The owner of Calais Winery has already delivered a French flair to his Texas wines — and now wants to offer his take on rum, another popular drink in his native France.
Benjamin Calais, the winemaker at his Hye-located winery in the Hill Country, has partnered up with friends James Davidson and Stephanie Houston to open Hye Rum not far from the winery on Highway 290 West, with Davidson taking on the role of head distiller and Houston all of the sales and marketing.
Calais felt passionate about diving into rum, in addition to wine, because he noticed a very different attitude toward rum in the states than abroad.
“I just don’t feel like rum has the place it deserves in the U.S.,” Calais said. “It’s used as a mixer, so it’s often as neutral as possible, and I just don’t think that’s part of the rum tradition. Bigger, fuller spirits, like a Jamaican-style rum but not as rough around the edges, that’s what we’re going for.”
When people visit the distillery and its accompanying tasting room, the centerpiece of their experience will be cocktails, he said: an opening menu of 10 “traditional Caribbean-style and New Orleans-style drinks, like Mai Tais and Hurricanes.”
Hye Rum — located in a small town with a big interest in well-made booze like wine and whiskey — will make from scratch the additional ingredients of each drink in addition to the rum, such as bitters.
“We will have everything from sweet dessert-style cocktails like the Painkiller to more bone-dry options, like the Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned and Navy Grog,” Calais said. “We will have a daiquiri, our version of the Cuba Libre, a Dark and Stormy, a mojito, a piña colada… I feel like those are the fundamental rum cocktails.”
The distillery is aiming for an early April opening; in the meantime, rum lovers can get an early taste of what’s to come with Tiki! A Hye Rum Event on March 25, which will have a whole hog roast, buffet-style dinner and a preview of the distillery and its pot still. Tickets range from $65-$595.
Having a pot still rather than a column still will help Hye Rum’s mission of producing flavorful, full-bodied rum products using molasses — a boozy mix that will include a white rum and others that have been aged in a variety of French oak barrels, most of which have originally come from Calais Winery. Column stills, he said, traditionally make more neutral spirits.
“We’re going to run an old-fashioned pot still, fermenting from scratch, and distilling twice,” he said. “We’re not taking any shortcuts on the production side to get a bigger, heavier, deeper flavor. We’re using all the fermentation tricks that I’ve learned in the wine business to create a fuller product; I just have to remember we’re working with molasses instead of grapes.”
He and Davidson — whose first love, he said, is whiskey, but who jumped at the chance to open the distillery with Calais and has done a lot of research on rum — have drawn inspiration for the rum they’ll make from Caribbean islands like Jamaica.
Although Calais loves rum from French islands like Martinique and French Guyana, the spirits there are primarily made using sugarcane juice, versus from a sugarcane byproduct like molasses, the base of Hye Rum. The sugarcane juice gives the rum a floral character that Calais and Davidson will replicate only in very small releases. Because the distillery isn’t located in the Caribbean, they don’t have regular access to fresh juice, he said.
“There hasn’t been a craft revival for rum as there has been for gin and whiskey,” he said. “There is not much interesting rum produced in the U.S. for the U.S. market. People design them as vodka-like.”
For that reason, he expects to have to educate visitors to the tasting room once it officially opens, but having run Calais Winery for nearly 10 years in a state still being introduced to its own wine, he is well-versed in what it takes to get people used to and preferential toward his beverages.
“If you have a good product and people don’t know about it, they want an education, and we can show people actual fermentations, what the products look like and taste like, and the results we get out of it,” he said. “Being able to show our product straight and in cocktail form should help people understand this is the right way to do it.”
Once Hye Rum opens, tours and tastings to the distillery at 11247 Hwy. 290 West will be by appointment only so the staff isn’t overrun by what Calais has seen as strong initial interest. After that, he said, Hye Rum will move to regular tasting room hours.
Bottles of the white rum will be out in the next two weeks. Although the bottle designs for subsequent rum releases will be different each time, people can at least expect that the bottles will always hold rum.
“We’re only going to make rum. We’re going to stay focused on that and try to be the best at it,” he said.
For more information, visit hyerum.com.