When Wes Henderson and his son Kyle were developing Angel’s Envy Finished Rye in 2012, their grandfather, Lincoln, who was Brown-Forman’s former master distiller for 40 years, thought the idea of finishing a whiskey in a rum barrel was not a good idea at all. It hadn’t been done by a large scale American distillery, and the family was taking a big risk that could sink their newly formed family-run distillery.
Marrying whiskey and rum isn’t a new idea, as Scotch and Irish Whiskey makers had been doing it for years, but it was still unproven if American drinkers would be receptive to an American made variation of it. When Angel’s Envy Finished Rye launched in 2013, finished whiskeys, especially wine-finished whiskeys, were becoming all the rage. Yet no one wanted to touch a rum-finished whiskey for fear of flat out rejection from American drinkers.
Since Angel’s Envy Finished Rye’s launch seven years ago, there have been few American companies following Angel’s Envy’s lead - until now. In 2020, there will be no less than seven rum-finished whiskeys on the market, many of which will launch this year. Besides the common end goal of releasing a rum-finished whiskey, the only thing these companies have in common is that they are all approaching rum-finished whiskey differently.
There are a lot of differing opinions on why it took American whiskey companies so long to start producing rum-finished whiskey, especially since The Balvenie Distillery’s 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky has proven so successful in the American market. There is also the ongoing claim that rum is the next “hot” spirit that drinkers will flock to, yet this has done little to quell many American distillers' hesitation to approach finishing their whiskey in a rum barrel.
Chattanooga Whiskey released their first rum-finished whiskey this year, not as a grand strategy to get a foothold in the rum-finished whiskey market, but more as an exploration into it to see if it’s something that might attract drinkers’ interests. “I’m not sure why there aren’t more rum finishes,” says Grant McCracken, Chattanooga Whiskey head distiller. “Maybe it’s the seasonality of rum or maybe some customers' limited knowledge of the category. Most people think of spiced or white rum when they think of rum. Fortunately I think that might be changing.”
During Angel’s Envy Finished Rye’s development, it wasn’t the Henderson family’s goal to cement their stake in the ground for rum-finished whiskey. Coming off the success of their port-finished bourbon, they wanted to try a finished rye. During development the central theme that kept coming to mind was “contrast.” Where they found success with marrying bourbon with a more complimentary finish using port casks, with their rye, they wanted to contrast the rye spiciness with something sweet.
“We wanted to have a contrasting aspect...and my dad [Wes] said, ‘Well it's obviously gonna be sweet and spicy and you know where you get sweetness from.’ And the first thing that came to mind was rum,” recalls Kyle Henderson, production manager of Louisville Distilling Company. According to Kyle, his grandfather interjected that “This is not something we would have tried in my day,” but the family pressed on and continued their testing to see if rum-finished whiskey would work.
Two reasons that are often cited why it's taken so long for American companies to release rum-finished whiskey are also intricately linked: rum’s range of flavor can make it difficult to pair them agreeably, which then can cause a higher degree of failure and drive up costs.
“Rum is a lot more wide-ranging in flavor than most people think. Maybe more wide ranging than bourbon - due to varieties like agricole,” says McCracken. “So in that same sense, it might be difficult for the distiller to know exactly what they’re getting into, compared to something like a ruby port or an oloroso sherry. Finishing is fun, but it’s also expensive and somewhat risky. So if some distillers are going to take a risk, they’ll take one with a barrel they're more familiar with.”
One way Liberty Pole Spirits helped develop and control costs of their rum-finished whiskey, which is due to hit the market this fall, was to prototype by mixing some small amounts of the actual rum that came out of the rum barrels they planned to age with into their base whiskeys. This helped give them a good sense of how the flavors might mingle together after finishing and helped cut down on the number of unknowns as much as they could.
Of the companies finishing whiskey in rum barrels, there seems to be no clear agreement on what type of whiskey works best. The only commonality between the new wave of rum-finished whiskeys hitting the market is that rum’s bold flavor affects each whiskey differently.
Chattanooga Whiskey didn’t set out to use a specific type of whiskey, but as they tasted through their high-malt bourbon barrels, four barrels in particular stood out for featuring “rum-like” qualities. It was at this point they decided to experiment with taking these rum-like bourbons to the next level by finishing them in two different types of rum barrels.
Liberty Pole Spirits hadn’t decided on a base whiskey when they started their endeavor and experimented with bourbon, rye, and even a peated bourbon.
“The Peated Bourbon was interesting with the rum, but in our sample, we felt that the peat was too dominant of a flavor, so decided to rule that one out,” says Kevin Hough, Liberty Pole Spirits partner and distiller. “The rye spice worked great with the sweeter rum flavors, as did the earthy bloody butcher corn in our bourbon. So we decided to start playing with different ratios of rye and bourbon and felt that the balance was best achieved at 50/50.”
