I drove to the Savannah area’s first winery, near Statesboro, in 2004. I could have biked to our first beer brewing facility in living memory when Moon River opened in 1999.
But visiting the area’s first distillery in living memory took a lot more effort. Daufuskie Island Rum Co. opened earlier this year and, despite its remoteness, already has attracted about 3,000 visitors from just about every state and continent.
“Rum is an island drink and should be made on an island,” says company founder and rum fanatic Tony Chase. “There are only four rum distilleries in the United States that are island-based. And we’re the only one that’s really difficult to get to.”
There’s no bridge to Daufuskie. You have to hire a boat. And once there, you have to rent a golf cart. The island’s attractions include two lighthouses, an old church, some Gullah homes and its very remoteness, so close to Savannah.
Chase, from Kentucky, moved to this eight-square-mile idyll three years ago to retire. A pharmacist by trade, he set about ending his retirement rather quickly. In business terms, it was lightning speed from concept to tours, tastings and sales.
“It’s all been very difficult,” he says. “The regulations I had to operate under for nursing homes, hospices and pharmacies were far less difficult than I had to operate under here.”
Permits took months. You know the deal. But honestly, the law wouldn’t deter me as much as the idea of making something that, sure, I like, but I actually have no experience making. Chase started the business with little more than a connoisseur’s understanding.
“It’s hard for me to say this because it’s unbelievable,” he says. “But we’ve not had any experimental batches or anything that I’ve had to throw away because I wasn’t happy with them. The very first batch that I tried is the formula that I’ve stuck with and it’s been selling incredibly.”
Chase settled on his rum’s “flavor profile” after years of loving a rum called El Dorado, a rich and smooth Guyanese drink.
“Most white rums can be a bit harsh and have to be mixed into a Coke, a pina colada, a mai tai or something,” he says. “It’s very rare that you’ll see me mix my white rum with anything.”
Daufuskie Island Rum Co. also sells a spiced rum and a gold rum. Watching how Chase concocts these varieties from sugar bags to shot glass is worth the hassle of boats and golf carts. For instance, his gold rum gets its char and oak flavors by aging six months in barrels once used to age his favorite Kentucky bourbon.
“Some of that Woodford Reserve that was soaked into the wood is now leeching into the rum,” he says. “And so what you have is a little of a bourbon start to the taste of your rum but then it finishes with the rum sweetness.”
Once Chase is done with his barrels, he sells them to brewers, who want to leech his rum into beer. And then the brewers sell them to furniture makers. Who knew a barrel had so many lives?
His copper and stainless steel Alabama-made stills are works of art. The rum ferments in tubs made of Louisiana cypress. Everything is American-made, down to the yeast and bottles. He’s even working on growing sugar cane on site. It now comes from Florida.
So whether you like brown liquor or not, the distillery makes an island adventure more worth your time. And if you can’t spare a whole day away, visit your local liquor shelf. Pour a drink and the island will come to you.