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.
Sag Harbor Rum is a new venture by Jason Cyril Laan and Michael McQuade, two friends who felt, given the village’s whaling past and the historic importance of rum on the East End, there should be a locally produced rum that evokes the tradition and spirit of those early seafarers.
“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 islands in the Caribbean.
“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 in ships.”
“We wanted to re-create something that was here 400 years ago,” adds Laan.
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 past several months, the inaugural batch of Sag Harbor Rum has been aging in bourbon casks at Long Island Spirits. 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 will be released for sale on the East End. The distillery has another 4,800 bottles worth of rum on hand for distribution 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 nodes.”
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.
“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 of the inaugural rum 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.
“I would come throughout the winter and check on the color and aging process,” says Laan. “We were looking for nice drinkability; the rum took on the flavors of the cask, including bourbon notes, and mixed nicely with vanilla, ginger and hints of pineapple.”
Laan and McQuade refer to their rum as “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, that’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.”
While Laan and McQuade admit to the ginger, vanilla and pineapple notes in the rum, there are “a couple other” unspecified flavors included in this first batch as well, which the pair prefer to keep close to their vest, for now at least.
“I think it’s totally different than what’s on the market,” says McQuade. “Jason says it’s the ‘un-rum’ rum.”
“It was challenging, making an amber rum,” concedes Laan. “We were able to use all of Rich’s expertise and knowledge to make the product. Rich knows the aging process, the right amount of time to let it sit in the barrels.”
That aging process was slowed a bit this winter because of the unusual amount of cold weather that hit the East End.
“Winter cold 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.”
“We aged it longer than usual because of the cold,” adds Laan.
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.
Sag Harbor Rum is sold in 750-milliliter bottles and will be available May 1. The rum will be sold in Sag Harbor at Murf’s Back Street Tavern, one of the first to put in an order, Long Wharf Wines, Sag Harbor Liquors and Water Street Wines and Spirits, as well as Noyac Liquors on Noyac Road. In Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor Rum will be sold at De Petris Liquor Store and McNamara Liquors and in Wainscott at Wainscott Main Wine & Spirits. The rum will also be served at Sag Harbor area restaurants including Beacon, Corner Bar, Muse and Bell & Anchor. For more information, visit sagharborrum.com.