A Road Trip from Rum to Wine

Published 2:04 pm Sunday, January 14, 2024

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As I slowly made my way down the worn, brick streets of Richland, Georgia, I felt an uncontrollable urge to park my truck and explore the over a century old buildings that lined both sides of the town. Though most looked alike, one in particular caught my eye. I peered through the frosted glass on the door. Suddenly, I felt like Alice in Wonderland! All of the huge, shiny vats and the crystal glasses caught my eye. I answered the call of adventure and opened the heavy, ancient door. The scent inside was sweet, yet pungent. As I looked around, the shelves of colorful bottles caught my eye. Then a small, fluted glass, containing a golden liquid was placed before me. It seemed to yell, “Taste Me”, and I knew I had to drink what was before me. At first, it stung my throat but the sweetness that followed was soothing. Yes, this was rum.

Before we go any farther, let me acquaint you with the history of rum in America. If you feel the need, pour yourself a glass of what you like to sip on while I tell my story.

Rum is an aromatic spirit made from sugar cane or its byproduct, molasses. It is historically linked with the sugar islands of the Caribbean. Rum was the cornerstone liquor of the American colonies. It was consumed in large quantities during the seventeen and early eighteen hundreds, all up and down the eastern sea coast, especially in Charleston, South Carolina. This historical city had a direct pipeline to Barbados, where the rum flowed like water.

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After America won her Independence, trade applications with the rum producing islands in the Barbados, were not granted to the new country. This led to the rise of American whiskey, mostly bourbon. Rum was not rediscovered until during Prohibition, when Havana, Cuba, had become the supplier for much of the South. This is when it was discovered that the rum that was remembered from the Revolutionary War days, had been improved. However, between the 1930s and the 1950s, whiskey, especially bourbon, was the preferred drink, even in the South where rum and CoCola were popular.

Today, rum has made a comeback in the South, mainly because of the small craft distilleries, especially in areas where sugar cane grows. The addition of the very popular tasting room has also helped. Here, you can taste several types of rum and pick what you like best. With so many types to choose from, you may not always want to put it in a Coke.

Now, with the Richland Rum distillery up in the highlands of southwest, Georgia, we can have a mini-get-away. Here, the rum is made from four different types of sugarcane that is grown by Erik and Karin Vonk, on their farm. Like most family farms where the distilleries, wineries and breweries exist, everyone in the family works the farm and distillery. For now, the Vonks have devoted acres to grow the four different types of sugarcane for their rum, with the amount increasing every year.

Not all distilleries grow their own sugar cane. The reason that the Vonks do is because they are lovers of good quality. This was instilled in Erik by his grandfather. He taught him how to bring out the quality and purity that is in rum and using the proper sugarcane and the right process does this. The Vonks like to refer to this as the Estate Rum Making Process, since they personally grow their own ingredients and it is family owned and operated.

The Vonks started distilling the rum on their farm in 1999. Then Erik opened the location in downtown Richland in 2009. In the distillery’s tasting room is the original still that they used to make their first rum. The pot was made in Portugal and is of hand hammered copper. The rum that is aged “in a pot” style still, usually has a rather thick texture and leans towards a vegetable, grassy flavor. Others that are distilled through tubes, usually have a cleaner taste and the liquid is lighter in color.

It takes the sugar cane about twelve months to reach maturity. Then it is crushed. The juices from the sugar cane are slowly heated to allow water to evaporate until it reaches 80% sugar content creating the syrup. Then, the syrup is stored, with no additives or preservatives, until it is time to start the fermentation process. The syrup is then diluted down to 20% sugar content using distilled water so that the flavor does not change during this process.

Yeast is then put in and it converts the sugar in the syrup into alcohol. This fermentation lasts about 5 to 6 days, then it becomes wine. Now, it is fermented until the wine reaches 13% alcohol. Next, it is pumped into the still. Now, it is very slowly heated to just below the boiling point of water, which is 212 degrees. The process of slowly raising the temperature separates the alcohol.

The vapors that rise go through the lyme arm, then the helmet of the still and on through the cooling coil, where the vapor is cooled back into liquid form. The liquid comes out of the parrot, where the proof is tested and the rum is tasted to determine its quality. Good quality rum is funneled into an American oak barrel where it is aged.

The Vonks have their barrels charred. This opens up cracks in the oak allowing the rum to seep into the grooves and extract the natural flavor that is found in oak. The rum also picks up the natural tannins of the wood. This gives it a dark color. The rum causes the wood to expand and seal the cracks in the wood while the metal rings hold the wood in place.

When Richland is done with a barrel, they loan them out to breweries or wineries to age their product in. When they get the barrels back, they refill them with their 3- or 4-year-old rum. This is so it picks up some of the flavors left behind from the other liquids that were aged in them.

After a while of allowing the rum to absorb other flavors, Richland has special releases. One is their Old Georgia Rum, which is aged in a charred barrel for 4 to 5 days. The other is Virgin Coastal Rum, that is aged in a toasted barrel for 30 to 90 days.

All the rum is bottled one barrel at a time. Corks are hand pressed into the neck and then a heat shrink is applied to the top to seal the bottle. Richland doesn’t blend barrels during bottling. All of the barrels are unique and they strive to preserve this.

