Raising a glass to a coastal distillery that combines traditional methods with ingredients from the wilds of west Cornwall.
Words by Hannah Tapping
Mounts Bay Distillery is nestled in a copse, high above Praa Sands beach with views out across the bay. Arriving on a bright morning, the air is fresh and the heady smell of salt on the air, mixed with the sweet coconut of early gorse flowers, fills my nostrils. Warmly greeted by owners Lisa, her Nordic lilt giving away her Swedish heritage, and Ben, whose soft Cornish tones tell of his birthplace, we head into the distillery to talk about all things rum.
Meeting Lisa while travelling in Australia, the couple returned to Ben’s roots in the Duchy. Ben’s background is in food; working as a chef in his younger days in the nearby fishing village of Porthleven, he went on to cater for hungry mouths on the high seas. Fitting then, as a self-confessed rum lover with a passion for food, flavour and the ocean that he would turn to distilling.
In terms of the finer points of distilling, I’m a novice so I ask Ben to talk me through the process. “We make our rum from scratch using molasses, water and yeast,” explains Ben. “This requires a licence which is hard to get and is normally reserved for larger distillers with 1800 litre stills. To put it into perspective, ours is only 200 litres. We started off with something called a rectifiers and compounders licence which meant we could buy in spirits, add flavouring to them, and then sell them as our own. A lot of people do this, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but our main goal was to make rum from molasses, sugars or any other sugar cane juice derivative from scratch.”
Ben goes on to explain that the process, as with many a good drink, starts with boiling the kettle; although in Ben’s case his is a 200-litre one! He does this four times to give him 1000 litres of water to which he adds molasses, as well as yeasts, PH adjusters and nutrients for the yeast. This is then left to ferment in a vat for a set period of time, at the end of which you have what’s known as a ‘rum beer’ or a ‘rum wash’ which is then distilled to create a white rum. I’m allowed a deep sniff from a previous batch – at around 60% proof it’s not drinkable at this stage – but you can already smell sweet notes of butterscotch.
“Once we have our white rum,” continues Ben, “we put it into casks, which we then leave for varied amounts of time depending on whether we want a gold rum, or we can leave it longer for a dark rum. A lot of the flavours change when you cask age. There are esters in rums which interact with the wood sugars in the barrel, they create other chemical compounds which then give you tropical flavours like banana, toffee apple and pineapple.”
I learn that all rums start off white and then you can colour them by adding caramels or you can use barrel char, which is what Ben does along with charred and cooked wood chips made from sherry casks to oak the rum: “Temperature plays an important role in flavour too as it affects the wood sugars. For example, if you cook at 200 degrees, you might get more spice than if you cook at a lower temperature, where you’ll get more vanilla. The science is mad! The other cool thing is that sometimes casks are used for convenience without knowing how much of a difference they make to the flavour. It turns out that copper and wood are the best things to play around with spirits, as the copper removes the nasty compounds while the wood sugars affect the flavour.”
One of the barrels comes from the Diamond distillery in Guyana where they are one of only five distilleries to still use a wooden still. “Their rums are heavily estered”, says Ben, “meaning they’ve got all these cool flavours. There’s actually an ester count for how much flavour a rum has. You might have a really clean rum, which is more like a vodka, or you can have a heavy, 1000-ester count rum from the Caribbean where it’s actually been infected with washes containing bacteria, acids… all sorts of different things.” Ben does this too, which he says is similar to fermenting food with lactic fermentation.
When he makes the rum wash, he infects it with bacteria and that competes with the yeast creating more flavour. The distillery has its own ‘mother’ which is fed with the waste rum wash or ‘dunder’ and then a percentage of that is put back into the rum to increase flavour. Ben also adopts an open ferment, allowing wild natural yeasts to settle on the surface, making each rum unique and interesting.
“Once you have your rum wash I then do a stripping run, running the wash hard and fast through the still to get as much alcohol out as possible. Once you’ve taken all the alcohol, you end up with something called low wines. We then proof that down to 30% and run it back through the still again, but this time, we run really slowly and carefully and the we take our cuts.” As you distil you get heads, hearts and tails, with hearts being the main part of the rum, the good stuff. “For a clean white rum, you just want to take the hearts, but if you want to make a dark rum with more flavour you might take a little bit of heads and a little bit of tails that will marry well with the wood sugars in the barrels.”
As a chef turns to his spice rack, Ben has boxes of natural flavourings he uses in his rums and gins. From pepper dulce seaweed foraged from the pools just below the distillery to local honey, he is as much of a culinary craftsman in the distillery as he is in the kitchen. For such carefully crafted spirits, only the most beautiful bottles will do. Illustrator, Jago Silver’s design adorns the Keynvor bottles, a honey spiced rum balanced with salty seaweed umami tones. The Ebba gin, which gets its crisp citrus notes from Cornish seaberries, sea aster and locally foraged samphire comes in an exquisite ceramic bottle, designed especially for Mounts Bay Distillery.
What strikes me is that everything that Ben and Lisa do has purpose and meaning. There is no settling for second best here. Even if a process takes longer or requires more research, they will absolutely do this in order to achieve the best possible product. Sustainability, of course, is something which they also take very seriously; repurposing ‘waste’ water; using Hoffman Haulage, a carbon-free logistics company, to deliver their products in Cornwall; posting bottles in Flexi-Hex’s eco-friendly bottle packaging. All of which makes each sip of a Mounts Bay Distillery spirit that little more special.