On Sunday the wife and I took our daughter to Newport, R.I. Naturally, we had to make a stop at a distillery — in this case, Newport Distilling Co., home of Thomas Tew rum. It’s one of a half-dozen craft startups making rum along the New England coast, many of them exclusively, like Newport.
Unlike the rest, Newport is an outgrowth of the Coastal Extreme Brewing Co. This is not an insignificant fact: as Brent Ryan, the president and CEO, told me, being attached to a beer operation offers a ready supply of hardy brewer’s yeast, which helps shape the rum’s robust flavor profile.
More important, though, it affords the distillery a nice financial cushion to do some pretty cool stuff for a new distillery: all of Newport’s rum is aged for at least two years, something a cash-strapped startup might not be able to afford. And it’s aged not in small, new casks, but beautiful old 53-gallon Woodford Reserve barrels, which form a steep brown-gray hillside in the corner of the distillery.
Discussing the barrels, Ryan underlined something that is obvious in retrospect, but that I had never really considered. Bourbon distillers are used to selling their barrels to rum, tequila and scotch producers, who will use them over and over and don’t really care what was in them before. But a distillery like Newport, which uses its barrels just once, has to pay close attention to the consistency of the deliveries: if you buy barrels from Jim Beam or Buffalo Trace, you’re going to get casks that held all sorts of different whiskies, which means you’ll get all sorts of variation in your final product. You have to make sure they’re sending only Baker’s barrels, or only Eagle Rare. Since until recently Woodford only made one thing, it was a pretty good bet (and it still is; Ryan said they’re very good about giving him only what he wants).
Maybe that’s very obvious. But it struck me as an interesting detail to ponder the next time you pick up a rum, or a beer, that brags about being aged in barrels from Beam or Trace or wherever. Clay Risen