The Roots and Resurrection of German Rum
Andrew Wilkin looks at the current wave of German rum, learning along the way about a surprising legacy and the troubles inherent in launching a new rum in a country so far from the Caribbean.
While Scotland is Scotch whisky, and tequila is Mexico, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to tag rum as German rum. Rum definitely doesn’t conjure up impressions of Central Europe. The sugarcane fields, lush vegetation and the intense heat of the Caribbean sun, all of which come together to produce their rums, don’t exactly correlate with the temperate weather and landscape of Germany.
German Rum: A surprising history
What many don’t realize is that rum has a surprising background in Germany, one that in the 1700s made the area of Flensburg, near Hamburg, mighty rich. Rum Verschnitt was a type of inexpensive blend made of 95% locally-produced ethanol topped up with ester rums brought over from the Caribbean colonies (mainly Jamaica) by the Flensburg sailors. As the imported rum was taxed by quantity, and not the level of alcohol, the ester rums used to make Verschnitt were highly concentrated. German rum dynasties such as those of Johannsen, Schierning, Asmussen, and Sonnberg existed alongside around 30 Rumhäuser in the Flensburg area.
Sadly, only a few are left now – the small family-run company Johannsen still produces 10 varieties of Rum Verschnitt and is the oldest remaining, whilst Pott Rum, Balle Rum, and Asmussen Rum also still produce Verschnitt blends. History buffs can also visit the Schifffahrtsmuseum in the town of Bremerhaven for the full details.
After centuries of playing with the good stuff, Germans are now making it themselves. The last decade has seen some movement in establishing Germany as a real rum-land, three centuries since the first wave in Flensburg. A wave of pure, historically minded, and utterly diverse rums using Central and South American sugarcane molasses have emerged since 2010 – aiming to bring the culture of rum production back to Germany. Here are the big players.
Don Ruffin – an individual style
Don Ruffin was inspired by the Verschnitt, but don’t expect anything akin to that. Getting underway in 2013, Fabian Rohrwasser wanted to create his rum in the same region as the Verschnitt. He distils, stores, and bottles his spirit at the historical Gut Basthorst facility outside Hamburg, but he’s a fan of “pure rums,” not the blends. Importing molasses from Paraguay, Don Ruffin produces a dark rum – the organic, amber-colored Don Ruffin 2 Years Old (43% ABV) –aged in French and American oak, before a very short finish in used sherry casks. All bottles are individually numbered and hand signed.
Rohrwasser says he is keen to foster a distinctive German style of rum. “Of course the size of the distillery and the (not so) warm weather all influence the taste of the rum, but it is key for us to develop German rum…and not to copy something,” he says. For instance, he uses a copper pot still that’s usually used for fruit brandies, and constantly experiments with his yeasts to ensure his rum isn’t too fruit-brandified. Also available are two types of rum liqueur – including a caramel version – and Rohrwasser says an overproof release is coming soon.
Revolte – personal uprising
The fiercely titled Revolte rum, situated south of Frankfurt am Main in the Rheinland-Pfalz region, is fighting back on two fronts. Felix Kaltenthaler was inspired by his background in wine – his parents ran a German winery. As he puts it: “nobody cares about German rum.” That lack of interest in Germany for German rums caused the spark for Kaltenthaler to produce his own.
He produces two different rums: the Revolte Blanco (41.5% ABV) and the Overproof (60% ABV), launched at last year’s BCB and both available in 500ml bottles. The sugar molasses for both rums is shipped over from Papua New Guinea, with the Blanco fermented with a specially cultivated yeast strain, then distilled on a rectification plant and left to ripen for 6 months before being reduced with natural spring water.
With regards to the Blanco, Kalthenthaler explains: “there are fruity aromas like grapes leading into fresh pineapple and roasted bananas, some people compare it to rum agricole which is fresh and grassy, and like the esters from Jamaica it’s also very spicy,” he says.
As with the other rums, there’s low international reach so far, but a high number of German bars stock it, including big names in Hamburg such as Le Lion and Boilerman. The future will see a Revolte falernum liqueur, a rum-based flavored liqueur imbued with spices like limes, almonds, carnations, and ginger. He already hints to expect “more alcohol, less sugar.”
