Next up in the #rumfamily series is an interview with Maggie Campbell, Head Distiller at Privateer Rum in the US. We had the pleasure of meeting Maggie at the London Rumfest last October. Easily described as a humble, passionate person who loves to learn and is a joy to listen to. As one of the Guardians of Rum, Maggie is working to protect the identity, traditions and integrity of artisanal Rum production.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to where you are now as a Head distiller?
I’m the President and Head Distiller at Privateer Rum. I am also the WSET Alumni Advisory Board Member representing all Diploma Grads from North America. I serve as elected Vice President and a Board member of the American Craft Spirits Association where I am in my second term in both positions. I am also a current Masters of Wine Student who attended Siebel Institute as well as The Alcohol School’s extended program for spirits distilling.
I first became interested in 2004, went on to study wine, as at the time there were no distilling education opportunities in the US, where I learned the art of blending, cask selection, the flow of production (pumps, tanks, filtration options, etc), the science of fermentation, and of course tasting for house style, quality, and production choices.From there I became immersed in distillation helping out occasionally at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey around 2006 when they were still in their original location. I also met Todd Leopold who was kind enough to encourage me to learn as much as I could and always treated me as very capable in the field, something I needed as a 23 year old young woman looking to join a small field.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the start of that journey?
I wish I had known to be far more discerning and not feel like I had to take every opportunity when it came my way. I stayed in an unsafe work environment in my early career because I thought I needed the credentials and experience and did not have options. It was a mistake that has impacted my life since then and will in the future, especially living with pain flare ups the rest of my life. It’s a regular reminder why we push for such a speak up and speak out culture at Privateer. I want to hear what I can do for my employees so they feel confident doing the best work possible and I can resolve any concerns they have so they are fully available, emotionally and physically, to do their best work. The folks doing the everyday work and often see issues far before anyone else will.
Please could you describe a typical day in your working life?
When I’m at home I get up pretty early and have a strong morning routine. My husband taught me this important practice as my natural inclination would be to roll out of bed 10 minutes before leaving and ‘wing it’ by eating a candy bar and running out the door shoes still untied. I start my emails around 8am and catch up on any texts built up from the previous day then I head into the distillery around 9am. I am on the distilling floor all day at my desk and on my feet on the pad and cellar offering help and direction to the production team but also able to step into the offices that look out on the distilling floor and have any meetings about product development, team training, barrel inventory, or logistics that need to happen. I usually wrap up at the distillery around 4pm and head home and continue to email/text/call until 6pm. Then I take a pretty hard stop to work stuff so as to have meaningful time off so I can really show up the next day excited to get back at it. When I travel all bets are off and I really must get better at having a travel routine. When I wake up at 7 and dive right into emails and distillery technical calls and other company needs till about 10am. Then I begin my road work with morning coffee with any journalists who are on the trip, attending seminars or showcases, etc. I usually try to pause and have a seated dinner as I rarely eat during the day and meet up with an industry figure I genuine love spending time with or want to get to know… or of course our #RumFam if we’re traveling together. Then it’s usually on to evening/night events. I follow Paul Clark’s rule of thumb and try to be in bed by midnight. Then I usually finish up work emails and texts until about 2am.
What are you most proud of out of all of your Rum achievements so far?
I’m most proud of the real life friendships I have. To have earned the time and consideration of some of these great people means a great deal. For that to then to bloom into an actual friendship and genuine co-admiration and affinity means everything. It’s no longer about networking, or work relationships, instead it is about having a real friendship and sharing your life. I’m glad to know that we share pictures and memories of us together outside of bars, restaurants, and drinks events. We go hiking, we pop into a local art museum, we see movies, we have dinner in their homes, and we go for long walks. We share more with one another than an endless social media stream of selfies in bars and that I am most proud to have, and I’m grateful it’s mostly private and holds value in its own right – it doesn’t need likes or shares and I feel so grateful these smart, genuine, funny folks take time to have me in their life. Wayne, Rum Fam, Pableaux, Ashtin, the Terrazas, Jeff & Annene, Paul, Mr. Korn, Mr. King, Jeff & Colton, and all the rest you know who you are!
What is the hardest thing about producing Rum at the moment?
The US distribution system is very hard for small brands like us. It’s very hard for us to get our Rum into the hands of people who have become interested in what we do. It’s dysfunctional and limits our ability to do our life’s work and connected with others.
