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Podcast

Distilling British Rum From Scratch

You may not think of the UK as a Rum producing nation but Doug Miller and Ellie Taverner from Scratch Spirits are doing their best to changing that idea.

By: Tiff Christie|April 12,2021

When you think of rum, you often think of warm tropical locations in the Caribbean, but one brand has set the rum world on its head by distilling in the UK.

In a world we normally associate with gin, Scratch distilling has forged a place and won the accolades of fellow rum nerds with their unique take on the spirit.

We talk to Scratch founders and distillers, Doug Miller and Ellie Taverner about ageing in a cold climate, botanicals in rum and how English rum should be drunk.

For more information go to scratchspirits.co.uk or connect with the brand on Instagram

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Interviewer:
When you think of rum, you often think of warm tropical locations in the Caribbean, but one brand has set the rum world on its head by distilling in the UK. In a world we normally associate with gin, Scratch distilling has forged a place and won the accolades of fellow rum nerds with their unique take on the spirit. We talk to Scratch founders and distillers, Doug Miller and Ellie Taverner about ageing in a cold climate, botanicals in rum and how English rum should be drunk. Thank you guys for joining us.

Ellie Taverner:
Thank you.

Doug Miller:
Thanks. Thanks so much. Delighted to be here.

Interviewer:
Now you both have a bit of a reputation for being rum nerds. How did your interest in rum begin?

Doug Miller:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the main question really. I started scratch back in 2015. Ellie is my sister-in-law. I've always loved rum. So, started out at university as most people do trying to make cheap booze and that was making cheap beer. And obviously a key component of making beer is the fermentation. So I kind of got into fermentation in terms of working out different ways of creating alcohol and the next rational thing for me, being a rum lover was to try to turn a ferment into a spirit. And so post uni I started to tinker around in, as most people get started with distilling, in their shed. So I bought a couple of smaller stills, really kind of taught myself. I made a lot of really, really, really bad rum I have to confess, which was pretty awful. But that enabled me to try all different types of sugars, yeasts, water, obviously different combination of those, different fermentation times as we'll come to in a bit. I think length of fermentation has a really big impact on flavour profile.
And also as you know with the UK, the weather is probably the most unpredictable thing we have. And so trying to ferment at different temperature levels as well in terms of either insulating, not insulating, heating ferments, not heating ferments, all those sorts of things. And from there, really in 2015, we then needed to scale up and to do that we have to get licensed and all the regulatory side of things that you have to do. So we did that and then launched in 2016 with a product, our first, which was a golden rum. And it's golden by the fact that it's lightly matured in new oak and then rested in glass.
We went into a few cocktail bars and we were doing quite a roaring trade there, just kind of ticking along and then obviously selling to friends, families and local places. Then we won a couple of awards in 2019 at the IWSC. 2018, sorry, at the IWSC, which is the most prestigious spirits competition in the world. We've got bronze medal for our Golden Rum when we got the bronze medal for our aged rum, which was at that point only a year into its maturation cycle. And for that, that was a huge kind of vindication for us as to the possibilities and the potential of a British rum.
And then that's the point that then COVID hit and we lost 90% of our revenues overnight and had to kind of reassess who our customers were and obviously change to a more consumer facing brand and customer facing brand. And since then, since last summer really, it's kind of gone gangbusters and we're now in the process of scaling up and we're looking to expand the distillery. So, that's all great.

Ellie Taverner:
Yeah, I guess that's sort of where I came into play. So, when COVID hit... I work in the film industry, so I was out of work and I've always been growing up with Doug in my life being such an enthusiast of rum. I've always been so interested in what he was trying to achieve and what he was doing with Scratch. And I said to him, "I can't work at the moment and I'd love to take this opportunity to just learn what you're doing in the distillery." And at first I think he just thought I'd do the rebrand. So he said, "We'll have to change our business plan and be hitting consumers."
So I jumped on board and thought my creative juices could maybe help out here. And naively jumped in thinking I could rebrand all of these new flavours. It was fun but a very big challenge in itself. And then I said to Doug, "I would really love to learn more about the process and what's actually going on." And he kindly taught me everything. And it's just been the most amazing year for me working with Doug and just seeing the brand really take off. Yeah. It's just been really fantastic. So yeah, very, very excited.

