Exclusive Interview with Maggie Campbell, Head Distiller for Privateer Rum
Some people wander through life without knowing -or recognizing- what their destiny, their raison d’être truly is. Fortunately for the distilling and the rum worlds, this is not the case with Maggie Campbell. Her eyes were opened to her true calling in Oban, Scotland, through a simple question: “what should I do while I wait for the ferry?”. Unbeknownst to her, the answer would change the rest of her life.
It brings me great pleasure to publish this interview with Maggie. Join us on an adventurous journey through the wine industry, the world of spices, the complicated and demanding maze of product distribution and ultimately ending up here, in our beloved world of rum!
I want to thank Maggie for this wonderful interview, but also, I can’t wait to see and taste her next creations!
Margaret Ayala, Publisher
What is your full name, title, company name and company location?
Maggie Campbell, Head Distiller, Privateer Rum, Ipswich MA.
Can you give our readers a little history of how you got involved in the rum industry?
I always say that rum picked me. My first introduction to spirits was in Oban, Scotland, when I was 20, where I asked a woman in the street what I should do while I waited for the ferry to Tobermory. She said to visit the distillery. That was when I first realized this was a job that people do and I could do too. I returned to the states, finished my degree in Philosophy and began wine school. At the time, 10 years ago, there were no distilling schools, books or even a strong online community. Wine sommelier school taught me the chemistry, history of alcohol and tasting technique needed to recognize balance and flaws. I began working in a boutique wine, beer, and spirits store while simultaneously going around Denver and getting to know my local craft distillers. I quickly volunteered to help bottle and brought snacks and treats to get face time and build friendships with these great pioneers. I also attended the very first course by the Siebel Institute in Craft Distillation and Technologies and made friendships and
mentors of my teachers there. I eventually started emailing craft distillers all over the country to learn new things, this is how I found Germain-Robin. I originally emailed to ask for any references for learning Cognac distillation. They were impressed with my wine knowledge and offered me the position of Assistant Distiller. It was Hubert Germain-Robin, who later met the founder of Privateer and recommended me for the job. When he reached out to me, I was skeptical. Rum? Really? I make whiskey and cognac! I promised him I would meet them, and like the wise man he is, he knew Privateer was exactly what I was craving, I just didn’t know it.
On the flight to my interview I read Wayne Curtis’ ‘And a Bottle of Rum’ and instantly fell in love. When I landed and met Andrew Cabot, the founder of Privateer, I learned he was fully dedicated to making rum as a fine spirit, reviving American rum, and making the best choices for the rum above everything. I knew I was home.
I understand that you have a background in the world of spices, how did that opportunity present itself ? How much did that help you to develop (or improve) your olfactory “data bank”?
Working in a spice house turned on my nose and palate and I have never been able to shut them off since! I had just graduated college before the holiday season and I was shopping at Savory Spice getting some ingredients. I had no idea where to start my career in an industry that barely existed so I asked if they needed help. I learned the subtle nuances of a Zanzibar clove vs a Ceylon clove. I could taste the strength on the first attack of a Chinese cinnamon, the softness of an Indonesian cinnamon and the length and complexity on Vietnamese Saigon. I would select a brighter citrus driven California Bay leaf for homemade vermouth or a softer earthier Turkish bay leaf for a barley risotto. They are dedicated to sourcing quality spices and grinding them fresh, and with that came the biggest lesson, learning to taste for quality. It is a very different thing for something to be quality and correct as opposed to whether it is to your taste. This has been one of my most important career lessons and I am so grateful to Mike, the owner, for teaching me this. Today, when I taste gin, I’m plagued and blessed by tasting the quality of the spices behind it, same with vermouths (though, sadly, many vermouths are artificially aromatized these days). It also illuminated the labor and trade concerns of spice production, something distillers rarely, if ever, discuss.
Where and how did you gain your distillation knowledge?
Learning about distilling was, and continues to be, a long and winding road. I learned most from fellow distillers and industry pros. You can’t just walk into a distillery and start asking questions, the people are busy and have their own needs. You have to make the relationship valuable. You have to offer friendship, truly listen, thank them and as you learn new things share with them as well. I learned an invaluable amount from studying wine.
There is so much more research and writing in wine that your resources are very rich. The taste training alone makes me who I am as a distiller. I also learned brewing, my assistant distiller and I were originally brewing partners, but that was a much smaller piece of the puzzle. Spirits live their life like brewing beer for 5 days, distillation is 1-2 days of its life, and aging is 3 months to years and years of its life! That aging is very closely related with wine aging. From proper barrel prep, seasoning, blending, selection, storage, maturation, esterfication, tannin polymerization, and long chain fatty acid formation, as well as, looking for contamination and flaws in barrels you can look to the wine world for guidance (though please, keep the sulfur and potassium metabisulfite away from the high proof ).
Can you walk us through your typical day at the distillery?
I get in and put on my music first thing. Then I typically charge the spirit still and fire it up, my assistant distiller charges and fires up the stripping still, and the founder, Andrew Cabot, puts together a fermentation all at the same time. I taste a few barrels everyday and take notes, look at our production schedule, work on an article and research some journals on fermentation and distillation. I set aside at least 30 minutes everyday to dedicate to professional friendships to keep in touch, work on a project, ask advice, connect people who can help each other, but it’s never enough. We often host bartenders or other distillers, about 2-3 days a week. On those days I dedicate my time to distilling side by side with them and answering as many questions as I can. By 4pm I try to sit down and work on my wine studies, I have just been accepted to join the Masters of Wine study program, while I wait for the tails cut and wrap up my day.
