SARASOTA — I'm standing at a table that appears to be half chemist's bench and half impromptu bar. While holding a plastic thimble of clear liquid, I listen to the story of how molasses pressed from organically grown Florida sugarcane becomes that rare thing, a sippable white rum of character.
The man telling the tale is distiller Troy Roberts, lifelong rum aficionado and co-owner of Drum Circle Distilling, a distillery and producer of small-batch, hand-bottled rums. Siesta Key White Rum hit retailers' shelves and bartenders' arsenals — first on Siesta Key, of course — in March. The first batch of Siesta Key Golden Rum, Roberts says, needs a few more weeks in 10-gallon new American oak barrels before it is ready for market.
We sampled the young white rum from Batch 1 first. It was crystal clear and full flavored, aromatic on the nose and smooth but with just enough agreeable edge on the palate. It would be fine simply poured over ice, but it would make a mighty good mojito, too.
Next we barrel-sampled the aged rum, the golden, straight. The rambunctious youngster, weighing in at this stage of its life at an overmuscled 65 percent alcohol by volume, nearly lifted the top of my head off. Then Roberts cut a sample in half with water to approximate its polish when it has finished its time in the barrel, to yield a civilized 80 proof spirit. The golden rum, having borrowed some structural tannins and its color from the oak, is even smoother than the white and more complex. It compares favorably with my usual rum of choice, Mount Gay Barbados.
Everything about Drum Circle Distilling is small-scale and hands-on. Roberts and his father assembled the gleaming stainless steel mixing and fermentation tanks and the copper still and rectifying column. They scraped and painted the floors and walls of the industrial park warehouse-turned-distillery. They're the ones who mop up after the messy business of loading the mixing tanks and transferring the sticky mix of molasses and water to the fermentation tanks, where Roberts' own custom blend of two yeasts is introduced into the process prior to distilling. Likewise for moving the raw rum into aerating tanks and, for the golden, on into barrels. The bottles are filled, corked and labeled by hand and then the batch number is entered by hand on each label, which bears an evocative island illustration by Ringling College of Art & Design graduate Ron Borrensen.
The white rum retails for about $22 and the golden is expected to go for less than $25. For the growing list of merchants, bars and restaurants where you can buy the product of Roberts' labor of love, check out drumcircledistilling.com.
John Bancroft is a freelance writer in Sarasota, specializing in food, wine and travel.