Balcones and Breckenridge both produce their own rum in-house, so it was only a matter of development time before they could release their own rum-finished whiskey. Balcones is known for their unique flavor profiles throughout their product portfolio, so deciding on a single malt whiskey for their base came from their distilling history with the spirit, but also because they felt the single malt’s soft fruit and grain forwardness would be well suited to accept the intensity of their own rum barrels.
“The single malt can take a lot and showcase either strength or nuance,” says Gabriel RiCharde, Balcones’ Stillhouse Manager. “In particular with our Single Malt Rum Cask Finished, we only use our own in-house made rum and we have a good expectation of the kinds of flavors we'll get out of a finish. Finishing a bourbon or corn whisky in it, we run the risk of the flintiness and sulfur sometimes found in our earthier American whisky styles being attributed to the rum.”
For Breckenridge, founder Bryan Nolt and head distiller Hans Stafsholt went with a high-rye bourbon because over the years of producing their spiced rum, which requires macerating of each component, they couldn't help but notice how well the rum components married with their particular brand of bourbon. They said it was the overall balance of their bourbon that allowed it to accept their rum’s more showy flavors.
The amount of finishing time also varies greatly from company to company. The usual rules still apply - a short amount of finishing time equals slight rum influence, and a long amount leads to heavy influence - but with the many types of rum impacting their barrels differently, it results in varying aging times and flavor profiles.
“You might THINK you know what’s going to happen when you move the whiskey into finishing, but you never REALLY know. For us, it became all about knowing when the whiskey had shown a new, better version of itself,” says McCracken. “For the first 6-7 months, we could tell that it was moving in a positive direction, but around 8 months - as we were going into the colder winter months, something happened with the barrel cycling, and there was a pretty significant shift. By 11 months, it had pushed back some of the high malt, to highlight the rum, and it was right where we wanted it to be.”
It took Angel’s Envy over a year to decide on which rum barrels they wanted to use. Once the rye was resting in the rum barrels Henderson said they would check its status monthly. “[At the six month mark] it's there, but the rye is still really forward and we wanted to bring some more rum into it. So we let it keep going, keep going, keep going,” he says. “At 12 months we got what we were expecting: sweet molasses notes from the rum contrasting with the gingerbread and peppery spice from the rye.”
Deciding on a bottling proof was also a big factor when a company decided to pull their whiskey. “The one big thing we noticed was bottling proof was really important,” says Hough. “At high proofs, the rum finish is very noticeable. At lower proofs, the rum tends to get a bit lost to the whiskey. We were looking for a really nice balance between the two flavors and felt that it was best at 100 proof.”
Already taking into account the variety of different base whiskeys, rum barrels, and aging times that all factor in to make rum-finished whiskeys unique, many companies are going out of their way to add yet another element to make their products stand out.
Balcones took the approach that their whiskey would be less finished than born in their rum barrels. They take their unaged single malt and fill their used Balcones Texas Rum barrels and let them age for a minimum of 35 months. They usually run two more single malt batches that can vary in time through the same used barrels (now 3rd and 4th used barrels) before designing a custom blend with the three batches.
“Combining these together allows us to exemplify the part of the rum finish that we want to reveal,” says RiCharde. “So some of the juice was too ready, with heavy notes of cedar, menthol tobacco, and a dry and tannic oak impact, but married with 2nd & 3rd use finishes mitigated those heavier flavors and allowed them to be a minor part of a more integrated whole.”
Breckenridge crafts their rum by undergoing multiple stages of macerations with dried fruit peels, spices, roots, barks, herbs, and spices. This imparts a huge amount of flavor into their rum barrels, which makes for a flavorful rum, but also makes it harder to control the whiskey flavor profile while it’s finishing. It wasn’t a quick process for Nolt and Stafsholt to develop the exact fractions used to create the desired flavor profile that they wanted to impart into the oak barrels. This required dumping and refilling those barrels with their bourbon and allowing the extraction to take place. “It took years, but we were able to balance the flavor profile we love in the rum with what we wanted to impart into the oak barrels,” says Nolt.
For Chattanooga Whiskey, because their rum-finished whiskey wasn’t being produced on a large scale and was only four high-malt bourbon barrels, they could get creative. They sourced three South American Demerara rum barrels from Guyana, which McCracken said featured a rich bananas foster note to them. For the fourth barrel, they looked to a Barbados rum barrel. It showcased an earthy complexity, which they thought would add dimension and depth without taking away from the ripe fruit character of the Demerara barrels. Then the blending started.
