Sugar cane juice used to make Charleston rum
In a state with an appetite for alcohol, a Charleston distiller is using home-grown sugar cane to make a type of rum seldom produced in the United States.
Last week, workers gathered on a farm in Dorchester County and stoked up an almost 100-year-old sugar cane press attached to a tractor by a long belt. They slowly fed in stalks of sugar cane to produce about 1,000 gallons of cane juice that High Wire Distilling Company of Charleston will use to make rhum agricole.
That's a type of rum made on the French-speaking islands in the Caribbean, including Martinique and Guadeloupe. It's made with the sugar cane juice as opposed to most rums made with refined sugar or molasses.
Once the rhum agricole - literally, agricultural rum - is aged for six months to a year, it will retain more of the wild taste of the cane plant itself, in this case a banana flavour, said Scott Blackwell. He and his wife, Ann Marshall, opened the distillery in September.
"I love the idea of being able to taste the actual plant in the spirit," Blackwell said.
"In this country, we make rum with refined sugar. It's such a big business, it's commercialised. And anytime it gets so commercialised, it gets homogenised. You lose the flavour and the characteristics, and you lose that touch with the land," he added.
The challenge with rhum agricole is that processing the juice must be done quickly. It needs to be in the fermentation tank within 24 hours or it will spoil.
One other domestic distillery, St George Spirits of Alameda, California, also makes a rhum agricole, with sugar cane grown in that state. Kelly Railean, a founder of the American Rum Association who has a distillery in San Leon, Texas, said she doesn't know of another American distiller making a rhum agricole.
Most of America's sugar cane production is centred in Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. South Carolina is getting a bit far north to grow cane - it likes warmer weather - although some farmers in Dorchester and Orangeburg counties grow small patches, mostly to produce cane syrup for their own use.
Bair Manning, who grows 300 acres of row crops, had an acre of cane in the ground on his Dorchester County farm when he met Blackwell.
"We were going to do syrup. Then Scott came along and wanted juice. We will cook syrup next year and grow however much Scott needs," he said. "Hopefully, we can start a tradition."
High Wire is one of a group of about half-a-dozen distilleries that have opened their doors around South Carolina since lawmakers changed state law several years ago to make it easier for small distilleries to start up.
There should be a market for their products. According to federal figures, per capital alcohol consumption in South Carolina is third highest in the South - behind only Louisiana and Florida.
High Wire Distilling's product line includes vodka, rum and gin, as well as sorghum whisky, Marshall said.
She said the distillery will produce products that are always made, and therefore taste, the same.
"But the brand will also be built on these special edition things that we're doing here," she said.
"This rum is made from the juice so it's not as processed as the molasses base we use for our other rum," she said. "It's known for a very earthy flavour. It's what wine connoisseurs refer to as barnyard - some good funky, earthy undertones. And when it goes to the barrel, they become beautiful flavours."