Interviewer:
Now how difficult was that going from mainly selling on trade to having to sell to consumers?

Doug Miller:
I think it's interesting because I think the great thing about rum is that when we were in the trade, it was... Setting up from scratch it's never easy, but we had a product where if you went to a bar, they could stock four or 500 rums from around the world, but they couldn't stock a British rum.
And so our golden cocktail rum was a great option for bars because it was a differentiator for them. I think where the opportunity comes on the consumer side of things is that rum as a category, as you know Tiff, is so broad. So you have... I always like to say, there's a rum for everyone because you get Faithful, your white rum, which can go in a cocktail, you can have your aged variety, which could appeal to whiskey drinkers or cognac drinkers.
And then you've got this new category in terms of the botanical rum that we've developed as well as everything in between. And so there's a huge spectrum of rum. So I always find it funny when if someone says to me, "Oh, I don't like rum." Because actually invariably their experience of rum would have been something when they were 15 or 16 getting blind drunk on, let's be honest, something not very good and it's put them off the category.
And in their mind, that's probably... Rum is a very linear square fixed product. And actually it's so broad. There are so many different variations and profiles that in a way, at first glance, I was slightly fearing having to sell it almost exclusively to consumers. The spectrum of offer in terms of product portfolio has really, really helped us because there's just so much choice there within the rum world and within our product portfolio.

Ellie Taverner:
Yeah.

Interviewer:
Normally when you think of British rums, you're thinking of rums that have been blended. How was the reaction of the industry when you started?

Doug Miller:
Everyone said I was slightly mad to be honest and said, "You're bonkers. Why are you doing this? You don't need to do it. There's plenty of good rum out there. You can't even ferment in the UK." And actually, when I applied for my license to HMRC, who are the guys who issue the license in the UK, I think I was the first person they'd ever had come to them with an application for a rum distillery. So there was, I think, a bit of skepticism, shall we say. And I think there probably still was to be fair until we won those awards IWSC and I think then, getting it into a couple of prominent bars and restaurants and also just having more interest on social, more interest from journalists like yourself. I think we're starting to see... When I started, I was the first, maybe there was one or two others in Scotland. There's probably now 15 or 20 doing it in the UK from scratch. So... or 20 doing it in the UK from scratch. So doing the fermentation side of things and the distillation side, and we're only... we're a very, very, very early stage in our rum journey, when I talk about British rum. And I think if you fast forward in 10, 15 years, there's no reason why British rum in my view, can't be the next Japanese whiskey.
So Japanese whiskey, 30 years ago, as you know, completely revolutionised Scottish whiskey and put a slant on that. It stayed true to whiskey, but it managed to put its own craftsmanship, its own style on whiskey. And it's now one of the most popular styles in whiskey in the world. And you can just see by the volume of sales that they do, but also the price points that they hit, that it's got that credibility.
And so for me, British rum can follow that. It's not about replacing the rum that's out there. It's not about replacing Caribbean rum. Look, I love a great Caribbean rum, as much as the next guy. I absolutely adore Mount Gay, Foursquare, some of the great, great rums out there, but I think where there's an opportunity is for British rum to really create a unique style and move the category forward and innovate. And that's what we're looking to do. And to go back to your question, I think that there's been an increasing acceptance of that, particularly over the last year. I think as people have been at home, going mad, stuck at home, not being able to go out, they've gone, "Well, what can I drink that's interesting? What can I drink that I haven't tried before, that's fun? Oh, I'll try a rum. Oh, there's a British rum. I'll try that."
And so I think actually in a weirdly perverse way, while lock down and Corona has been absolutely awful for a number of reasons, and I wouldn't want to suggest it's been good, there have been a few slithers of good things that have come out from it. And particularly for the rum world, I think it's that broader awareness amongst consumers, which hopefully when things go back to normal and everything reopens, consumers then have a bit more of an understanding about the different categories of rum on style, so that when they go to their bar, they don't just go back to asking for the same stuff they had previously, but they're more open to trying something a bit new and hopefully a British rum will be that.