“If there’s one technical concept that comes through in this batch, it’s the idea of “blended complexity.” I love single barrels, but they don’t give the distiller much freedom to express anything other than what’s in that particular barrel,” says McCracken. “Even with just two or three barrels, the whiskey-making whiskey turns into something way more heady, complex, and potentially greater than the sum of the parts. That said, just because you have more mashbills, doesn’t mean you’re going to get good complexity. Sometimes things get muddy and weird; the notes that you might be trying to highlight end up getting cancelled out, and you might end up with something that is actually less than the sum of its parts.”
Other brands like Redemption and their Redemption Rum Cask Finish Whiskey went for a value proposition, and priced their product at half the cost or more than their competition. Angel’s Envy is well known for using rum barrels that also aged Cognac, giving their rum-finished whiskey a unique extra ping of toffee, nuts, chocolate, and cigars notes. Liberty Pole Spirits aged their 50/50 bourbon-rye blend in five gallon rum barrels that once held a 50/50 blend of pot-distilled cane rum and an extra-aged, molasses based column-distilled rum from the Caribbean. It’s clear that not all rum-finished whiskeys are made the same.
It still remains to be seen if the American whiskey market will be receptive to rum-finished whiskey. Henderson made a point that the American palate tends to prefer sweeter products if given the choice, and rum-finished whiskey tends to skew sweeter than most finished whiskey.
“Everyone talks about dry wines and how wonderful they are, but volume-wise, what they really want are sweet wines,” Henderson adds. “So almost the same principle is this inherent perception of sweetness you get from the rum. People may think [rum-finished whiskey] is kind of silly, but when they try it, they’re going, ‘Oh my God, that's really good. I didn't know I even wanted that.’”
Nolt agrees, saying, “this is the type of product that the American palate is looking for at this moment.” Beyond the extra sweetness rum barrel finishes add, he is quick to point out the additional complexity and subtle layers of sweetness finishing in rum barrels can produce over other finishing types. Breckenridge’s initial response from their consumers has already been very positive and took them by surprise, with their six month distribution plan wiped out in four weeks.
For the whiskey drinkers that aren’t sold simply based on their curiosity, it will take more work to convince them otherwise. Because it’s rum, there are plenty of whiskey drinkers that come to rum-finished whiskey with preconceived notions of what they expect it to taste like, be it from their younger days drinking mass-produced rum, from drinking too many overly sugary tiki drinks, or simply from the idea rum and bourbon are too different to ever work together.
“[Rum finished whiskey] sounds like a crazy idea. It still does to this day and people are like, ‘Really that's weird.’ But when they try it they're saying, ‘Okay that's that's kinda cool.’ says Henderson. “I think a lot of other companies still see it as a risk. When we get to a kind of a critical mass to where the risk isn't really there anymore, more and more people will start to do [a rum-finished whiskey]. I definitely think we'll start seeing more of it the next year or two.”
From the small number of American companies currently producing rum-finished whiskey, they have high hopes the American market is ready and they’re getting their foot in the door at the right time. Another factor that might fuel people's interest in rum-finished whiskey is a greater understanding of rum in general. Whiskey drinkers love to know the ins and outs of how a whiskey is made right down to mashbill, barrel type, and any bit of information a company is willing to provide on a given bottle label. A lot of that same type of information can be carried over to rum, which may incite their passion towards the spirit.
“I think as interest in rum grows and as greater familiarity with rum's diversity of flavors, process, and raw ingredients grows, we will definitely see more nuanced and information rich releases of whisky finished in those rum casks,” says RiCharde. “Across all other finished whiskey styles I think you already see this hunger for information about the finishing wine or spirit. Exciting times!”
With only a handful of rum-finished whiskeys on the market, this subset has both room and time to grow. It’s still the wild west when it comes to this particular finishing style, as shown by the incredibly diverse creation methods used to produce the current batch of rum-finished products on the market. It’s this unproven ground that breeds creativity and every one of the current rum-finished whiskeys on the market proves that.
“As more of these rum finishes come out with different bases and different rums and how widely contrasting some of the rums are, it’s really cool to see the profiles of all of these different rum finishes, how the scotches handle it, the American whiskeys with all their different bases handled it, everybody's making something really really significantly unique,” says Henderson. “Where some of the wine finishes you kind of know what to expect going in. It's a relatively small box that you expect to have, but with whiskeys finished in rum, the world opens up.”
