the writer James Baldwin, and handles all final distillation tasks. It has two main components – a large pot where the wash is heated, and a tall copper column next to it. Glass porthole windows provide excellent visual access into both the pot and each plate of the column. Depending on how the valves and levers are configured, it can function as a basic pot still or, more likely, feed into an eight plate column. A steam jacket around its pot base provides the heat.
While Privateer’s core lineup consists of Silver, Amber, and Navy Yard expressions, today we’ll be distilling a batch of Queen’s Share, the more exotic, limited release expression. Maggie springs into action, turning on boilers, connecting hoses, and wheeling around large metal tanks to get things ready.
After filling the still with 140 gallons of tails (“secondes” in French) from many prior runs, Maggie entrusts me to press a large industrial button on a control panel. Within the still, an agitator arm begins to spin and the steam jacket begins to warm the pot’s contents. It will take quite some time for them to heat up enough for vapor to form, so it’s a perfect time to drill deep into how Privateer’s rum lineup is made.
It’s easy and economical for upstart distillers to buy the cheapest molasses for their rum, however, Maggie is quite passionate about Privateer’s source material, and none of their three base rums (silver, amber, and Navy Yard) use the exact same set of ingredients. Unsurprisingly, she’s fully prepared to go full-metal sugar geek-out at the drop of a hat. The distillery uses three types of sugar sources: Evaporated cane sugar, brown sugar, and grade ‘A’ molasses. And wherever possible, provided by U.S. growers.
Bringing over a basket with sugar and molasses samples, Maggie shows us why each sugar source they use is special. The evaporated cane sugar they purchase has no added coloring, unlike what you’d find in most “organic” supermarket brands. The brown sugar is genuine boiled brown sugar from a producer in Michigan, not the typical faux brown sugar, made from adding molasses to white sugar. (Yes, I raised a quizzical eyebrow at the concept of a Michigan sugar factory, but Maggie swears they’re the very best.)
Handing us spoonfuls of their boiled brown sugar alongside a supermarket brand, the boiled version is worlds better, quite literally melting in your mouth within seconds. (Mrs. Wonk inquired about its availability for baking.) As for the molasses, it’s sourced from Louisiana and Florida – no cheap commodity imported molasses for this U.S. of A. operation!
Privateer’s core rum range uses these sugar sources:
- Privateer Silver: A combination of evaporated cane sugar and real boiled brown sugar.
- Privateer Amber: A combination of real boiled brown sugar and grade ‘A’ molasses.
- Privateer Navy Yard: 100 percent grade ‘A’ molasses.
The real boiled brown sugar is exciting because it gives a singed grapefruit marmalade character to our amber rum. It also gives complexity to the silver rum palate. It has a savory complexity (tobacco, leather) and intense depth of flavor even if it is lower in sugar concentration for fermentation. […]
I am also a passionate baker so it has become a staple for me. It’s not a sugar you can buy in the store.Maggie Campbell
Privateer’s fermentation occurs in four metal tanks, comprising a total capacity of 6,000 gallons. Maggie proudly highlights that they don’t sterilize their ferment, so native yeasts naturally mix in with Maggie’s proprietary yeast strain. She shares nearly everything about Privateer’s production methods with visiting distillers, but the yeast recipe is off limits — her one secret.
When melting down evaporated cane sugar prior to starting fermentation, she limits the temperature to 165 F – keeping the sucrose from breaking down into fructose and glucose, much like cold process simple syrup. A cooling jacket on the ferment tanks maintains the temperature between 74 and 78 F during the six-day process – five days of active fermentation and one day of rest. This is far longer than the typical fermentation in the Caribbean, where 24 to 36 hours is typical. When completed, the final mash is between seven and nine percent ABV.
Long, cool fermentation creates flavor. The slower fermentation means less aggressive CO2 escaping the vessel. […] hot and fast fermentation leads to losing volatile aromas. Cooler temps retain high flavor definition, especially delicate flavors, and avoid stewed flavors.
[Long fermentation also] allows for extended lees contact, the dead and degrading yeast cells that can give texture and even subtle flavors […] It allows the ethanol molecules in the fermentation to link up with other flavor molecules as it rests (similar as it does during aging). […] This is the first step to ensuring we do not need filtration to remove potential off flavors or artificial additives to add flavor we didn’t achieve. We just have to get it right.Maggie Campbell
Each distillation pass starts with 1,000 gallons of mash in the Vendome pot still. What’s collected, known as “low wines,” comes off around 35 percent ABV. Since it’s a stripping run, what remains in the still after collecting the hearts is discarded. These low wines rest for a week before the second distillation commences.
