American Spirits
New England Rum



August 31, 2012
Newport Distilling Company
Newport, Rhode Island
















IT ISN'T UNUSUAL for someone starting up a new distillery to be particularly interested in the history of his/her product. In fact, in most cases we've seen it's an unquenchable desire to revive a gloried heritage that pushes folks into this sort of thing in the first place. And you just can't hardly find a more "gloried heritage" than that of Newport, Rhode Island. At least in the case of New England rum you can't. Unfortunately, the "glory" part has to be tempered by the rather embarrassing fact that the Rhode Island rum industry's glory was intimately connected with a very shameful situation. Slavery. And not just slavery, which would have been bad enough. No, with the actual purchase of kidnapped human beings as if they were farm animals and selling them to be worked to death in the sugar cane fields of the West Indies. To make sugar for rich Europeans. Not that anyone from Rhode Island was involved with this... directly. It's just that those slaves were purchased using one of Rhode Island's most important exports: rum. Rum that was produced from molasses, a sugar by-product brought in from those same West Indian islands where it was purchased with the proceeds from the sale of the slaves. Perhaps. There are some people who suspect that the molasses, which was not just a by-product but a costly-to-dispose-of residue of sugar production, was probably taken on by the shippers in much the same way as industrial waste is handled today. That is, the shippers probably charged the sugar mills a fee for removing the molasses. In any case, once the molasses arrived in Rhode Island, it was sold to the rum distillers who made it into rum and the whole process began anew.


That was throughout New England, of course, so what's so special about Rhode Island, and Newport in particular? Only that the state was the unchallenged center of rum production in those days, with 22 distilleries in Newport alone.


It didn't last. By 1842 the number of Newport distilleries had decreased to... zero.

By 1872 there were no licensed distilleries in the state of Rhode Island at all.


Until now. In 2008 Brent Ryan who, along with a few friends from Colby College in Maine was already successful as the first microbrewer in the state (Newport Storm Brewery), decided to become the first rum distillery in Rhode Island since 1872.


The Newport Distilling Company produces only one thing, a nicely-aged dark rum that they have named Thomas Tew after Rhode Island's most famous pirate. The rum itself is outstanding in flavor and quality, and absolutely worthy of the term "artisan", one which has been notoriously misused in some cases. For one thing, it is a true batch process in that each barrel is produced in a single batch. The barrels, which are standard 53-gallon size previously-used bourbon barrels, are aged for 18 to 36 months, and then each is bottled separately as a true single-barrel product. The barrel number is the batch number. Thomas Tew rum's barrel proof is about 107 to 110, and is reduced to 84 proof (47%ABV) for bottling.

Unlike many distillery tours, this one takes the visitor upstairs to a walk-around platform where one can see everything being done on the floor. Since we have arrived at the beginning of the workday, there isn't much going on yet, other than workers moving stuff into position. As is true of fine Kentucky bourbon, Thomas Tew is only distilled in the cold months, so August is not the best time to visit if you want to see distilling activity going on.


At each station there is a sign explaining what we're looking at, and what process takes place there. There are also three questions that are raised and answered by each sign. They are:

(1) How do we do this differently from others?

(2) How does our way contribute to sustainability? and

(3) Did you know (this) about rum and how it's made?


The second two questions are of interest, but the first really sets this tour apart as far as being informative about Thomas Tew rum in particular. For example, we learn that one of the benefits of using the yeast from their brewery operations is that it allows the use of flavorful blackstrap molasses exclusively, despite the relatively low sugar and nutrient levels characteristic of that type. We also learn (or would had we not already known this) that the amount of flavor brought over in the distilling process is directly related to how wide the distiller keeps the "middle cut" section, and that the more times one distills a batch the less flavor is obtained. Having something distilled 4, 5, or even 6 times may SOUND great but it often means that what you end up with is nearly tasteless. Great for vodka, perhaps, but not so much for other spirits.


Visiting this afternoon, we don't get a chance to talk with  Ryan, who is also the head distiller, but the tour, which is a self-guided tour with nicely-placed observation stations, answered many of our questions even before we met our host at the tasting bar, who was a wealth of knowledge, both about rum and about how it's made here.


The tasting itself is also unique. Instead of just offering a taste of their rum, the visitor gets a choice between a flight of three glasses of different Newport Storm beers, or a flight of three samples of Thomas Tew rum.


Wait a minute! How do they do that when they only have one kind of Thomas Tew rum? Well, that's what makes this tasting so different. The three glasses served are all Thomas Tew rum, but they're different stages of it. In fact, the tasting room here is the only place where you can experience two of them (the third, of course, is the regularly available product). So in addition to the very delicious regular rum, we taste brand new, unaged white dog rum from the still (unfortunately and inexplicably reduced to 80 proof, although the off-the-still proof isn't much higher), and uncut, unfiltered, direct-from-the-barrel rum at 108 proof and 2 years old. Oh, should they ever bottle THAT one!!


Oh, and you get to keep the nice, branded Glencairn tasting glasses, too!


Looking for more about American Spirits?  Google  

Contact us through



Story and original photography copyright © 2012 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.