High Wire distillery makes rhum agricole from South Carolina sugar cane

Kelvin McAlhany of Bair’s Farm stirs the sugar cane juices as they drain through burlap after being ground.

Mickey Reeves would very much like to answer a reporter’s questions, but his hearing has a few soft spots, and he can’t help but get distracted by a man half-heartedly skimming the output of a near century-old sugar cane press.

Reeves has been pressing cane since he was young, and can instantly recognize when a crew’s at risk of gumming up his machine by failing to clear cane detritus from the burlap sack that functions as a filter for the juice-collecting barrel. It takes about an hour to transform 1,000 stalks of handsome blue ribbon cane into 100 gallons of juice, an equation that doesn’t leave much time for mistakes.

“I’d go over there and help them, but I don’t feel like it,” Reeves grumbles. A few moments later, he grabs a stick and shows the skimmer how it ought to be done.

South Carolinians have probably been making sugar cane liquor since the first shipment of ribbon cane arrived from Jamaica in 1814. Sugar cane never became a significant crop by economic measures: In 1908, when the South Carolina Department of Agriculture noted a renewed interest in cane, farmers harvested 50,000 pounds. That same year, statewide tobacco production stood at 26 million pounds.

But farmers in Dorchester and Orangeburg counties still tend patches for personal use: At festive end-of-season pressing parties, they squeeze the juice they need for syrup and “sucat,” which cane raisers will swear up and down isn’t made anymore. “I haven’t seen or heard of it for years,” Tom Judy says.

Yet if High Wire Distilling Co.’s latest experiment is a success, something like sucat could be on the verge of going straight. The downtown Charleston distiller is now aging its first batch of rhum agricole, or rum made from fresh sugar cane juice. The cane came from an acre of Manning Bair’s St. George farm, where Reeves and his friends last month gathered to watch the press and help machete the stalks clean.

“Manning doesn’t even really drink, but he thinks it’s a fun idea,” says Scott Blackwell, who co-owns High Wire with his wife, Ann Marshall. “He said they’re tired of making syrup.”

Microdistilling is often depicted as microbrewing redux, but cocktail writer Wayne Curtis points out the analogy overlooks a major difference between spirits and beer. While Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company were supplying American drinkers with a steady stream of weak, lackluster beer when craft brewers started touting their products, the major liquor companies make excellent bourbons, vodkas and gins.

“So you have to do something different,” says Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in 10 Cocktails.” “And the big distilleries are happy to watch them, because if they succeed, they’ll just go buy them.”

At Corsair Distillery in Nashville, for example, the current bottle line-up includes vanilla bean whiskey, pumpkin spice moonshine and quinoa whiskey. But the logistical hurdles associated with rhum agricole — as opposed to rhum industriel, the molasses-based rum that accounts for 99 percent of all rums — have kept most American distillers away from the category. Fresh cane juice needs to be fermented within 24 hours, a restriction that isn’t consistent with standard production methods.

Other than High Wire, California’s St. George Spirits is the only domestic distiller promoting a rhum agricole. In the Caribbean, though, the term is now being slapped on a variety of rums. While “Rhum agricole Martinique” is trademarked by the French government, same as Cognac and Champagne, the rule hasn’t been strictly enforced: Rum producers in the Dominican Republic and Panama have lately started using “rhum agricole” as a designator of quality, regardless of how quickly the cane’s crushed or whether the juice has been distilled to the proper proof.

“It’s one of those words that just came into use,” rhum agricole importer Ed Hamilton reports, adding that many of the spirits sporting the label could well cue a spittake.

Curtis suspects many drinkers might have similarly adverse reactions to correctly made rhum agricole. The spirit’s strong grassy flavor has never resonated with the American palate, he says, and its “big funk” makes it difficult to use in cocktails (Ti’Punch, the best known mixed drink featuring the spirit, is essentially a daiquiri).

“I’m curious why someone’s doing rhum agricole,” Curtis says of High Wire’s foray into the field. “Ed has been trying for eight years to convince America that this is an earthier, more interesting rum, and he hasn’t seen much traction.”

Still, he adds, “I’m glad to see people doing things with rhum agricole.”

Just what Blackwell and Marshall are doing with rhum agricole is still an open question. They’re attracted to the idea of wringing rum from local, unprocessed sweetener, but have no clue how the end product will taste. “I’m just curious,” Blackwell admitted on pressing day. “If you can push yourself to find, through trial and error, does this make a difference like I thought it would, that’s pretty cool.”

The couple invited the St. George farmers and their friends to visit their distillery when they ran the fermented juice through the still. Todd Blair sniffed at the vat of clear spirit. “It’s got a definite sugar cane aroma,” he said.

“There’s a real unique smell to it,” Blackwell said. “When it was fermenting, it smelled like green bananas.”

The distilling project has inspired the farmers to start thinking about which of their other crops would be suitable for bottling.

“We’ve been talking about all the things we can grow to get in there,” Blair says, motioning at the still. “Red corn. Sweet corn, which would be neat.”

For now, though, the focus is rhum agricole. High Wire is aging the spirit “for as long as it takes,” but Bair is already so confident that the project will succeed that he’s planting extra cane for next year’s harvest. “I want to kind of like start a tradition,” he says. Although he estimates he goes about a month between drinks — he’ll sip a scotch and water when Reeves comes to visit — he says, “I might have to change that now.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.