What has been your greatest challenge as Head Distiller?
It’s hard to be a good manager and teacher. I know how to distill, I just do it, I learn something new, I change things and it just works in my mind. I struggle to teach concepts in meaningful ways to others and give them all the background they need to understand the choice and make it meaningful. Being a good teacher is a skill and it’s something I’ve worked on a lot. Managing is the same, I can direct easily, but managing is harder for me. It takes conscientious time and effort to stop, meet the other person and coach them effectively in the way their mind needs as well as taking extra time to make sure they are set up for success in the minutia that is inherently natural for me to understand, but is new or unknown to them.
Many of Luis’ and my clients come to us with the thought that fermenting and distilling are the toughest aspects of bringing a new product to the market , but we tell them that those activities represent only about 10% of the work, that the main challenge is distribution and promotion. I understand that you spent quite a bit of time on distribution and product promotion before getting into production, so with this experience behind you, would you agree or disagree with our statement?
I absolutely agree. The most unexpected, but truly pragmatic experience I had was the year and a half I took between distilling gigs to work with a distributor. The company distributed two portfolios of fine wines and spirits. I learned the ins and out of how distribution works, what is standard practice and what makes sales successful for distributors. This is something I wish everyone wanting to start a craft distillery would do, it saves a lot of water treading and headaches when you understand how they work.
There is a marked tendency for companies to sell sweet distillates and most of this sweetness is the result of post-distillation additives. I happen to like drier spirits, with richness and complexity coming from the distillates and their careful aging, how about you? How do you feel about added sweeteners?
I think people need to make the spirit they passionately believe in. I passionately believe in unadulterated spirits. I want to leave our spirit bare so you can taste the complexity of the fermentation, distillation and aging. I even did a lecture where I served our rum, as is, next to a sample of our rum treated with glycerol. The glycerol knocked down the complexity and nose while adding one-note sweetness to the palate. I also believe that sweeteners can hide a multitude of sins. If we make it right we don’t need to add or remove anything, we can leave it with the natural harmony the still and the barrels created.
Do you think success as a distiller should be tied to commercial success of the finished products, or is it possible to have masterpieces that won’t ever be recognized as such by the majority of consumers?
I think a masterpiece should be celebrated no matter the success. I’m impressed with those who reach commercial success with an excellent product, but really I’m impressed by the excellent product. I make something because I love it and that is where the virtue is in it for me.
Which of your rums are you the most proud of and why?
I’m really proud of the silver rum. Coming mainly from a brown spirits background I didn’t have much clear spirit experience. I love that it has the aromatics of an eau de vie but the body of something aged on the palate. Because we don’t sweeten, filter or aromatize the rum you can taste everything in it and we couldn’t do that if we were not so dedicated and committed.
Who do you aim to please with your rums (who is your ideal consumer)?
I always say we don’t have to sell to everyone, we just have to sell to the right people. That ‘right person’ can be anyone. We look to connect with food lovers, craft beer enthusiasts and boutique wine fans. We are lucky to be small enough that we are very intimate in marketing our rum, something a larger producer would struggle to do. We connect well with those looking for craft and authenticity in their purchases.
Will your future rums be influenced by feedback you get from visitors to the distillery or will they be a response to new trends you are seeing in the rum industry or both?
We try not to get caught up in fads, criticism, or the blindness compliments can create. We really want to make products we believe in, not try to get in on a trend or get led astray chasing something that is not deeply connected to us. We have a couple of projects in the works, both we have been aging for over two years now, but are still aging. They were born of our own natural curiosity and desire. One, a Navy Proof Rum, will happily meet bartenders’ desires for high proof blending tools, and the other, our Queen’s Share, will be a full bodied sipping rum. We love and hear all the feedback we get, but in the end we have to walk our path.
Are you currently producing spirits other than rum? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
We did a single batch gin that used my spice experience. We sold out quickly and are planning to do another. I love eau de vie and hope to do some fun stuff with that in the future.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a distiller?
Research from as many sources and people as possible. It gives you a world of tools to pull from to decide what’s right for you. I have seen bad and dangerous advice online and as I travel to other distilleries I see that a few people have googled the same thing and it causes this dangerous and bad advice to spread. Make sure to double and triple check advice you get online.
Last month I interviewed JoAnn Elardo from Wicked Dolphin in Florida and asked her if their distillery foresaw the shortage of oak barrels, did you anticipate this shortage as well?
Yes, the shortage has been intense to watch. We have been lucky that my history has given us some long term relationships that have really saved us. It ’s been hard on a lot of people. I see people turning to lower quality wood as an alternative, something we are dedicated to stay away from. I also see people using old wine barrels, but this is something that needs to be done very carefully! There are numerous contaminants and treatments that need to be accounted for. From sulfur treatments that will infuse with high proof, but blows off in wine, all the way to acetic or other biological infection that can infuse a flavor of vinegar or TCA into your spirit from the scents it has created before the alcohol was added.
If people want to contact you, how may they reach you?
Maggie@privateerrum.com or on twitter/instagram: @halfpintmaggie