Kindred Spirits: Young distiller fits right in at Ipswich’s Privateer Rum

Maggie Campbell could talk your ears off about rum. About rum’s complicated associations with slavery and pirates. About people who use it only as an additive to lip-puckeringly sweet tiki drinks or mixed with Coke. About rum’s little-known mixological versatility and that it’s even delicious sipped straight up — assuming the rum is good. And at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, whereCampbellhas worked as head distiller since May, the rum is good, and getting better.

Wine Enthusiast thinks so: it described Privateer as “superb” and scored it at 93 out of 100. At last year’s Ministry of Rum Competition, tasters handed the craft distillery a silver medal. Already, over 100 restaurants and bars across the state serve it. The future appears bright for Privateer.

But let’s back up a year. Assuming rum companies age similar to their product, Privateer is technically still in the barrel. Its first bottles only shipped just over a year ago, in June 2011. The concept began with the genealogical search of tech entrepreneur Andrew Cabot, who found in his family tree a privateer named Andrew Cabot who, in the late 1700s, distilled rum from molasses he smuggled past British ships to theNorthShore. Inspired by his ancestor, 21st century Cabot and fellowBeverlynative Nelse Clark started Privateer Rum.

But Cabot, a seasoned businessman, knew a nostalgic story alone wouldn’t build a successful spirits company. He toured distilleries throughout theCaribbean, finding that many were manipulating their rums with additives to make them more palatable. Privateer, Cabot decided, would embark on a different course, using only the basic ingredients and aging the rum until it is ready.

Privateer’s cavernous, 6,600-square-foot warehouse distillery is hard to locate. I finally find the unmarked garage-style building tucked down a woodedIpswichside street.

Greeting me with a big smile and a handshake,Campbellis younger than I had imagined. Just 28,Campbell’s distilling dream was born at an early age. While her peers filled up on light beer and cheap spirits, at 20 years old Campbell discovered Scotch — “the good stuff,” as she calls it — while poking around the distillery in the Scottish town of Oban. She would finish up her philosophy degree at theUniversityofColorado, and a few weeks later begin wine school. The tasting skills she developed there serve her well as a distiller of spirits, she says. She’d go on to complete a spirits program at the Siebel Institute for Brewing Technology in Chicago, be mentored by Denver distiller Todd Leopold, and work under celebrated brandy maker Hubert Germain-Robin in Ukiah, California. When Privateer’s founding distiller announced he was leaving earlier this year, it was Germain-Robin who recommendedCampbellfor the job.

“It was the easiest interview,” Cabot remembers. “One of the finest distillers in the world thinks Maggie is one of his brightest protégés.”

When I meetCampbell, the distilling floor is quiet; she’s turned off the still for the day. Hundreds of aged barrels fill one side of the former woodshop. Along the other walls, stills, mix mashers, fermenters and cooling tanks have replaced saws and splitters, and a three-sided wood bar occupies the middle of the room. One side of the bar is filled with vials of carefully labeled amber rum, a scene more closely resembling a 19th century apothecary than a raucous tavern. Appropriately so. I’m about to discover just how much science – and passion – goes into each bottle of Privateer Rum.

Privateer produces two varieties of rum: Silver and Amber. The Silver, which is clear, starts with a warm mixture of evaporated sugarcane juice and brown sugar. The Amber starts with molasses rather than cane juice. Next comes water and yeast, and the mixture is sent over to another tank to ferment for seven days. Some spirits companies use quicker-acting yeasts to speed up the fermentation process, but Campbell, who is a careful student of this yeast physiology, gives it a bit longer.

“It’s like baking a bread,” she says. “The more slowly it rises, the more character it has.”

Next, a two-part distillation process separates out the drinkable alcohol from the unusable parts, called the heads. (Campbelldiscards all of the heads, while the flavorful tails – which come at the end of the process – are mixed back into the best alcohol.) That high-proof product is then “proofed down” with water before beginning the aging process. The Silver rum will develop in silver tanks for 4-6 weeks before being bottled, while the Amber is aged in oak barrels for around 18 months.

While larger rum companies will often add ingredients like glycerol or caramel to make the spirit taste smoother or add color, Privateer sticks to only the main components. “The second we put the sugars and yeast together to the second it goes into the bottle, it’s just us,” she says proudly. “We make distillers’ decisions, not accountants’ decisions.”

The variables in the process, like the length of time in the still or the type of barrel, make for slight differences in each batch of rum Privateer produces. But this is whereCampbellshines. Her ability to taste and instantly note the subtle nuances of each batch — “creamy, almost like a custard, like coconut cream pie,” read one note — was instantly attractive to Cabot. Maybe it’s those extra sense receptors she has by nature of being a woman (some say she’s the state’s first female distiller since Prohibition), but more likely her abilities have been honed over time and fueled with a deep love for her craft. She even spent her vacation week in August at the distillery experimenting with new techniques and combinations.

That’s just fine with Cabot, who encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time learning.

“We’re well received by the critics,” he says, “But why stop there? Otherwise, we become a production facility. I’d rather keep it a rehearsal chamber.”

RECIPE

William Tell

2 ounces Privateer Silver Reserve Rum

4 ounces Apple cider

¼ ounce Falernum (a cocktail mixer found in most liquor stores)

Wedge of lime

Combine ingredients. Serve over ice in a highball glass.

Besides being a frequent contributor to Edible Boston, Steve Holt has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and TakePart.com. One of his stories even made it into the Best Food Writing 2011 anthology. He lives in East Boston. Email Steve at steve@thebostonwriter.com or tweet him @thebostonwriter.