The founders of Red Harbor Rum are barely legal drinking age. Half the time they get asked for ID when trying to make a sale. But don’t let their youth fool you. Justin Buchanan and Jake MacDowell, both 24 years old, are quickly reviving interest in one of America’s oldest spirits: rum.
These two entrepreneurs were paired up as freshman roommates at Wofford College in Spartanburg. Their senior year they decided to enter an idea for a rum distillery in the college’s business plan competition as a way to gain some practical experience. Their business idea had two key components: the microdistillery would be in Charleston and they would produce liquor.
The two started researching Charleston’s liquor history, reading dozens of books and discovering a surprising fact: Rum was a key part of Charleston’s story.
“We expected to find bourbon history, but there was a huge importation of molasses,” said MacDowell, who is from Charleston.
They piqued plenty of interest during the school competition. “There were very traditional businesses, like opening a laundry service for students,” MacDowell said. “And then there were these two kids making rum.”
As people crowded around their booth, even the young men’s parents realized this might be more than a school project.
“People started taking us seriously,” Buchanan said. “So our option was either to do this or go to grad school.”
They attended classes and a conference for those new to the distillery industry. They priced out the necessary equipment and supplies, giving legs to the business plan they’d developed as college seniors.
The next piece was funding. MacDowell and Buchanan considered investors, but realized investors would take a percentage of the company. So, instead they used their own savings and borrowed from their parents to get the business off the ground.
They found a location just off Cross County Road for the 3,800-square-foot distillery, which includes two temperature-controlled rooms. More than a year ago, Red Harbor Rum opened in North Charleston.
MacDowell and Buchanan are the owners, as well as distillers, janitors and salesmen. They devote a full day to distilling rum, generating 150 to 200 bottles. Most days, they are focused on sales. Last September, they began offering their product statewide. Now, they are working to expand into Georgia. The rum sells for about $39 a bottle and is available at Coliseum Liquors on International Boulevard.
Since the rum came on the market last summer, it’s been well-received, Buchanan said. Restaurants and bars are excited about Red Harbor Rum and its ties to local history.
“There’s a lot of interest in the history behind the product,” MacDowell said.
Molasses, a key ingredient in rum, was shipped into Charleston while Colonial America was still under British reign. The British issued huge tariffs on molasses, MacDowell explained. The molasses wasn’t just for rum, it also was a common sweetener. So there was a lot of smuggling to avoid the taxes on this much-used ingredient.
In keeping with rum’s Charleston roots, Red Harbor Rum is finished in freshly charred oak barrels. Many large rum brands use former bourbon barrels. But in their research, MacDowell said, they found bourbon wasn’t present in Colonial America, so rum makers wouldn’t have used bourbon barrels to finish the rum.
The historic theme continued into the packaging of their modern rum. The pair partnered with local agency HOOK to design Red Harbor Rum’s bottle and label. They aimed to create packaging that mirrored the contents of a museum. They achieved their goal with typography derived from pre-Revolutionary War South Carolina paper money and a logo stamp that is a reinterpretation of a 1765 British tax stamp. Sticking with the theme, the brand’s monogram was placed on the side of the bottle as a wax seal.
MacDowell and Buchanan have clearly done their history homework to create a product deeply tied to Charleston’s past. So even though they might have to flash their driver’s licenses, they are proving their chops as businessmen.
“It’s been surprising how many people have reached out to help us,” MacDowell said. “I think older entrepreneurs saw themselves in us.”