Ellie Taverner:
I think, just to add to that, that's why we've been quite vocal about differentiating ourselves between being British distillers and not just British blenders. We really want to prove that as a British distillery, we are driving and making top quality rum. And there are loads of British rum companies that are importing and blending, but we're not that. We're actually distilling. And we put a lot of our effort into trying to make a top quality rum.

Interviewer:
To be honest the thing that intrigued me most about you guys was the botanical rums that you are producing. Most people when they think of botanicals, they don't think of them going into rum. Talk to us a little bit about how that came about and what you were trying to achieve with that.

Doug Miller:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think from my perspective, I mean, we're all about flavour, not flavourings, right? So one of our key philosophies is that if you want a great product and a great rum that has unique flavours, regardless of whether you use botanicals or not, those flavours have to be naturally made. So that comes from the fermentation process, it comes from the distillation process, and then it comes to what you do after distillation in terms of either maturation in cask, or re-distilling with botanicals.
One of my philosophies is that I didn't want to make just another spice rum. The world doesn't need another spice rum. There are hundreds. And in my view, what we could do is, without adding anything post this stage, without adding sugars, colouring, flavourings, there are so many amazing plants, spices, herbs, botanicals that grow in the UK that have so many interesting flavour compounds. And so in my view, the opportunity there was, look, if we're saying we're going to be doing a British rum from scratch, and we want to create a flavoured rum or a botanical rum, then let's try and use some of the stuff that we've got growing here, because that's how you're going to get a unique new product that no one else has. There's no point in doing the same spicing where you put cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, with some caramel in a thing and then branding it, because you couldn't pick that out in a lineup. And I think the opportunity for botanicals is to showcase the best of Britain, so to speak. So British summer, distilled, but obviously with a rum and not a gin.
And it also helps the fact that gin as a market is so, I think, oversaturated. I mean, there are so many gins out there, that what I'm sensing is a little bit of perhaps consumer fatigue. It's very hard now to differentiate and pick a unique gin within the market. And you can see that gin distillers themselves are starting to move into other areas. And I think a botanical rum offers something different to gin lovers, a slightly drier, more refreshing drink. And a lot of people who have tried our botanical rum, who have been gin lovers, have commented on how refreshing it was to have something completely different, but yet not something so alien that it freaked them out.
So I think in that sense, we've developed a product that a lot of people love and I think there's a lot of scope to broaden it out. So in the future, one of the key things I'd love to do, and Ellie and I have talked a lot about, is firstly growing and lots of the botanicals ourselves. So we've just had completed a greenhouse where we're going to be planting some interesting stuff.
And also, we'd also like to move more towards seasonality. So at the moment the botanical rum we have is based on a batch that we made last summer. What we'd like to do ultimately is get into a system where you have a spring botanical rum, a summer botanical rum, an autumn botanical rum. I mean, in fact, our sloe rum you could argue was autumn because we picked the sloes in September and we did a variety of things, but that's where I think there's a really interesting variation. And then for bars and consumers, that's of course way more interesting because rather than having the same product throughout the year, as the weather changes and people go, "God, it's getting nice outside. I want to go and sit in the sun", you have a different drink from that, as opposed to when it's winter and you want to be inside tucked up by a fireplace and it's all cozy, again, you have another drink, but grounded in British seasonality. So for me, that's something that's a really interesting opportunity and something that we're looking at developing.

Interviewer:
Let me ask, with your botanical rum, it's meant to have a very tropical flavour. How do you derive that from British plants?

Doug Miller:
So that's the interesting thing. So that took over... our botanical rum took about two years to develop. We tried a number of different plants. Some worked really well on their own, they didn't work with others. So to get the blend of six that we have now, took a lot of time. And what we do is we... I won't go into the six because we try to keep them secret. Much like KFC's secret sauce, the spice ingredients. Yeah. So we work with six botanicals. We vapour infuse them, so much like some of the processes used in gin. So you result in a slightly more delicate flavour. But what we do is vapour distill with our white rum in a small 50 litre pot, copper pot still. And then yeah, we vapour distill, and then dilute post.
What we've done, and what I think is really interesting, is identified a couple of plants that carry those tropical notes. And as you say, coconut, vanilla, grapefruit, and again, it goes back to our philosophy, is if you want a coconut flavour, rather than use coconut flavouring, or second option import a coconut from the other side of the world, try to use what we have here. And there are so many different plants, have so many different properties that distillation as a technique, and as a process, has been used for centuries. Not just for creating great spirits, but also for drawing out flavour compounds from plants and flora. And so what we're doing is not necessarily revolutionary in the technical sense, but what is really interesting I think is the way in which we've used British botanicals, as you say, to drive those tropical flavour notes.