What is the best thing about producing Rum at the moment?
The excitement and enthusiasm around the category, especially for authentic Rums. It is wonderful to see these skilled experts across the globe, and especially in the Caribbean, finally being respected for their art. There are obviously big threats to this as people are trying to cash in on the reputation of rum they worked so hard to create. I truly hope the Jamaican GI stands strong and the Barbados GI can come forward to protect the hard earned respect for these fine and culturally significant Rum practices.
What are your thoughts on GI for Rum producing countries?
As I mentioned many of these regions have worked very hard to build the reputation and many people now want to move in and cash in on this. The risk to eroding this hard earned respect is massive. I think GIs should capture the cultural significance of these authentic Rums and ensure they gain the respect on the global stage they deserve. Then if others want to come in and use any other style of production they are more than free to do whatever they want – but they can’t leverage the name of the GI of traditional techniques if thy are not practicing them. Otherwise what is the point of a GI? We should have just as much respect for these categories in the Caribbean as we do Scotch, Champagne, and the like. We can’t honour and protect select communities while expecting to exploit and bend others to outside will. To that end there is a difference between xenophobia and anti-colonialism, we should be looking to end colonialism mindsets.
As for New England Rum I believe we are still finding our new identity as the region remerges. It is not time for a GI yet.
When the TTB (ruling arm of spirits production in the US) set an open period for commentary I included a push for respecting Agricole as a category distinct to French territories as defined by them and Jamaican Rum as recognised by their own GI (similar to the existing rule for Cachaca). If we want ‘Bourbon’ recognised globally we have to be willing to do the same. I see many North American craft producers use fresh cane (and sometimes bagged sugar) and erroneously use the term ‘Agricole’ on the label. Agricole means made in specific French Territories, from specific cane plots, pressed in a specific manner, fermented in a certain way, distilled on a French creole column, rested minimum 3 months post distillation…. and on and on and on just to quality for the term. Just like I would not call a molasses based Rum ‘Rhum Industrial’ just because it was made from molasses, we should also not be calling Rums simply made from fresh sugar Agricole. Same goes for a corn mash not inherently being Bourbon or malted barley instantly qualifying Scotch.
There seems to be endless possibilities from ageing in different woods, blending and releasing expressions at different ABVs. Are there things you know would not work and are there things you want to try?
We stay away from wine casks as a general rule and would be extremely picky and specific if we were to use one. As mentioned I have extensive wine training and know the additives in wine today are not what they were 10 years ago, much less 20 years ago. Many of these interact with the high Abv and much higher pH of spirits in a negative way. There is too much technical info here to cover but there is a wide world of issues. I commend Foursquare for their extensive wine experience and care in cask selection, they are heads and shoulders above many others in their efforts and work in this area.
We use ‘aged water’ for proofing, we love the coupe building traditions, and we even have an authentic solera (actual 1/3 fractional blending technique) going at our distillery that is still yet unreleased. We love our Laphroaig casks for finishing Rum that give a sort of burning cane field aroma. We love working with French Oak also. I like my authentic experiences and work in a number of categories to inform my style but I also want to ensure it is authentic and does not ring untrue. It instead reflects my winding road to Rum and the real work I have embodied along the way.
I of course shun the use of any endangered woods. This is irresponsible and f’ed up. The harm done is serious and people should name the harm they have done, formerly apologise to the affected communities, and work to make right their participation with these materials through reparations of some sort or other. We all make mistakes, but not everyone tries to make things right, and even fewer actually do make things right again.
Which Rums do you enjoy drinking at the moment?
I am loving my Worthy Park right now. It’s the time of year where we have our fireplaces going in New England and after a long day of cold, wet socks at the distillery few things save me from the darkness of winter (it gets light around 8am and dark at 4pm right now) than a glass of Worthy Park straight. The way it evolves in the glass as it warms up in front of the fire with me. The new Pot release from Mount Gay is making its way into my glass often these days too. Velier’s line of Clarin (I love that the producer’s name is right on the bottle and profits are shared back with the makers), Hampden, and the Whiskey Exchange’s Foursquare selection are in rotation as well.
Are there any new projects you can tell us about and what should we look out for from your distillery in the near future?
We put out a little teaser pic on social media but yes, Privateer will be doing a Habitation release with Velier, plus another special project that I am truly very proud of. It is thrilling to be collaborating with the Velier team, a real dream come true.