Sag Harbor is an old whaling port with a long and storied history. Though it has always had lots of lively local flavor, one thing Sag Harbor hasn’t had is a namesake spirit. Until now.
Friends Jason Cyril Laan and Michael McQuade believed the village’s past required a local rum that evokes the tradition and spirit of the early seafarers. Sag Harbor Rum was born.
“There’s an esteemed history of rum on Long Island,” says Laan, who adds the history begins not with the 19th-century whalers, but in the 1600s when Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor operated as a provisioning plantation for the islands. “The sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean could make rum, but they couldn’t grow food,” he says. “So they’d take food from the East End down to the Caribbean and bring back rum. We wanted to re-create something that was here 400 years ago.”
To make their vision a reality, Laan and McQuade headed not to sea but to Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow, where they enlisted the expertise of master distiller Richard Stabile.
“That’s part of what drew me to the project,” says Stabile. “Every new product needs a nice story. These guys captured something there, tying it back into the history of Sag Harbor and the historical presence of whaling ships.”
For the first months of the year, the inaugural batch of Sag Harbor Rum was aging in bourbon casks at the distillery. By late April, the first of the rum was ready to be bottled and on the first of May, 1,200 bottles of Sag Harbor Rum were released on the East End. Another 4,800 bottles of rum will be distributed throughout the summer season, if demand warrants.
The project, says Stabile, “allowed us to use bourbon casks to do a primary aging on the rum where you pick up the flavor profiles, those wonderful vanilla notes.”
The base product is sugarcane rum imported from Trinidad; during aging, it has taken on the flavors of the casks and of an infusion of botanicals, including vanilla, ginger and pineapple; the rest is the secret part of the recipe. “Jason came up with a recipe that was delicious,” adds Stabile. “Using a neutral tasting rum and combining it with the bourbon casks and spicing has created a wonderful and unique flavor profile.”
On bottling day in late April, Laan took a moment to pull a sample from a stainless steel tank. The flavorful, 80-proof rum has a light amber glow and is smooth enough to drink on its own, though Laan says it’s also great with mixers, adding the finished product took on the flavors of the cask, with bourbon notes mixed with vanilla, ginger and hints of pineapple.
Laan and McQuade call their rum “Old Whalers Style” because the process mimics the method by which Caribbean rum obtained its flavor aboard whaling ships. Since the barrels in which rum was stored in those days were often repurposed, the rum took on the flavor and hue of whatever had been in the barrels before. So while consistency of product may be something large producers of spirits strive for, it’s not the goal for Sag Harbor Rum. “The style comes from the idea of not just getting a flavor imparted by the wood itself, but that the wood has taken on the flavor of spices and fruit,” says Laan. “We’re hoping each batch will be different.”
That aging process slowed this winter because of the unusual cold weather that hit the East End. “Winter intensifies the flavor,” says Stabile. “When it warms, the alcohol expands, pushing the rum into the pores of the barrel. When it’s cold, it pulls back. So it’s this pushing and pulling motion.”
In the end, the men have come up with a spirit even a whaler could be proud of. “From having the concept to what we’ve accomplished, I’d say we’re pretty much right on with what we were seeking to find,” says McQuade.