The spirit of Charleston

Red Harbor Rum’s still.

When Justin Buchanan and Jake MacDowell started plotting to distill a spirit that reflected Charleston’s drinking past, the college roommates assumed they were destined to get into the whiskey business. But they quickly learned that rum reigned in Colonial days, leading to the creation of Red Harbor Rum, first released last month.

“We just fell in love with the story,” says Buchanan, whose grandparents lived in Charleston. MacDowell grew up in Mount Pleasant.

Red Harbor is the latest addition to a lineup of local rum makers that includes High Wire Distilling Co., Striped Pig Distillery and Firefly Distillery. Pusser’s Rum, which keeps its still in Guyana and Trinidad, is also headquartered here.

Despite going the once-again popular rum route, the Red Harbor pair ended up with a product that shares flavor notes with bourbon. That’s because the vast majority of modern rums are aged in used bourbon barrels, which have already surrendered much of their oaky character. Red Harbor, by contrast, uses new American oak barrels on the theory that rum coming from the West Indies in the 1700s was almost certainly not exposed to barrels with bourbon pasts: Prior to the 19th century, whiskey was considered an unsophisticated drink.

“For taste, you’re definitely going to get rum sweetness on the front, but in the middle, it transitions to an oaky char,” Buchanan says.

The char isn’t a figment of drinkers’ imaginations. Buchanan and McDowell, who graduated from Wofford College in 2013, found documentation of rum barrel charring dating back to 1800, so they applied the technique to their barrels.

Whether new or old, oak barrels are currently in short supply. A falloff in logging resulting from the housing downturn, and surge of craft distilling have conspired to clear the market of barrels. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, bourbon production jumped 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, while lumber production was halved between 2005 and 2009. The newspaper quoted a Missouri-based cooper now being offered $250 for barrels he lists at $150.

“If you’re willing to pay a premium, you can still get them,” said Buchanan, who bought barrels from small distillers committed to purchase quotas.

In addition to tracking down barrels, the young entrepreneurs had to figure out how to make rum. “We weren’t moonshiners or anything,” Buchanan says. They enrolled in a hands-on course offered by the American Distilling Institute, then started distilling in an industrial space near Joint Base Charleston.

“We thought about going downtown, but you can’t pay those rents on a summer job,” Buchanan says.

Red Harbor Rum is looking to expand its distribution statewide later this summer.