So you’ve decided to open your own Granite State micro-distillery, specializing in rum, and now you want to come up with something truly unique that reflects the character of central/northern New England.
Hmmm … a potato rum just seems wrong at so many levels. A cheddar rum would only make Vermonters happy. How about a blueberry rum made strictly with local lowbush blueberries?
Now, truth to tell, that’s not exactly the thought process that Sea Hagg Distillery owner Heather Hughes went through when she started her North Hampton, N.H., operation in 2011.
But one thing that’s absolutely accurate is the existence of Sea Hagg Blueberry Rum … and it’s a corker (pun partially intended), a terrific beverage.
Whatever would possess someone to open a micro-distillery in a small industrial park on New Hampshire’s Route 1? Three things, in no particular order: a beautiful Caribbean island (Vieques), a love of rum, and the need to make a dual career change.
Hughes and Ron Vars (Sea Hagg distiller, Hughes’ partner, and jack-of-all-trades) were lying in the sun on a perfect day, sipping rum and looking for a new challenge.
As you might imagine, the idea of endlessly touring the Caribbean, sampling all those rums, and then importing the best to New Hampshire was highly appealing. The fun! The tax write-offs! The adventure!
But then reality set in, and Hughes realized that making her own rum was the best business plan. “What did good New England rum taste like when it was done right?” she wondered.
For starters, it was molasses-based. Many popular brands rely on less expensive cane juice, according to Hughes. Molasses has a longer shelf life and gives the rum a richer, more complex flavor, she says.
Hughes took some courses, bought the mandatory copper still (European model, styled circa 1780) and dove in.
The silver and amber rums were obvious choices. Sea Hagg’s spiced rum is the best-seller among the 500 total cases of liquor the business has thus far sold each year, according to Hughes. But then she realized a simple rum-based truth: “Flavored stuff is huge right now,” she says. “The millennials have a sweet tooth.”
And that’s how Sea Hagg’s blueberry rum was born, along with the seasonal strawberry and peach rums.
But the good people at Sea Hagg didn’t stop there. They now also produce some brandies, an apple-based eau-de-vie (90 proof), as well as a clear Irish whiskey, a Poitín, which is 94 proof. It’s a sort of legal Emerald Isle moonshine, and trust me, it has the kick of a demented mule.
The operation is very much DIY, similar to what you would find in micro-distilleries scattered across the region. There is the big copper still, a couple of stainless steel fermentation tanks, various storage barrels … and, of course, a dog, something that seems to be de rigueur in local craft distilleries these days. (Zoe is a jet-black hunting poodle — first loud, then friendly, and very proud of her environment.)
A typical example of the down-home approach to their craft: a portable electric stove sits on a tabletop with what look like big pasta pots on the two burners.
There’s no linguine here, though. One pot is half-filled with blue wax, the other with orange. After each Sea Hagg bottle is corked, the neck is hand-dipped into wax to assure a sturdy seal.
What about the Sea Hagg name? Over the years, too many “pirate things” (my phrase, not hers) have been related to rum, Hughes says. Since she owns the business, she decided to come at rum from another angle and add a feminine, slightly naughty touch.
Sea Hagg Distillery has a tasting room and welcomes visitors (call first). It’s a regular stop on New Hampshire brewery tours and has been featured on the popular news magazine program “New Hampshire Chronicle.”
The state allows Sea Hagg to sell up to 5,000 cases of liquor annually. At the moment, that leaves room for a tenfold increase in sales, so Hughes says the obvious next steps are to buy more equipment and increase sales and distribution efforts.
She also intends to expand the product line. “We are pushing the flavor end of things,” she says, “and really trying to mix it up and regularly produce seasonal product.”
Lobster rum, anyone? Just kidding!
Sea Hagg products are available at New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets and are served in a few bars and restaurants in the North Hampton area. They’ve also started creeping across the state line and are popping up in some Massachusetts stores.
Sea Hagg Distillery: North Hampton, N.H. / (603) 379-2274 / SeaHaggDistillery.com