Maggie Campbell – Leading America’s Rum RevolutionBy Matt Pietrek
It’s a hot June day in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Maggie Campbell, Privateer Rum’s master distiller, glances at the clock yet again, then at the still. What’s coming off are the hearts—the good alcohol that’s safe to drink. This distillation is taking longer than expected, and it’s no ordinary distillation. She’s distilling the high-proof tails—what’s left after the hearts have finished—from prior distillations.
THE QUEEN’S SHARE
While many distilleries dispose of their tails, Privateer saves them up over many runs, then re-distills them. The result is dubbed the Queen’s Share, because of its full, rich flavor. Privateer’s Queen’s Share and high proof Navy Yard expressions are among the crème de la crème of North American rums—cask strength flavor bombs that go toe to toe with Caribbean rums.
Privateer Navy Yard Rum / Photo Credit: Matt Pietrek
When it comes to craft spirits, nearly anybody with enough time, training and the right equipment can produce a spirit that meets the legal criteria. However, making it flavorful is a trickier proposition. Beyond that, making them competitive with American heritage distilleries like Maker’s Mark is a whole other level.
Many upstart American distilleries have cropped up in the past decade, but true, modern-day masters are four-leaf clover rare. While not well-known or distributed outside of New England, Privateer Rum and Maggie Campbell certainly qualify, and have acquired serious respect from rum experts like Martin Cate.
MAGGIE’S SPIRITED JOURNEY
While she’s only in her early 30s, Maggie started her spirited journey over a decade ago. After catching the distilling bug from a Scotch whisky distillery visit, she earned a distilling degree from the Siebel Institute. She also landed a job at the California’s legendary Germain-Robin distillery, famous for using highly refined and challenging cognac techniques.
Master Distiller Maggie Campbell / Photo Credit: Privateer Rum
In her role as the assistant distiller at Germain-Robin, Maggie learned the old school, old world ways of distillation. After leaving Germain-Robin, she started the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program in 2011, subsequently earning her WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits; the highest degree awarded.
However, finding another distilling gig after Germain-Robin wasn’t easy. In a male-dominated industry, young Maggie had a tough time getting anybody to take a chance. Eventually, a mentor (Hubert Germain-Robin himself) connected her with Privateer Rum CEO Andrew Cabot, who was looking for a master distiller. In early 2012, Maggie took over as master distiller and immediately recast the distillery to her hard-won sensibilities.
SLOW AND LOW – THAT IS THE TEMPO
The Privateer distillery occupies the middle of an otherwise unremarkable industrial park. Once inside, it’s hard to miss Privateer’s two stills. A thousand-gallon Vendome pot-still handles the stripping runs. Nearby is Privateer’s crown jewel—a gleaming, copper eau-de-vie still used for final distillation. The eau-de-vie still is a complex, finely tuned instrument. It can make beautiful music, but requires a maestro to showcase its full potential. Maggie is just such a master. In Maggie’s world, there are no shortcuts and no “good enough”. Every choice she makes is about creating optimal rum flavor.
Privateer Rum’s copper stills / Photo Credit: Maggie Campbell
For starters, Privateer’s fermentation takes six days; far longer than the typical fermentation in the Caribbean. By going slower, the yeast creates fewer unpleasant tastes in the wash. Maggie also uses a special yeast recipe, known only to her. Depending on which rum she’s making, she uses different combinations of evaporated cane sugar, real boiled brown sugar and grade A molasses. All sourced from the USA, of course.
After distillation, Privateer barrels its rum at a relatively low 110 proof, which makes the aging take longer, but the resulting spirit retains more of the original flavors from fermentation. Each distillation batch is laboriously matched to a barrel that is optimal for bringing out desired flavor characteristics. When proofing fresh distillate down to barrel-entry proof, Privateer uses barrel-aged water proofed to 30 percent ABV. This old cognac technique shocks the spirit less.
“One of the things that really differentiates Maggie’s rums is her holistic approach to all of their products,” says Martin Cate, one of Maggie’s many fans. “Her concept of the final product informs all the choices she makes from the very beginning of the process—the actual blend of raw materials, yeast selection, fermentation times, rectification plates, time, barrel selection—everything.”
KEEPING IT FRESH
Among Privateer’s racks of aging rums is a single cask of American Single Malt. It’s a perfect example of how Privateer experiments and stretches outside of the comfort zone, while still making a great core product line: Silver, Amber and Navy Yard expressions. Once fully aged, this single malt will join the string of limited releases that keep the distillery staff challenged. Prior limited releases include peach brandy, a double pot-stilled rum, and a Tiki gin with the de rigueur juniper plus tropical flavors. Taking things to the extreme, during its distillation, Maggie hung a pineapple in the still.
A collection of Privateer Rum’s bottlings / Photo Credit: Matt Pietrek
“Her education in French spirits is reflected in this élevage-like approach. Each expression Privateer produces is unique and clearly tells the story of both ‘how’ and ‘why’ it came to exist.” Says Cate.
It doesn’t take long after meeting Maggie to realize that deep knowledge of wine and spirits is incredibly important to her. Achieving a WSET level 4 diploma is impressive enough, but this is just a prerequisite for the extraordinarily challenging Masters of Wine program, which takes several years of intense study. Not surprisingly, Maggie is in the final stage of achieving her Master of Wine certification. If studying for her Master of Wine certificate while distilling at Privateer weren’t enough, she also serves on the Board of Directors for the American Craft Spirits Association, focusing on judging and education.
With so much demonstrated talent and drive to learn, it’s no surprise that she’s now a Vice President at Privateer and will likely take on an even bigger role someday. Maggie and her team at Privateer have demonstrated that a new, golden age of American rum is within their sights. If they continue like they have, American rums could someday be as sought after as their Caribbean counterpart.
Now it’s time to get your hands on some American rums!