Forget bourbon. Its historical ties to Charleston are nearly nonexistent. If you're looking for a drink that has meaning, look to rum. Back in the 18th century, it was the main swill of South Carolina drinkers, a product of international commerce that came from Jamaica and Barbados. Cheaper varieties were made in New England, with molasses imported from the Caribbean sugar plantations. Once distilled, it was sent south on ships in the coastal trade.
By all accounts, the rum drunk in the American colonies — even the old Jamaican product — was a hot, rough spirit, palatable only when well-tempered with water, sugar, and citrus. There were no connoisseurs sipping it straight.
So, a high-quality, locally made rum is a curious thing, a throwback to a time that never existed. But Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt at Firefly Distillery are dedicated to crafting a small-batch, high-quality rum that is eminently drinkable.
To date, the production of Sea Island Rum has been small — just a few thousand bottles — and distribution limited to South Carolina. Newitt and Irvin have been hitting the road across the state, visiting restaurants and bars from Charleston to the Upstate to build the brand. Now, they're in talks with Georgia distributors and anticipate taking the product into the Peach State soon and nationwide after that.
They've got a good track record when it comes to launching new products. Three years ago, they made a big splash with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. Created locally on Wadmalaw Island and released in April 2008, Firefly was the hot pour all over town by the end of the summer, and within a year it had gone national. Firefly's line now includes five versions of the sweet tea vodka that made them famous: original, raspberry, mint, lemon, and peach, plus a "skinny tea" sweetened with Truvia.
They could have just kept shipping case after lucrative case of the vodka. But they decided to expand and experiment with rum because of its local history. "Charleston used to have a lot of rum coming through it," Irvin says.
Irvin and Newitt have their sweet tea vodka made in a Kentucky distillery that can handle the production, leaving room for them to experiment at their Wadmalaw distillery and produce Sea Island rum in a truly local, small-batch way.
They start with Southern sugarcane — much of it from Florida and Louisiana, but some of it from Sidi Limehouse at Rosebank Farms, who just happens to be Irvin's brother-in-law. They put it into an old Guatemalan sugarcane press that's powered by donkey, ATV, or "whoever wants to turn it." The press squeezes out the sweet juice, which is then boiled down to molasses and put into the pot still. The clear distillate emerges at 142 proof and is transferred for aging into old bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery. That aging lasts "from two to four years, depending upon my tongue," Irvin says, resulting in a golden-hued rum that is ready to be diluted to a final 70 proof and bottled.
Firefly currently offers three rums: the original gold and two flavored versions. The first is "Java rum," gold rum infused with coffee. Irvin says that they experimented for years with a coffee-infused vodka but never made one to their liking. But the strong flavor took naturally to rum, resulting in a product that is dark and rich and can take the place of Kahlua in cocktails.
The newest Sea Island variety, just released this summer, is a spiced version that starts with the gold rum as a base and blends in natural spices to create a mellow but flavorful spirit.
Spiced rum has been growing in popularity in recent years, accounting for almost one-third of all rum sold in the U.S. The lion's share of these sales — over 70 percent — are from Captain Morgan's, a product of the giant Diageo corporation, which markets the bejeezus out of it.
Captain Morgan's was, curiously enough, not originally a spiced rum. It was created by Seagram just after World War II and first imported into the United States in 1949 as a high-end blended rum, marketed as a lighter, cleaner spirit designed specifically for American tastes. In the 1980s, as sales sagged, Seagram added in flavors like cinnamon and cloves and reinvented Captain Morgan's as a spiced rum, later selling the brand to Diageo.
But Captain Morgan's won't have the market to itself for very long. The folks at Bacardi, the leading brand of traditional rums, just launched Bacardi Oakhearst, a spiced variety that should hit liquor store shelves this month.
I asked Irvin why, considering this formidable competition, they decided to create a spiced rum, and his answer was simple: "Of all the ones out there today, not one of them would you want to drink straight."
And he's absolutely right about that. The purest way to judge Sea Island spiced rum against Captain Morgan's is in a straight, side-by-side sampling, and there really is no comparison. One purrs, the other kicks like a mule. The Sea Island is smooth and flavorful, while Captain Morgan's, despite its spices, has the harsh bite of paint thinner.
The years of aging in old bourbon barrels draws the harshness out of the Sea Island rum, and Irvin says the quality of the sugarcane helps smooth out the edges. The mellow rum has warm notes of vanilla and oak, and it's very mild and sweet on the rocks, with an oaky hint of bourbon from the years in the barrel. It's a pleasant sipping liquor that also plays well with mixers.
The Sea Island Rum website offers up recipes for using their spiced rum in a Sea Island Runner and Ginger Heat, the first with apple juice, pomegranate, and ginger ale, the second with Falernum, a splash of lime, and Blenheim Ginger Ale. Both of these sound tasty, but the ginger ale seems like it would step all over the spice notes already in the rum.
If you're a rum fan, you're probably best off just enjoying Sea Island spiced rum over a cube of ice or two, or perhaps in a basic daiquiri with just sugar and lime juice. So many rum concoctions (like piña coladas and the ever-present rum and Coke) came about as a way of overwhelming the raw bite of the harsh spirit with citrus and sugar. But a good rum can bring new life to old recipes, too, such as the Rum Runner.
Most accounts of the Rum Runner have it being created at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada, Fla., in the 1950s, and the typical recipe is loaded up with lots of fruit flavors from stuff like banana liqueur and blackberry brandy as well as grenadine, orange juice, and sour mix. Although it may have been created in Florida, the Rum Runner is certainly older than the 1950s, dating back to the Prohibition era when boatloads of illicit rum from Cuba made its way to American shores under the dark of night.
Stanley Clisby Arthur included a recipe for a Rum Runner in his classic 1937 book Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix 'Em, which I've adapted slightly to use simple syrup rather than plain sugar. When made with Sea Island spiced rum, the vanilla notes of the rum really emerge through the sweet foaminess of the pineapple juice and make for a smooth, delightful concoction that has no need at all for banana flavoring.
Old School Rum Runner
• 1.5 oz rum
• 1 teaspoon simple syrup (or, dissolve 1 teaspoon granulated sugar in the pineapple juice)
• 2 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice
• Juice of 1 lime
• 1 dash Peychaux bitters
Combine all the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, shake well, and serve in a rocks or martini glass.