While tourists might think of Florida as a laid back kind of place, we're not content to rest on our laurels. So, in addition to the proliferation of excellent craft breweries, South Florida recently became home to Black Coral Rum, what stands as Palm Beach County's only rum distillery owned and operated by South Florida native Ben Etheridge, and his father Clint.
Most people think of the Caribbean when they hear the word "rum," where a 100-year-old tax break makes it easy for products from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — like Bacardi and Captain Morgan — to make a lot of liquor for a lot of profit. But not many know there's actually a long tradition of rum distilling right here in the United States.
Today, the American rum industry is slowly gaining momentum. While you no doubt live close to a local microbrewery, now the latest trend is the spread of local craft liquor distilleries, each bringing small-batch, artisan-style gins, rums, and whiskeys to the market. And Black Coral Rum in Riviera Beach is one of them.
Born and raised in Royal Palm Beach, Etheridge says his family loves rum.
"And when you drink as much rum as we do, it can get very expensive," said Etheridge. "So we decided it would be a lot easier if we just made our own."
Last year, Etheridge founded Black Coral Rum. He did his research, managed to scrap together enough money to piece together the basic equipment, and set up shop in an industrial warehouse in Riviera Beach. Since then, the self-taught rum distiller has worked tirelessly to perfect a unique process that produces a flavorful, smooth-drinking "original" white and spiced rum.
Etheridge isn't alone. Across the country, there are a lot of other people making local rum or whiskey or gin. According to Federal permit data, between 2008 and 2012 the number of craft distilleries more than doubled — from around 160 to more than 450. What makes Black Coral Rum truly unique is its robust flavor profile, which offers distinct notes of buttery-rich caramel and butterscotch.
Rather than use sugar, Etheridge sources Florida-grown sugar cane molasses for his rum. Not only does this support local agriculture, says Etheridge, but the plant matter helps retain more sugar during the distillation process — something that helps set his rum apart from many other mass-marketed rums.
From there, Etheridge distills Black Coral Rum in small batches using all handcrafted, custom-fabricated equipment; ages it in charred white oak barrels; flavors the spiced rum with all-natural ingredients like Madagascar vanilla beans; and does it all without any artificial ingredients, thickening agents, or added sugar.
And although each run produces about 700 bottles per distillation, Etheridge says he only harvests 300 — less than 50 percent, what is otherwise known as the "heart of the run." The rest is redistilled, or tossed.
"Why do we do that?" asks Etheridge. "We're working to remove the methanol, the unwanted crap, the stuff that gives you the hangover. We make a lot less money doing that, but that's not what we're after. We just want to make a good rum."
While mass-produced liquors will leave a percent of the methanol in each run, producing batch after batch, Black Coral Rum runs on a single batch distillation process, giving Etheridge the time — and ability — to remove such undesirable elements. By doing so, he's producing an incredibly flavorful, smooth rum. And if you manage to make your way through a bottle fairly quickly, apparently your hangovers won't be too bad, either.
Make no mistake: Black Coral Rum is an artisanal operation. At the Riviera Beach-based distillery, everything is done by hand. For the time being, the production process remains a two-man operation. Together, Etheridge and his father do everything the old-fashioned way, from sourcing the ingredients, managing the distillation process, and bottling and labeling the rum to cleaning the stills after each run.
A do-it-yourself guy, Etheridge even hand-crafted most of his distillery's equipment himself — everything from the 500-gallon still fashioned from virgin American copper shaped at General Sheet Metal Works to the handcrafted column still he cut and formed with the help of Marine Exhaust Systems, both in Riviera Beach.
"That makes Black Coral Rum an all-American — and Florida-made — product," says Etheridge.
Keeping with that theme, Etheridge has partnered with a local veterans' organization that supports the families — mainly the widows and children — of fallen service members. When you buy a bottle of Black Coral Rum, you're also drinking and toasting to a good cause: for every bottle sold, Black Coral Rum donates $1 to Operation 300, a Hobe Sound-based non-profit organization that features one of the highest donation schedules in the country.
Desire a taste? Each week, Etheridge promotes his product by handing out samples at local events, festivals, bars, and restaurants. To find out where he'll be next, follow Black Coral Rum on Facebook.
"We make amazing rum, by hand, the old fashioned away from natural ingredients," said Etheridge. "I'm extremely proud of what we're doing."
Black Coral Rum is located at 1231 W 13th Street, Riviera Beach. Call 561-766-2493, or visit blackcoralrum.com.