Five years ago, Maggie’s Farm Rum sold its first bottle of rum.
The distillery, located in the Strip District, opened its doors in November 2013. Their first style of rum, Maggie’s Farm White Rum, has won eight awards, including a gold medal from the Rum Renaissance Festival. Now, the distillery has introduced spiced rum, dark rum, pineapple rum, and others on the way to becoming one of America’s most awarded distilleries.
This Saturday, they're celebrating five years in the rum business with a party under the 31st St. Bridge. There will be food trucks, bands, and of course, rum.
To celebrate these last five years of a rum-filled Pittsburgh, City Paper spoke with Tim Russell, founder and one of the owners of Maggie’s Farm Rum.
What’s the story behind Maggie’s Farm Rum?
It came from a bit of a revelation and previous job experience that I wasn’t really happy in. I wanted to work for myself. I had a hobby of brewing beer at the time, so like everybody else, I thought I was going to go ahead and open a brewery. I wasn’t a very good brewer, I’ll admit that.
Around the same time, I noticed law changes coming on the pipeline that were going to revolutionize craft distilling in Pennsylvania. The law change allowed a distillery to operate like a brewpub. It seemed to make a lot more sense if we could sell bottles and drinks by the glass to customers. The margins on those could support a smaller startup.
The Siebel Institute in Chicago had just started a craft distilling operations and management program and I happened to be on their email list. I decided to take my savings to complete the program. That’s when the planning started, almost eight years ago.
Is there anyone else involved in the business?
I have two minority partners. We’ve been 100 percent owned by founders since the first day.
How different was distilling rum than brewing beer?
At first, it was more difficult than I realized. We were producing rum but didn’t have much of a baseline. The rum we used has turbinado sugar, not molasses. Looking back on some of the early batches, I can realize they weren’t up to the standard. But the process itself was a little easier than brewing. And, it hadn’t been tackled before.
Why did you choose to use turbinado sugar?
Being a young startup, I knew we had to differentiate ourselves and have more of a story to tell. But we just liked it better. Traditionally, 95 percent of rums are made from molasses. We wanted to use turbinado because it gave better character and tasted better for a young, white rum.
Were you ever unsure that Maggie’s Farm would be successful?
I never felt unsure. I didn’t give myself a choice. There’s always obstacles, but you put your nose down and work through them.
Did you expect Maggie’s Farm to be so popular?
I didn't. I thought we’d get the doors open and try to sustain ourselves. We thought it was going to be a neighborhood, ‘mom and pop’ distillery, but we’ve done well enough to self-fund five different expansions to this date. We’re available in seven or eight states, and I’ve got three more on the way in 2019.
How has Maggie’s Farm changed in the past five years?
We’ve gotten a lot better. The demand is up, the bar area is crowded. Definitely more butts in seats. We’ll have nine different rums including special releases by the end of the year. The quality has gotten much better and I think the awards reflect that.
What’s the process behind creating a new rum?
We try to see what’s out there, what’s missing, and find a niche somewhere in between. There’s a lot of flavored rums, but we don’t see naturally flavored rums. We approach with the mindset of all-natural. We figure out how to do it right. Our spices rum, for example, use eight different spices. It’s a dry rum, not sweet and syrupy like most.
People always ask about coconut rum. I don’t know of any coconut rum that’s made with real coconut, and we’ve tried it. We just can’t figure it out. It doesn’t meet our standards.
Why did you pick rum?
I originally planned to do whiskey, because that’s what I drank. But I saw obstacles in whiskey. At the time, nobody in Pennsylvania was making rum. It was lower cost and less barrier to entry. Once we got into it we decided to stick with it. We’ve never made anything else. People always give you a funny look when they hear about a distillery in Pittsburgh.
They don’t expect it. It catches people off guard. Rum has this perception that it’s a Caribbean import or from a warmer climate. No one was making rum in Pennsylvania before prohibition. You wouldn’t truck molasses over the Allegheny Mountains, you would make it near the port and ship rum over.
What do you hope for Maggie’s Farm in the next five years?
We want to be more of a national brand and we’re going to open up a second facility to do that. We’re running out of room. We’re on top of each other; in the last couple of years, we’ve been building up and not out.
What’s your favorite Maggie’s Farm spirit?
Probably our single-barrel rum. It’s an unadulterated raw spirit ... I’ll do a special release twice a year, every year. We’ll pull two barrels and they’ll sell out in the same day. As of this holiday season, we hope to have it as a full-time product.