In our lifetime, rum has progressed from a spirit featured in punch to something approaching the best in liquor. It is meant to be sipped, very gently, pausing along the way. However, I just can’t see any of those pirates of old pausing to swish the rum before swallowing!

Now, you and I will get back in my truck and head out on State Route 27, deep into the rural countryside that is about twenty miles outside of Colquitt, to the small town of Arlington, and the Still Pond Winery and Distillery. I will wait while you get your sweet tea and pretzels. However, you know me and as we ride along, I will tell you the history of wine in our state.

When Georgia was formed as the 13th colony in 1733, by General James Oglethorpe, he required settlers to plant grapes and mulberry trees for making wine and silk to ship over to England. This was one of the conditions that he and King George had worked out. Oglethorpe wanted Georgia to also profit from farming these crops. He realized he needed advice on how to grow the grapes and the trees. Therefore, Chief Tomochichi, the leader of the Yamacraw tribe, was the go-to guy. His tribe had been successfully growing grapes for centuries but the mulberry trees were a different story. They were new to Georgia and proved to be difficult to grow. The trees were meant to be hosts to silk worms and the silk they spun was to be harvested and exported to England. This would mean a lot of money because at this time, China was the only place that you could get this commodity for cloth.

The first settlers that arrived in Savannah, planted a town garden, including vines they had brought from England. Oglethorpe employed a botanist to discover how to grow these crops in the Georgia soil and climate. This was the first agricultural experimental station in America. Unfortunately, the community garden was a failure because the soil was poor.

No wine was locally produced until 1737, and that came about because of Abraham Deyan, who imported vines from England and knew how to change the poor growing conditions. By 1741, others who followed his methods, met with success and they too, began making wine. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1700s, it was found that the vines only lasted for so long and then would wither and die.

However, in the mid-1800s, methods improved and vineyards began to flourish along with winemaking. In 1856, the Vine Growers Association was formed and by 1880, Georgia was the sixth state in wine production totaling over 900,000 gallons, almost twice of what was produced in the other states. This wine came from a little less than 3000 acres that were cultivated in this area of our state. The progress was the result of growing the grapes that were native here, the Muscadine. Georgia’s other native fruit, the peach, was overall, the other most successfully used source for wine.

For all of this success, winemaking came to a halt in 1907, when the state chose Prohibition. The only wine that could be produced had to be for medicinal, religious or personal use. When Prohibition ended in 1933, home winemaking emerged and commercial winemaking began again. In 1936, Atlanta’s, Monarch Wine Company, was born to create peach and Muscadine wines. It would claim to be Georgia’s largest winery, as it was our only winery. However, the Monarch Wine closed in 1979, the same year that the Happy Bee Winery began making wine from tomatoes. The Farm Winery Act was passed in the early 1980s to allow wine to be made and sold on farm sites.

We now have arrived at Still Pond Winery and Distillery, where we get a warm, family feeling and are greeted by the wonderful sweet smell of ripening grapes. This too, is a family owned and operated farm with roots that go way back to the War Between the States. Still Pond gets its name from a legend about a still that sat on the banks of an isolated pond. Here, peach brandy was brewed in order to provide comfort, relaxation and fellowship for the exhausted Confederate soldiers who were walking back to their homes. Thus, the reputation of Still Pond began and grew famous over southwest Georgia.

The vineyard traces its modern roots back to the late 1960s when Charlie Cowart Sr., planted the first Muscadine grapes on his land clearing a part of a large pasture where his cattle grazed. Over the years, he established a large, successful vineyard. All too soon, Charlie Sr. passed in 1991, and his son, Charles Cowart, now managed the vineyard along with the other crops and animals on the farm.

As time went by, the Cowart family realized that if the vineyard was to survive, they needed to make some management decisions that would put their crop to work all year long, rather than just the six weeks at harvest time. This is when the Cowart family decided to begin processing their Muscadines for wines, rather than shipping the grapes to the other wineries. The Still Pond farm now grows many varieties of grapes, including Muscadine, on the plantation. Their venture opened in 2003, and was the first winery in southwest Georgia. How great this is because north Georgia seemed to have the monopoly on the home-grown craft wineries, distilleries and breweries.

In 2012, Charles Cowart and his son, Charles Jr. set out to increase their business by legally establishing a distillery. After two years of paper work to secure the proper licensing, they finally were carrying on the tradition started back during 1860s. The first batch of whiskey came from two copper stills made in Portugal. Still Pond Distillery is now an addition to the operation of the vineyard and the farm.

When you visit Still Pond, you will find that it is definitely a peaceful, laid-back kind of place. The whole family works here, which creates an atmosphere that surrounds you. You can feel that the Cowart’s love and enjoy what they are doing. When speaking to Charles, he tells you that all you really need is a rocking chair on the front porch and the kind of wine you enjoy drinking.

Still Pond Winery and Still Pond Distillers now offers a wide selection of award-winning wines and craft spirits. They produce many wines and also supply other wineries throughout the South with Muscadine juice to be used for winemaking. They are also working on creating more flavors to their moonshine. Complimentary wine tastings are handled by a well-trained staff who look forward to serving you a taste of their products while you view the luscious vineyards and the pond that inspired its name.

Now, what started out as a location for weary Confederate troops to gain a little comfort by a cooling pond and a bottle of spirits has now become a family-owned vineyard. So, let’s get a glass and set out on the porch, claim a rocking chair and enjoy the southwest Georgia scenery.