A quick history quiz: What were Colonial New England’s most popular trading goods? Well, there was lumber, cod, and … and … and … ?
How about rum?
Though most people think of tropical isles when the subject turns to rum, there was a long stretch in New England’s past when the area produced more rum than the Caribbean.
And that bit of local history inspired a onetime high school history teacher to “bring back the good ol’ days” in Ipswich. ( Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )
Mat Perry and lifelong friend Evan Parker make up the two-person Ipswich enterprise known as Turkey Shore Distilleries, and since 2010 the two (along with any friends they can con into helping) have been producing Old Ipswich Rum in their micro-distillery.
“We’re trying to replicate what an old New England-style rum was like,” says Perry, Turkey Shore’s co-owner. Up to a point, that is. Perry is quick to add that local Colonial fathers pretty much “drank anything,” and that many of the local rums produced in the Colonial era were basically get-drunk-quick liquors.
So the two men are more interested in reviving a once-thriving local industry than with copying it. It’s easy to understand why Perry was bitten by the rum bug. He grew up in a house on Turkey Shore Road in Ipswich, and research revealed that the property once was home to a rum distillery founded in 1770. In Colonial times, the shoreline in that area was called Turkey Shore.
Turkey Shore Distilleries makes a white rum; a dark, “tavern-style” rum; and two seasonal rums. Greenhead Spiced Rum, available in the spring, uses white rum as a base and blends lemon grass, green tea and mint infusions. Golden Marsh, an autumn specialty, includes cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and more. The 750-mL bottles are all priced in the low-to-mid $20 range and are available at various stores in eastern Massachusetts (see their website for a full listing). The distillery is expected to produce about 20,000 bottles this year.
A visit to the distillery — a small, rectangular space with a loft that serves as an office area — is in some ways a trip to an earlier era. Tucked in the back corner of the room, by the 2,200-gallon molasses tank, is a 250-gallon copper pot still, the obvious centerpiece of the operation.
There are oak aging barrels, four 500-gallon fermenting tanks, a big chocolate Lab named Tank who lives up to the name when he greets you, and an area where all the bottles’ labels are literally applied by hand, a method Parker quips is “exceptionally Jurassic.”
It takes up to two-and-a-half weeks for the molasses, water and yeast to mix well, take two trips through the still, and then a pass through a condenser and filter system before it’s stored in those oak barrels for close to a year.
When a recent visitor noticed clear, potent liquor dripping from a pipe that was running from the still to a beaker
that contained a swirling hydrometer, he joked that it didn’t seem all that different from watching an episode of Discovery Channel’s reality show “Moonshiners.”
Truth is, the two processes aren’t all that dissimilar. But the equipment and results are. The still, for example, was custom-designed for Turkey Shore Distilleries, based on an updated version of 250-year-old models. It cost a cool $117,000 and is light years removed from the playthings used by Tickle and his cohorts on “Moonshiners.”
The consistency and quality of Turkey Shore Distilleries’ rums have already won a handful of top industry awards, and Perry says the general public’s initial response has been “wonderful.”
But he also understands that for many people “it is a huge leap of faith” to understand and accept the concept of “craft rums.”
That is, until you taste one.
Turkey Shore Distilleries is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday at 23 Hayward St. #8, in Ipswich. It is open for tours and tastings most business hours. Weekend tours are by appointment. Call ahead to confirm at (978) 356-0048. For more information, visit TurkeyShoreDistilleries.com.