Interviewer:
Of course, the other British botanical you've used is blackthorn, the sloe berry. that's a very gin tradition to use that. Were you basically just, shall we say taking the mickey from your fellow gin distillers by doing that?

Doug Miller:
Yeah, I think again, I mean, I'm a rum nerd and I love rum, but don't get me wrong, I love a good G and T and I love sloe gin. And so for me, I didn't want to just replace sloe gin. So our sloe rum was actually a lot more complicated. Traditionally with sloe gin you get your gin, you infuse or you macerate the sloes, and then you add some sugar and you leave it for six months, three months however long and hey presto, there you go. With our sloe rum some people say overly complex, but I think actually it drew out a lot of the, again, going back to flavour compounds, when you redistill sloes and when you oil them and when you vapour infuse them, you get different flavour notes, you can get nutty notes, you can get slightly caramel-y notes, you can get a little bit of spice even from them.
And so what we did is we macerated our sloe rum for about six months. We then re-distilled that rum with sloes in the pot and in the vapour path and then obviously taking certain cuts, we then macerated again, post distillation. And the key thing for us is, as with everything, we didn't add any sugar post the final distillation to our sloes. So what you end up with is a slightly drier, but more flavoursome rum product where sloe, you have all of the elements and constituent parts of that sloe berry. And it's not sweet and it's not overly sickly. And so it goes really well in some cocktails and it can go really well with perhaps some sweetened mixes, but equally on its own. My family, my stepmom who, she loves the cognac, the first thing she said to me was it's almost cognac-esque in terms of its flavour profile.
And so for me, that was really an interesting layer there, and I think it shows the potential of just starting with a really simple ingredient. As you said, it's just a sloe berry, it's used in sloe gin. But actually, can we expand the process to make it a more interesting product? That's the whole thing I think with innovation in drinks generally, is there's two types of innovation. I'm doing inverted commas, 'innovation'. Some people view innovation as just a continuation of what's already been done, but with a nice fancy new label or brand. And then there's the innovation on the technical side in terms of the process side of actually, well let's build upon what others have done, but change the process or push it forward to result in a slightly different profile. And I think that's the interesting angle that we go down, is that later path.

Interviewer:
Let's talk a little bit about your production. Obviously the UK doesn't grow sugar cane, so I assume you're using molasses as a base for the rum?

Doug Miller:
Yeah, absolutely. So we use Grade A molasses, there's a large sugar supplier called Tate & Lyle, they've been around for many years. It is British refined, so they import the base sugar cane to the UK, refine it in their refinery on the Thames, and the byproduct of that refining process is the molasses that we use. And it's Grade A molasses. So I'm sure your listeners are aware of what molasses are, but to the uninitiated, essentially we use Grade A baking, cooking treacle. So as you would use in a Christmas cake or any sort of cake at home. So it's high quality, but it has a wonderful depth of flavour which I love. And I love our white rum, our Faithful Rum because we focus so much on the fermentation that actually, our rum stands up on its own. It doesn't necessarily need ageing or maturation. But the maturation is just elevating and building on the profiles that we develop in the ferment.
And so what we do is we take those molasses and we ferment them with a champagne yeast. And again, the champagne yeast, because we have a colder climate than you would expect the rum normally has in terms of the Caribbean, we have to work within the confines of our environment. So we use a champagne yeast on a longer ferment cycle, so we do anything between two and three weeks for the ferment. Typically, as you may know in the Caribbean, ferments can happen in a number of days. Very rare that you get fermentation in the Caribbean that lasts any longer than four days, a week max. And so when we go to two and three weeks, what you're doing is obviously allowing more time for some of those esters and flavour compounds to develop, but you're also baking in kind of settling down time. So enabling the ferment to chill after it's run its course. And I think that for me also has a huge impact.
The other thing we do is we obviously don't regulate its temps. We run a natural ferment. We insulate because our nights are very, very cold, but we don't intervene in the ferment in terms of artificially heating it or whatever. So as we move through the seasons, the efficiency of our ferment changes, not by much. But what we love doing is having that low intervention kind of ferment and just letting the yeast, letting the molasses, letting the water that we use, we have a well onsite, a borehole where we get natural water from the aquifer, letting that mineral rich water do its part. It's a very simple but amazing process.
And then from there, if you have an excellent ferment, then you're on good ground for the distillation. The challenge you have is if you don't know where your ferment has come from, what's happened with your ferment, it's very hard for you to understand the potential of what your spirit could be. But all of the flavour compounds that you identify in the distillation process and in the maturation process, their foundations are built at the ferment stage. And so you can't ever make great rum if you botch your ferment. At the start, I spend a lot of time getting the ferment right and being able to work within the confines we have and thrive in that setting.

