Last February in the winter of 2010, we attended the Celebration of American Distilling in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a wonderful event with a number of very cool distillers discussing (and offering tastes of) their best stuff. On our twentieth booth, we shook hands with Nathan Greenawalt, owner and distiller of the Old Sugar Distillery, then called Madison Spirits.
Even after steadily tasting spirits for two-and-half hours over the course of a long (but invigorating!) evening, we were coherent enough to see something special in this grinning youth standing before us. We weren't brash enough to demand his age but rest assured that he barely looked old enough to legally purchase liquor much less produce it. We further learned that the bottles of honey liqueur that he had brought with him to the festival had been bottled that very same week and finished just in time. He gave all the impression in the world that his "distillery" might just be a lab in the backyard of his parents' summer home (that's not true, by the way, but it is how we perceived things at the time).
What is this? This can't be happening, can it? Among the Austin Nichols and the Beam Globals and the Buffalo Traces... can one guy really just hang out a sign, declare himself a distiller, and shamelessly produce that spirit that he himself would most like to drink? It was with that suspicion that we examined his bottle, his spirit, and proceeded to taste it.
One taste was enough to reveal us the total snobs that we were to sniff so pretentiously at an upstart. The honey liqueur was very good; Nathan was affable and confident. We left wondering if we had just had a fleeting introduction to the liquor equivalent of Kurt Cobain or Michael Stipe making music in a garage with their proto-bands.
Fast Forward to November of 2010. We received a bottle of Nathan's first rum: Cane & Abe Freshwater Rum. Along with the bottle came a letter wondering if we might like to try it. Of course we would and try it we did.
Nathan had been busy, we learned. The Old Sugar Distillery is now in downtown Madison where it offers tours and specialty sales every week. He said that his "presence in the community here seems to have exploded." (The rum and liqueur might help with that.) Looking into the crystal ball, it's hard to foresee a path where Nathan Greenawalt doesn't become a liquor magnate running multiple operations and essentially owning the non-beer side of Madison. He's already anything but a garage band leader handing out CDs on the street corner.
Cane & Abe rum is made from US-grown brown sugar made from sugar beets. (A big departure from the molasses and sugar cane fields of the Caribbean and Central America.) It's aged in what he described as "heavily charred" oak barrels - leading to a self-described "heavily oaked" rum - in barrels ranging in size from 5 gallons to 30 gallons. The smaller barrels will promote greater contact between the char and the rum creating an even heavier flavor. The quasi-Biblical name (we inevitably kept calling it the "Cain and Abel rum" all night long) is actually a reference to the bald eagle mascot of the Wisconsin 8th Infantry Civil War Battalion. That eagle was named "Abe" (though the "cane" is a bit of a misnomer given that the sugar is from beet... but of course "Beet and Abe" doesn't quite carry the same ring).
But what about the rum itself? It's a hazy, dark amber color. Our bottle lay untouched for quite some time before tasting and when we examined it, we detected just the tiniest wisp of sediment at the bottom. The rum itself presents as a bit cloudy unlike the clearer rums one might expect from Bacardi Gold and other rums... in our tasting, we used the Bacardi Gold as our point of comparison. Rums generally smell light and sweet, even when they're aged. Smelling the Cane & Abe in comparison to the Bacardi, the heavier aromas of the brown sugar really come through. One might think that the "heavily oaked" nature of the rum might give it more whiskey-like characteristics but that didn't happen at all. Smelling and tasting the Cane & Abe neat revealed a heavier, more robust spirit. Brown sugar, maple syrup, earth... all these were flavors we experienced as a departure from the Bacardi. Are there better sipping rums out there? Well, yes. There are rums stemming from places near the equator that are solera aged and/or blended from thousands of different casks selected by third-generation master distillers of rum. The bottles have pedigrees rivaling not just scotches but show-quality dogs and British royalty as well. Sipping some of those is to sample the exquisite moments from the famous symphonies of Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi.
That Cane & Abe isn't a symphony is exactly what we found so cool about it. It's a garage-band rum. But just because it's a garage band rum doesn't mean the rum isn't good! Sample any given high school and you'll find numerous students blaring away on covers to 80s songs and dreams of American Idolship... yet a few of those garage bands are marked for something more and something special. There's something in Cane & Abe that's different, that is its own perspective, and that adds something specific and identifiable to a cocktail.
As is our custom, we ran that rum through its paces. We tried it neat and we tried it on ice. We tried it mixed with the sugary almond flavors of a classic Mai Tai (no, not the sugary, Kool-Aid confection you get at trendy bars but the original Trader Vic's recipe - see the excellent write-up at the Art of the Drink). We tested it out in the more muted cocktail (again, the classic recipe!) Pina Colada. We earned the everlasting hatred of Brazilians by kidnapping their national drink and putting this American rum in their Caipirinha. By most accounts, our group found that Cane & Abe really found its home contributing its unusual, heavy oak perspective to these classic tropical cocktails. Our baseline Bacardi is a fine rum as rums go and blends nicely in most anything calling for a blast of sand and sunshine. Yet Bacardi does not call attention to itself and the Cane & Abe can and does. There's a gravitas it lends to the drink: it makes the sweet a heavier, more bass-like note; it gives the sour a brass section depth; and it definitely, definitely adds some character to the story of the cocktail overall. Anyone can have Bacardi in their cocktail just like anyone can hum a few bars of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It's a little something extra to be able to riff the Ode to Joy on an electric guitar plugged into a pawn store amp at 2:00am in the morning for your buddies on the back lawn.
Cane & Abe Freshwater rum is a great story and deserves a place in any great bar - particularly in the upper Midwest. Our tasting suggests that it sits somewhere between the liters of rum you keep around for the punches and the crystalline bottles of expensive rums destined for cognac glasses. Cane & Abe is a rock-and-roll rum. It's one you keep around to slap italics on whatever is happening in your glass and your party.
And it is with considerable interest that we will watch the career of Nathan Greenawalt of the Old Sugar Distillery.