Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Turning Cane Sugar into Rum

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Turning Cane Sugar into Rum

Article excerpt

With beer and wine, yeasts turn the sugars in the solution - a grain tea or a fruit tea, if you will - into alcohol that people consume with the rest of the liquid. It's the same thing with spirits, except that the fermented solution is almost boiled to extract the concentrated alcohol, which then frequently is aged in wooden barrels or otherwise for additional flavor.

"Beer with the water removed," jokes Tim Russell, who gives tours every Saturday afternoon, for $15 per person, at his Maggie's Farm Rum/Allegheny Distilling in the Strip District. Tourgoers and bar patrons alike get a beautiful view of two Spanish-made copper pot stills, with tubes to capture the alcohol vapor that is chilled through a condenser that turns it back into liquid - the distillate. A "spirits run" can take 12 hours.

"It's way more boring than people realize," Mr. Russell quips. "But we can make it look sexy." Especially if you're holding one of the Rum Room's craft cocktails.

As he explains, the big still is used to heat water to make the simple syrup with turbinado sugar - cane sugar in the raw - that is cooled and then a Caribbean yeast is added. After four or five days in a stainless-steel tank, that yeast is done, but wild yeast and bacteria continue to feed on the sugars and add flavor to this sugar wine. After about two weeks, the liquid is heated in the big still on a "stripping run" to remove the alcohols and flavor compounds from the water, which is discarded. A batch that starts out at 500 gallons at 10 percent alcohol (by volume) might become 75 gallons at 30 percent alcohol.

Then that "low wine" is put into the second still, for the spirits run, during which the distiller carefully heats it again, in stages, so that the "heads" part - the poisonous methanol - is boiled off first and discarded. Or used as a sidewalk de-icer or cleaner. (Says Mr. Russell, "I've only bought one bottle of Windex ever. …

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