Interviewer:
Another of the differences between you and a Caribbean rum producer is in the ageing. Now, obviously you wouldn't lose as much Angel Share as they would in the Caribbean. What else is the difference between hot weather and cold weather ageing?

Doug Miller:
I think that's a really interesting thing. And I'm obviously relatively early in our ageing life cycle. We've got some rums which are four years, going on five. And I think the interesting thing for me is that the Caribbean tends to have two climates, hot and hotter. And I think for us in the UK, we always moan about the weather, but we have very clearly defined seasons with all the accompanying changes in atmospheric pressure and obviously differences between day and night, highs and lows. And I think the impact upon a cask shouldn't be underestimated in terms of enabling the wood, almost think of it as breathing, to constrict and expand during those seasons. And that obviously changes the interaction and the length of time between the spirit in cask and the wood. And so I think that's one thing that really is going to have a positive impact, because you almost have three mini maturation cycles within a given year based on those temperature and atmospheric pressures.
I think it's very interesting actually as well, a number of the rums that I have in casks, we obviously regularly take samples. And while they're always going to taste different because they're moving through their maturation process, I have noticed that across different barrels, regardless of how old they are, how long they've been spending in that cask, that each cask tastes very different depending on the time of year that the sample is drawn. And that's consistent across cask types. And again, I think that is because of the climate we have. In the Caribbean traditionally, they've been doing amazing rum for hundreds of years and they've got that process and they've got that maturation cycle. And they tend to use New Oak or they tend to use ex American Whiskey casks and I think that produces some fantastic rum. There's a little bit of experimentation going on with some distilleries with different cask types, but I think particularly in the UK, if you look at our geographical area footprint UK. If you look at our geographical area footprint, we've got so much going on in terms of other spirit categories that are close by and other sectors, including wine, obviously in France, but also in England. Also you've got in the UK, this huge craft beer movement. So the other opportunity for me on the cask side is that there are so many different cross categorisation in terms of cask types and use cases that you can use. So a number of our casks we've just got from wine producers, we've got a number of casks from France in terms of I've just had a cognac cask delivered. Also I'm looking at working with a couple of craft beer guys to see if we can get some beer casks. I mean, it's very rare to use wooden crafts but again, that different use type will enable us to be more experimental in the types of rum that we produce. Whereas I think it's slightly harder for some of the Caribbean guys because they are operating in that Caribbean world, mindset, legacy, where they've got exceptional rum. Let's be honest, there's not a huge incentive for them to change that process because it works and it works fantastically well. Because we're a new sector, we've got scope to kind of do what we want and experiment and try new things, obviously within the very broad restrictions that think rum should have as a category.

Interviewer:
I imagine you could play with sherry casks from Spain or red wine casks and variety of different things.

Doug Miller:
Absolutely. So I'm speaking to a couple of Hungarian wine producers around their casks, because obviously with the cask there are a couple of elements broadly the three elements, as you will notice is a, the type of word and the char obviously American versus European Oak. You also have the type of spirit that was in the cast previously, whether it's new Oak, when you get to new Oak, you have the char levels and equally, what if it's a used spirit, what that spirit was, how long for, and then you have size of casks. So you're absolutely right. There is so much potential of integrating European spirits, wine, beer, whatever drinks production, but bringing it to the UK and actually using it to experiment with, with rum, which I think is a really interesting opportunity.