Final distillation begins with 200 gallons of low wines. Exactly where they make the heads cuts depends on what they’re making. The silver rum must be very “clean,” as it’s not barrel aged. Thus, the first thirteen gallons or so of a Silver distillation are consider heads; this is a lot, relatively speaking. In contrast, the Amber rum heads cut comes after the first four to eight gallons of heads have come off; what goes into the Amber barrel has a lot more heads than the Silver. This may alarm you, but Maggie explains this is intentional. In the barrel, the head components evaporate first, minimizing evaporation loss of the hearts.
The hearts cut for the Silver end up around 90 to 92 percent ABV. For Amber and Navy Yard it’s a bit lower. These rums are heartier, with more congeners. When making the amber rums, they make three different distillates using different still plate configurations, each distillation coming in at between 160 and 180 percent ABV.
It’s worth observing here that just about anybody can–in time and with the right equipment–produce a rum, whiskey, or other spirit meeting the legal criteria. However, making a spirit full of flavor is a far trickier proposition. Furthermore, creating a spirit accentuating desirable flavors and minimizing the less desirable components is another level beyond that.
It doesn’t take long after meeting Maggie to realize she has an insane desire to push herself to ever towering heights of knowledge. Achieving the WSET level 4 diploma in 2014 is impressive enough, but it’s simply the price of admission for the Masters of Wine program. Achieving a Master of Wine certification is an incredibly difficult proposition that dominates your life for several years: More people have been in outer space than have Master of Wine certificates. As of late 2017, Maggie is in the final stage of achieving her Master of Wine certification, all while keeping the stills at Privateer humming.
If that weren’t enough to take up all her time, she’s also on the Board of Directors of the American Craft Spirits Association and chairs the Judging and Education committees. One might think that she must be awake and focused on spirits and wine 24×7, yet she still has the time to entertain folks like Mrs. Wonk and me during our two-day stay. During our visit I even tagged along as she checked in on the beehive she started in the rolling grassy field behind their farmhouse.
One of the things that really differentiates Maggie’s rums is her holistic approach to all of their products. Her concept of the final product informs all the choices she makes from the very beginning of the process–the actual blend of raw materials, yeast selection, fermentation times, rectification plates, time, barrel selection– everything.Martin Cate
The eau de vie still has reached operating temperature, and vapor flows through the copper column. Through the porthole windows, each plate is covered in boiling liquid. Since we’re making Queen’s Share today, our heads cut will be remarkably short. Why, you ask? What’s in the pot is tails from prior distillation runs. There’s almost no heads to be found within – this run only produced a half gallon of heads. Soon enough, Maggie has determined that we’re in the hearts stage, and she moves a collection vat into place to collect the condensed distillate. It will be a while before the hearts phase completes, so it’s perfect time to look in on Privateer’s barrel aging.
It’s common for small distilleries to use small casks to maximize the surface area of wood in contact with the spirt. While this imparts flavor quickly, including a lot of woody notes, it’s usually not the flavor you’re after. Spirits are supposed to taste like what they’re distilled from (barley, corn, grapes, sugar cane, agave, etc.), not a big slab of charred oak. Otherwise, you’d just dump flavorless, high proof vodka in oak barrels and sell it. (Yes, this has been done.)
Privateer only uses full-sized barrels. Their heartier distillates go into new American oak casks where they take on similar flavors to what bourbon gets from a barrel, like vanilla. More delicate distillates go into ex-bourbon or ex-brandy casks, which give less flavor from the wood and more from oxidative aging. While browsing through the barrels, I spotted a Hine Cognac labeled cask, a good sign!
Rum enters the aging cask at a relatively low 110 proof. While this lower ABV makes aging take longer, the resulting spirit retains more of the original flavors created during fermentation. One of Pete’s primary tasks is matching each distillate run to a hand selected barrel. As with everything else at Privateer, what’s fastest is never the deciding factor. Creating the optimal flavor overrides everything else.
Germain-Robin was a very unique experience because they had 30 years of spirits in over 1,000 barrels. I got to learn the ins and outs of barrel selection and maturation in a fully established cellar which is a rarity in North America. […] If you harvest every drop as soon as it’s ready you remain in a perpetual adolescence as a product […] We avoided a lot of mistakes because we had a real world understanding of barrel management.
