Updated: Nov 22, 2022
In conversation with Dr Tom Read, head distiller of Cornwall’s first genuine British rum.
We are seeing more and more distilleries of all kinds pop up across the county as discerning drinkers demand handcrafted Cornish spirits. What started with a movement that saw the increase in the local distillation of gin, vodka and whiskey has now seen rum join its ranks. This deep amber nectar has its roots in the Caribbean and is made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane molasses and, while there are a number of rum distilleries in Cornwall, not all are equal. It is the very nature of how a rum is distilled that sets each one apart as we found out while chatting to Managing Director and Head Distiller of the Bude-based Cornish Distilling Co, Dr Tom Read.
Can you tell me a little of your background?
While my background is in science and academia and I spent a long time at Exeter University studying a Degree, a Masters and a PhD all focused on biochemistry, my true passion is food, drink and the sea. I've always lifeguarded on the beach and Bude is my hometown.
How does a Doctor of biochemistry come to be making rum in Bude?
I met Richard and Fionagh Harding – who own and run Norton Barton Artisan Food Village on the outskirts of Bude, that is home to the Cornish Distilling Co, Cornish Charcuterie and Popti Thins as well Whalesborough Cheese – in a bar in Bude a few years ago. We started chatting and Richard was telling me about certain things they were doing at Norton Barton, the farm Richard and Fionagh own. I wasn't aware of any of what was happening up there but, knowing my biochemistry background, Richard asked if I had ever considered distilling. I hadn't, but all of a sudden it was like, wow, I can combine all of my science background with my passion for food and drink. And I still get to stay in my hometown with my friends and family on the beaches that I love!
My academic background lends itself well to the process – in fact I used to teach distillation to undergraduates at university, although we weren't making booze! However, I've been able to apply those principles to the food and drinks industry, which I actually find much more interesting, and it’s nice to be able to sample the results of my experiments!
How did you know where to begin?
As a result of our conversation, Richard and I became business partners in the Cornish Distilling Co, and back in 2016, drove over to Holland to pick up our first still from iStill and, on our return, basically Googled how to make rum!. We've grown a lot since then but have remained focused on our primary product, rum, which differs from a lot of other producers out there.
What sets the Cornish Distilling Co apart?
You'll notice there are a lot more UK rum brands these days, but very few of them are actually producing the base spirit; the majority will buy in rum and then flavour and bottle it. Our main point of difference is that we are an authentic, genuine British rum. We buy the raw ingredients here and make the base alcohol from scratch at a distillery.
What ingredients do you use?
Rum has to be made from sugarcane, you can’t use sugar beet, and so use sugar cane molasses as our primary ingredient and Cornish water to produce the rum on site. We ferment and then distill the spirit off. Once we have that spirit, we then decide how it’s going to be used. So, it might go into our white rum or we might infuse it or flavour it with whole spices after fermentation. If this is the case it sits in tanks macerating for a while, which is how we make our spiced rums. We will then sweeten and bottle it. Every process from start to finish, from raw ingredients right through to packing boxes of bottled rum on to a pallet to be dispatched out, is done in the distillery.
Tell me about your products?
We always have our core products; Morvenna White Rum, Morvenna Spiced Rum, Mooncurser Spiced Rum and Kalka Coffee Rum and our batch size continues to increase based on demand. We also produce a Bude Gin, launched this year, which has been really popular in the local area and saw a limited edition Jubilee variety. Finally, we have just started to make Mala Bude which is a limited edition coconut rum and we have also filled a number of barrels with rum that will be released in the future once matured.
The spiced rum is flavoured post distillation, while the gin is flavoured pre- and during distillation. It's a London-style dry gin with plenty of juniper and coriander so it’s quite traditional in flavour. There's also some citrus, angelica and liquorice in there and we have given it a seaside twist with some seaweed. Finally, we added some Grains of Paradise for a bit of a kick!
We want to make products that we enjoy drinking ourselves and as I like a classic, solid gin that’s what we made. My mum, the artist Sue Read, drew the local artwork for the front of the bottle, and we used local designers to create the labels, which are all plastic free – we wanted it to represent the town in a good way.
In what other ways are you able to protect the environment?
We have a wind turbine which powers the majority of electricity for the whole site and bore holes that provide all our cooling water which avoids wasting water, particularly important this year with such a dry summer. We use only plastic free packaging for all the products we send out and retail customers can buy products from across the Norton Barton Artisan Food Village site in one go, reducing the number of parcels sent out.
Bude, Widemouth Bay and the surrounding north Cornish coast offers a wonderful location for an autumn-winter break. From wild cliff top walks to gentler strolls around Bude’s boutique shops, now is the time to experience a quieter, more contemplative side of Cornwall. With that said, there is still a wealth of cosy cafés, boutique bars and award-winning restaurants to choose from… and, of course, a host of artisan producers that will make your breakfast, lunch or dinner table a veritable feast.
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