Interviewer:
Distillers always love the idea that people are going to drink their spirits neat. But if someone was going to include some of your rums in a cocktail, which of your expressions would you suggest and what would you suggest they make with it?

Doug Miller:
Yeah. I absolutely agree. I hate being the drinks police. I think some distiller get a bit high and mighty about telling people how they should drink their drink. In my view, if you want to drink it with Coke, if you want to drink it with tonic water, if you want to make a more complex cocktail, absolutely fine. That's your prerogative. I think from my humble perspective, there are a number of interesting cocktails that I love. One of the things that I always have in mind when we're creating our rum and when I'm sipping it neat off the still at 80% is, "Will this work in a daiquiri? Will this work in a Mojito, or a Manhattan?"
I think from that perspective, by thinking about that, and again, it's slightly arrogant of me, cause those are just my favourite drinks. So I just try to make rum that I would love to drink and in those cocktails. Then I hope other people share and enjoy, benchmark rum drink is the daiquiri. So our faithful white rum goes fantastically well in that. The botanical as a daiquiri goes amazingly well. Our golden rum goes particularly well in a jungle bird, which is one of my all time favourites. The patients run that we have, I drink it neat, but it also goes brilliant in a Manhattan, which I love and also in the Old Fashioned. So there's a lot of scope there to be creative. Going back to what we were talking about earlier is with rum, there are so many different types, long, short, tall, whatever of cocktails that you can use rum in. And so as a category, it's so broad that you could basically name pretty much any cocktail and stick rum in it and it would work.

Interviewer:
Now, if people are trying to get a hold of your rum, is it available across the UK?

Doug Miller:
Yeah, absolutely. So we've just signed with a national distributor called Oak and Still, so they will be responsible for obviously pushing it into the on and off trade. In terms of consumers, you can obviously buy it direct from our website, scratchspirits.co.uk. But also you can go to other sites like whiskey exchange and elsewhere. So there are a number of places to buy and I think as we talked about at the start, we've become almost a victim of our own success in that sense, in that we are flat out producing as much rum as we can, which you know, is relatively small because we're a micro distillery and we're now at a stage where we need to ramp up and scale in order to fulfill that demand. So we're looking at expanding the distillery and we were working with a couple of people at the moment to put those plans into place.

Interviewer:
That'd be exciting.

Doug Miller:
Yeah, it is. It's very exciting and it's very daunting but exciting and we're looking like a kid in a sweet shop, you basically designing a distillery from scratch in terms of the expanded version and you start to think about, "Oh, I can get this still or I could get this piece of equipment." Sounds very sad. But actually the boiler that I've got at the moment is coming up to its 50th year and so I think Ronald Reagan was president when it was actually first made.
And so that's while I love it. It's got a few perks where I have to kick it and stuff here, and it needs to be coaxed into life a few times. So it would be nice to have a boiler that you just press one button and you don't have to worry about hurting talks, leavers, that sort of thing.

Interviewer:
What about outside the UK? Have you done much in the way of export?

Doug Miller:
We haven't done anything. As we just talked about is trying to fulfil demands in the UK. I think we've had amazing inquiries and responses from particularly people in the US, absolutely want to do that. I think going back to what we said at the start, British rum as a style, obviously with us leading the way, is something that I think definitely has potential to be exported overseas. I think it is a growing category. So very much watch this space, but at this moment in time, I think sadly we're restricted because our production just to fulfil the UK side of things.

Interviewer:
Well, if people do want more information about your rums, they can, of course, go to your website, which is scratched spirits.co.uk, or connect with the brand on your socials.

Doug Miller:
Yeah, we're on Instagram, which is @scratchbritishrum. So do you give us a follow. I love chatting to people who love rum, and I always make time for people who are new to rum and want to explore it because I think it's really important that people have the confidence to go and buy a great rum.

Interviewer:
Well, look, thank you both for taking the time to speak with us.

Doug Miller:
Thank you so much.

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