Base Whiskey: Rye (95% Rye mashbill)
Age of base whiskey: 6-7 Years (can also include older barrels)
Origin of rum cask: Caribbean and the Dominican Republic
Brand of rum: Plantation 20th Anniversary/Caribbean XO Rum
Type of rum: Molasses and distilled using column stills then aged in ex Cognac/bourbon casks
Time finished: 12-18 Months
Nose: Gingerbread | Maple sugar candy | Molasses cookie
Palate: Gingerbread | Molasses | Sickly-sweet marshmallow | Slight rye spice
Finish: Burnt maple sugar candy | Molasses | Long with lingering sugary sweetness
Takeaway: Its rum influence is the most potent of its peers, which showcase its rum finish proudly.
Base Whiskey: Single Malt
Age of base whiskey: Unaged
Origin of rum cask: Texas (USA)
Brand of rum: Balcones Texas Rum
Type of rum: Black Strap
Time finished: 35 Months
Nose: Malt | Cherry cola | Coconut | Peanut brittle
Palate: Molasses | Black tea | Toasted coconut | Fruit cake
Finish: Leather | Cinnamon | Slight clove | Malt
Takeaway: Big flavor and high proof, this whiskey puts its rum-finish front and center. The single malt provides a surprisingly punchy contrast to the rum.
Base Whiskey: High-Rye Bourbon
Age of base whiskey: Vatted (youngest whiskey is 4 years and the oldest in over 10 years)
Origin of rum cask: Colorado (USA)
Brand of rum: Breckenridge
Type of rum: Spiced Rum (finished in used Breckenridge Bourbon casks)
Time finished: Undisclosed
Nose: Vanilla | Caramel apple | Allspice | Currants
Palate: Cinnamon | Cola | Slight nuttiness | Medium sweetness
Finish: Fig | Semi-sweet chocolate | Lingering heat
Takeaway: A noticeable lack of ruminess at first puts forth flavors not normally found in bourbon. Its controlled sweetness and ramp up in heat during the finish is quite fun.
Base Whiskey: High-Malt Straight Bourbon
Age of base whiskey: 2 Years, 8 Months
Origin of rum cask: Guyana (South America), Barbados (Caribbean)
Brand of rum: El Dorado
Type of rum: Demerara Rum, Barbados Rum
Time finished: 11 Months
Nose: Banana | Molasses | Tobacco | Burnt marshmallow | Very rich
Palate: Raisins | Rum cake | Dried dates | Dark fruit | Leather
Finish: Tobacco | Pepper | Nutmeg | Earthy
Takeaway: Complex and the earthiest of the bunch. Much more grounded than you’d expect from a rum finished whiskey.
Base Whiskey: Straight Bourbon
Age of base whiskey: 8 Years
Origin of rum cask: Bermuda
Brand of rum: Gosling's Family Reserve Old Rum
Type of rum: Dark Rum (aged in used bourbon barrels)
Time finished: 15 Months
Nose: Vanilla | Cherry | Marmalade | Honeycomb | Cedar
Palate: Grape jam | Dates | Marzipan | Medium sweetness
Finish: Salt | Slightly herbal | Lemon | Ramp up of heat
Takeway: Featuring a mild level of sweetness allows the whiskey’s fruiter notes to come forth. The finish contrasts the palate with a salty and herbal combination that is unique to it.
Base Whiskey: Bourbon (57% Bloody Butcher Corn, 18% Wheat, 25% Malted Barley)
and Rye (61% Rye, 13% Wheat, 13% Malted Rye, 13% Malted Barley)
Age of base whiskey: 2 Years
Origin of rum cask: Pittsburgh
Brand of rum: Maggie’s Farm Rum
Type of rum: 50/50 Dark Rum – a blend of pot-distilled cane rum with an extra-aged molasses based, column-distilled rum from the Caribbean
Time finished: 4 Months (5 gallon barrel)
MSRP: $30 (375ml)
*Please note: Bottle label is still in production and the final product may look different.
Nose: Youthful grain | Apricot | Molasses | Mint
Palate: Honey | Molasses | Grain | Browned caramel | Cinnamon
Finish: Rum forward | Oak | Marzipan
Takeway: Its youth is evident, yet it helps to highlight its sweet rum notes. Molasses is the star backed by a thick layer of oak.
Base Whiskey: Straight Rye
Age of base whiskey: Undisclosed
Origin of rum cask: Caribbean
Brand of rum: Plantation
Type of rum: Unknown
Time finished: 3 Months
Nose: Rye spice | Cinnamon | Sweet molasses | Vanilla | Oak
Palate: Heavy rye spice | Cinnamon | Molasses | Brown sugar
Finish: Ramp up of sweetness | Molasses | General rum flavors
Takeaway: Overall a medium level of rum influence that still showcases much of its base rye’s spicy characteristic which makes it a good starting point.