Kaltenthaler says that all aspiring distillers should watch out for the difficulties associated with hunting down a cask. “It’s really hard to find the cask you want,” he says. “For instance, my distributor…he’ll suggest a cask and of course I need to go and see it. I’ll go the next week – but by that point the cask is gone!” He’s currently using a variety of barrels, including a rhum agricole cask from Martinique, and some cognac casks.
Butterbird – old distillery, new faces
Evidence that the revolution is spreading is Butterbird by Spreewood Distillers, another new kid on the block and the first in Eastern Germany. Bastian Heuser, Steffen Lohr und Sebastian Brack were eager to get back out from behind the desk and into the distillery. So in 2016, Heuser and Lohr sold their agency business and purchased the Spreewald-Brennerei distillery, which has been importing molasses and distilling and ageing rums – as well as whiskey and gin – since 2008. This gave them access to rum from Caribbean distilleries, aged in Germany, but also to a true German rum made in Schlepzig.
In addition to their Stork Whiskey and gin, the Feuerfalter rum (46% ABV) comes with notes of toffee and chocolate, whilst the Weissling comes with banana, vanilla and lime and is a blend of types from Germany, Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica. This is where Butterbird stands somewhat apart from the others. While the other new German rum all distil their molasses in Germany, Heuser is keen to keep the Verschnitt legacy alive. “The art of a good rum comes from blending – different distillers, different casks, maybe even different rums from different origins,” he says. “So that’s what we are gonna do. We have 50% our own rums and 50% rums that have been aged in our distillery but have been distilled in the Caribbean.”
And why Butterbird? With 500 species in the Brandenburg region, butterflies were on the distillers’ minds. And since butterbird is a synonym for butterfly in Germany, as well as slang in Jamaica for rum, the name seemed perfect.
Ron Elba: bootstrapped & additive-free
“We bootstrapped it,” laughs Daniel Ratschke when he reminisces about the Ron Elba Dry Rum (47% ABV) he launched in Hamburg in 2016 with Hannes Köhm. “After a lot of discussion, we rented a distillery for professional purposes and made a spirit. Then we improved it, batch by batch. We didn’t have any big undercover financial support or anything.”
The bootstrapping seems to have worked, creating a spirit which won a clutch of prizes, including the silver medal at the Destille Berlin craft spirits festival this year, and the gold medal at the World Spirit Awards 2017. There are no additives or glycerine in the spirit, and the molasses comes from Mauritius. After fermentation and testing for quality, the rum is multiple distilled with a burner – a process which helps create its “seductive aroma and soft mouthfeel.” Ratschke explains that “some people compare it to a fruit brandy, with hints of banana,” noting that it’s called a dry rum due to its unsweetened status.
Distribution in Germany is just beginning. “We are just starting to market the product with help of Tom O’Marv of Finecraft,” explains Ratschke. Ron Elba is available in a few selected bars in Hamburg, including Mr Ape, Auster Bar, and Mojo Club, as well as some liquor stores. The biggest challenge? “Hands down it’s convincing the naysayers – those who say you can’t make rum in Germany.”
Grasbrook: the pirate
Named after Grasbrook Island on the River Elba where the sugar molasses from Nicaragua came to Germany – and where many pirates, including the infamous Klaus Störtebeker were beheaded – Grasbrook rum was launched in summer 2015 near Frankfurt am Main.
Currently the team at Grasbrook are producing a one-year-aged dark rum (41% ABV) with a two-year rum on the way. Utilizing a Caribbean type of fermentation and distilling on a German still often used for food, the rum then goes to age in fresh unused American white oak casks. Notes of toffee, caramel, and vanilla emerge in an aromatic palette. The team also note that there are no added sugars or colors in the spirit.
Of all the hurdles to making a new rum, head distiller Gregor Thormann notes that getting good sugar molasses quality was the hardest. Very few importers specialize in Caribbean or South American molasses, meaning he originally imported molasses from locations such as India and Thailand – in smaller batches which were smokier and dirtier.
Foto: Photo via efes/pixabay