MYSTIC — Many Americans don’t know the difference between mass-produced and pot-distilled rum, but a local couple has made it their mission to educate our palates, one sip at a time.
Bailey and Jennifer Pryor, of Mystic, created their own brand of artisan-made rum called The Real McCoy in 2007 and started selling it in 2013.
“We started right here in Connecticut and we got a distribution license and it was just us driving around in our car, selling rum,” said Bailey. “The Oyster Club bought the very first bottle and then Bravo Bravo.”
Since then the brand has grown, gaining distribution in 22 countries and winning more than 80 international awards.
And, as of Monday, The Real McCoy was picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Constellation Brands, a global Fortune 500 producer of beer, wine and spirits, with operations in the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand, Italy and Canada.
“Now we’re in a position of expanding from our three-person sales team to their 50-person sales team so they’re going to take on the product nationwide,” Bailey said. “We’ll double our distribution in 2018 from about 16 states to 35 states and then we’ll probably be in the whole country in 2019.”
The Pryors, who are documentary filmmakers, discovered pot-distilled rum while creating a film for PBS about a 1920s rum-runner named Bill McCoy, who imported rum from Barbados and sold it offshore during Prohibition.
While researching the film, the couple met fourth-generation master distiller, Richard Seale, whose family was exporting rum under the name Foursquare in the 1920s and was likely the source of McCoy’s rum.
Bailey, 50, and Jennifer, 49, who have been been married for 25 years and lived in Mystic for 24, became fascinated with making rum and had decided to build their own still, but after meeting Seale, they recognized his combination of expertise, depth of knowledge and heritage were unique.
“We were going to have our own still and have been training for years on distillery, but the more we learned the more we realized how much we needed to learn,” Bailey said. “We tasted his product and realized this is amazing so we decided to stick with Richard and he makes our rum.”
Seale creates small-batch, single-blended rum using copper pot stills, aging the liquid in American oak bourbon barrels without added sugars, flavorings and colors.
Industrial-style rum is made in a multi-column still that distills the alcohol very quickly but also removes flavor and color, which are later added using ink, sugar and other chemicals.
For a 1,500 liter pot still, it takes eight hours to create the same amount that a multi-column still can generate in 10 minutes, said Bailey, who has apprenticed with Seale for eight years.
“In that 10 minutes there’s nothing but an ‘on’ button; nobody has to stand there and do anything, but with a pot still you have to monitor it, you have to check temperatures and alcohol content the entire time,” he said.
Bailey said many decisions go into making a batch of rum, such as the type of sugarcane and molasses and how they are processed, sugar content, type of water, methods of fermentation and filtration, times, temperatures, types of barrels used for aging, time in the barrels, among others.
“It’s definitely chemistry but there’s also a lot of artistry to it, especially in Richard’s case,” said Jennifer.
In the 1940s, spirit producers began to sell cheaper, commercially produced rum in the U.S. rather than small-batch, premium rums, such as Seale’s.
“Premium rum is new in the United States because the prime players are not necessarily the premium product, which is the way it used to be with tequila in the United States; remember back in the day when the only brand we all knew about was Jose Cuervo?” Bailey said. “When the top seller is not the highest quality, it leaves this gap in the premium category and that’s why we were pushing our rum into the marketplace, that’s where we want to be.”
In the U.S., rum is thought of as a mixing alcohol, but Europeans savor high-end rum as part of the spirits category, said Jennifer.
“There’s a lot of passion for spirits, and we found the palate in Europe is very sophisticated and interested in rum in particular, which we didn’t know at the outset,” she said.
“And that’s why the European market took off for us so quickly, because over there they’ve known about sipping rums for a long time,” Bailey said.
And though demand will continue to grow, inventory is more than sufficient because Seale has been producing rum for years.
“He’s been building for a long time; he has about 40,000 barrels currently aging in Barbados between the ages of zero and 12 years old, so that translates to almost 2 million cases, which is a lot more rum than we’re going to need in the next five years,” said Bailey.
As far as naming their product, the couple said they were incredibly lucky no one had trademarked The Real McCoy.
“It’s amazing the name was available and that it’s actually linked to the real McCoy who led us to Barbados,” Bailey said.
The brand has three choices: the 5-year, for $28 a bottle, is where the Pryors like to start people off with tasting and sipping. From there, they recommend trying the 12-year, at $50 per bottle. They also have the 3-year, for $20, a white, mixed-drink-style rum that is nevertheless older than most rums on the market, Pryor said.
“How do you educate the public about premium rum? Have them try it, let them taste it,” Bailey said.