For proofing fresh distillate down to barrel-entry proof, Privateer’s team uses barrel-aged water that’s been proofed to 30 percent ABV. This technique “shocks” the rum less and is an old Cognac technique that I’ve heard Plantation’s Alexandre Gabriel speak about as well.
Privateer’s Amber rum (90 proof, around $30 US) ages for around three years and is blended from multiple casks. In contrast, the Navy Yard is a single-cask expression, so each batch has a different final proof, but is typically around 120 proof – yes, the ABV actually goes up during aging here. At around $48, it’s my go-to when asked for an American rum recommendation. The Queen’s Share is also single cask and priced similarly around $48, with a similar ABV. As it’s made from the tails of prior runs, each batch’s flavor profile varies more widely than the Navy Yard.
Walking through the racks of casks, Maggie points out a few special barrels. The Privateer staff has named them all for the particular flavor characteristics they induce, or perhaps the name of a visiting distiller or celebrity. And indeed, our finished Queen’s Share batch now resides is in a barrel labeled “Cocktail Wonk.” I can’t wait to try it in a few years!
Of particular note are a few barrels she calls a “shiner barrels.” As the story goes, some barrels are exceptionally great at aging spirits. In time, it’s easy to spot these barrels because their sides are worn and polished from distillery staff leaning against it as they take sample after sample, because it’s so good! And yes, Privateer has sold some limited release “shiner barrel” expressions.
Sitting on the ground at the end of a rack of barrels is one very special barrel. It holds no rum. Rather, it holds the first whiskey that Maggie and her team have made. Never fear, Privateer isn’t shoving rum to the side to make whiskey. Instead, it’s yet another example of Maggie’s need to stretch out and try new things, while remaining true to her mission. This whiskey is only the latest in a string of non-rum releases that keep things interesting and keep the distillery staff challenged.
To date, Privateer has done a number of very small, limited releases, rum and otherwise. Anything labeled Distiller’s Drawer is one of these single-barrel releases. Among the curiosities: A double pot-stilled, unaged rum, a peach brandy, and a “Tiki gin” using the de rigueur juniper plus additional tropical flavors. I almost fell out of my chair when Maggie posted the photo of a pineapple hanging in the still during its distillation, bringing to mind the raw chicken hung in mezcal stills to make pechuga. Maggie can tell a mean story about how the pineapple has negative ions which change the resulting flavor profile. But it’s best told one-on-one over a Tiki gin cocktail, so I won’t attempt to explain here.
Back at the stills after visiting the barrels, the hearts collections has finally come to an end, hours after Maggie thought it would. Normally she has a good idea how long a Queen’s Share rum will take, but this run took far longer. Never one to leave a stone unturned, Maggie looks at the log books for the runs that contributed to this batch of tails, and quickly spots the cause: This batch of tails come from distillations where the cuts were intended to be very conservative, so there were far more hearts to be had. Hence, a much longer hearts phase in today’s distillation. Mystery solved!
The June heat of mid-day has finally slaked off, and we help Maggie clean up after yet another successful day of distilling. Although Sunday isn’t a normal work day at Privateer, Maggie has generously spent the entire afternoon distilling, just so that I can tag along and ask countless questions.
Back at the house, Pete has prepared dinner and afterward brings two unlabeled wine bottles, disguised in brown paper bags. Even though she’s on a hiatus from studying for her Master of Wine exam, she leaps at the opportunity to guess the style, vintage, and who made them—a somewhat intimidating dinner party game when your host is a professional taster.
Wine education has been critical to developing my style and skill. In North America there is so much more access and research going into wine (esters, lees management, packaging, quality control, blending, etc). […] It is very important as a distiller to first be able to taste competently. You have to identify what it is you like or dislike and then understand how the flavor got in the distillate to either highlight or resolve a character. Tasting with winemakers and discussing the decisions they made and how it affected the intended style is critical.
Having spent two days with Maggie, it’s clear she’s incredibly smart and talented, both in theory and practice. It’s one reason Andrew wisely made her a vice president of Distiller, and it’s entirely conceivable she could take on an even bigger role in time. With fans like Martin Cate, Wayne Curtis, Jeff Berry, and Paul Pacult singing her praises, it’s clear she’s already made a substantial mark in the rum world. With people like her leading the way, there’s hope that American rum will someday become as sought after as its Caribbean counterpart. I, for one, can’t wait to see this play out.