Rum has been inextricably linked to North Carolina, the South and the Caribbean since pre-Colonial days. Before mojitos, daiquiris and rum punches muscled into beach-front bars, rum was the spirit of choice along the lengthy Southern coastline. In the spirits world, though, rum is a relative newcomer — only 400 years old. This New World spirit utilizes molasses, the dark sweet syrup by-product of sugar cane production. Thus, wherever sugarcane was grown throughout the Western hemisphere, rum production followed.
While the history of distilling (beyond moonshine) in early North Carolina is murky, most believe rum would have been one of the alcohols produced, due to the abundance of cheap molasses. Besides, one early rum cocktail became legend here: the English pirate Black Beard, with ties to both Ocracoke Island and New Bern, is believed to have mixed rum with gunpowder and then flamed the concoction before guzzling it.
Before Prohibition, North Carolina had an estimated 540 distilleries. In 2005, there was one. Today, over a dozen craft distilleries, with four producing rum, exist. More craft distilleries are in the approval process.
The journey for local rum distiller and Charlotte resident Robbie Delaney began while reading an article about the surging popularity of craft distilleries throughout the U.S. in an in-flight magazine while flying home from a construction job in Texas. That was enough to get him and wife Caroline, an accountant, inspired to create Muddy River Carolina rum.
The Delaneys produced their first bottles of Muddy River 80-proof white rum in February 2012 in a small 500-square-foot distillery in a warehouse complex along the banks of the Catawba River in Belmont, N.C. Eleven months later, their rum won "Best of Show: Spirits" at the 2012 Big Sip Cup competition in Greensboro. Muddy River bottles are made distinct by a coating of dripping black sealing wax while the label uses a map of the Catawba River and Lake Wylie as background for the logo. The rum inside, made with pure cane sugar and Louisiana molasses, will not disappoint.
Robbie Delaney, who keeps his day job in the construction industry, designed and crafted their first 32-gallon column still from dairy equipment. Column distilling gives rum a crisper flavor profile than pot distilling, the type of still used for many Old World spirits such as Scotch. Throughout the Caribbean, both column and pot stills are used to make rum. The general rule of thumb is former French and British colonies (such as Haiti and Jamaica, respectively) use pot stills, while Spanish colonies (like Cuba and Puerto Rico) use column stills. In less than a year, Delaney added a second, much-larger column still.
Why name a rum Muddy River and not use the obviously Carolina pirate connection? For Delaney, a "Pirate" graduate of East Carolina University, the decision was easy. Although island spiced rum is often a gateway spirit, rum is more complex. In fact, golden and dark aged rums tend to be consumed straight up or on the rocks. This September, the Delaneys will release their first 84-proof dark rum: Queen Charlotte's Reserve, aged in American white oak bourbon barrels. This rum is surprisingly smooth, with hints of vanilla and toffee.
Later this summer, the distillery will move to a 6,000-square-foot space in the same complex, but with a view of the river, allowing the Delaneys to operate a tasting room and conduct group tours. However, due to the strict alcohol sales laws, their rum cannot be purchased on site. "And Belmont does not have an ABC store either," Delaney notes. However, in May 2013, North Carolina House Bill 842 mandated a study to be undertaken and submitted in 2014 to determine whether distillery tasting rooms could sell a defined amount of product to consumers. Stay tuned.
Although less than two years old, Muddy River rum can be found on area bar lists. Mixologist Maggie Ruppert at Halcyon: Flavors from the Earth (500 S. College St.), for example, uses Muddy River rum in her Pink Heelsplitter cocktail. Muddy River rum is also available at North Carolina ABC stores and in August, will be sold in South Carolina as well. The $19.95 price point makes this handcrafted local spirit not only affordable, but well-priced for the quality.
RECIPE: Carolina Basil Lemonade "Distiller's Favorite"
Muddle 1 basil leaf and 1 slice of lemon in the bottom of a highball glass
Fill with ice
Add 1 shot of Muddy River Carolina white rum Top with Sprite or Sprite Zero
Add a splash of simple syrup
Garnish with a lemon slice or basil leaf