Behind the Bar Stick People

Maggie Campbell Is the Unsung Savior of American Rum

Little did Maggie Campbell know that getting stuck in the Scottish town of Oban in 2004 would change her life. The head distiller and president of Privateer Rum was then a University of Colorado student uncertain just what she was going to do with her philosophy degree. But during a family trip to Scotland, a local suggested passing the time by visiting the town’s whisky distillery. A light bulb went off. “It opened my eyes that this is an actual job people do.”

Having always possessed a keen sensitivity to taste and texture, Campbell found a gig in a wine shop as a port specialist. Where other women may have been dismayed and discouraged at the male-dominated field, she saw it as a unique opportunity.

“I realized the men didn’t know spirits very well, so if I got a background in spirits, I figured I could have an edge at the best jobs,” she says. Wine just didn’t seem to be the best fit for her. Neither was beer, which she viewed as a tad too personal and relaxed, even though she and her husband—a good friend at the time—founded the Denver Brewers League.

Maggie Campbell.

No, it was spirits producers—serious and driven, with a fastidious attention to detail and a steadfast reliance on chemistry—whom she saw as her people. After visiting lots of distilleries, working as assistant distiller at American brandy powerhouse Germain-Robin and receiving both a diploma in craft distilling technologies from the Siebel Institute and the level IV diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, she landed her current role at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Mass.

“As someone who never set out to make rum, it has been amazing,” the 33-year-old says. Rum is global, multidimensional and so very different from other boozy categories, Campbell believes. At Privateer, distillers from all over are known to observe and work with Campbell and her team for the day. She has interacted with producers from Japan, India and Kenya to learn how challenges like access to water affect decisions in fermentation—eye-opening facets of the industry that are so easy to take for granted in an American craft distillery with ample resources.

All the rums she makes are unfiltered and unsweetened, and each, she vehemently believes, needs to be accessible. “The point is to have people drink them,” she says.

Her delicate unaged Silver Reserve is deceiving in its simplicity. It must be fermented perfectly and rested for the right amount of time, because there are no forgiving oak barrels behind which to hide mistakes.

True American Amber is a smooth, approachable blend of two- to five-year-old distillates. Navy Yard, the polar opposite, is a full-bodied, powerful, textural and rich spirit made with 100 percent molasses and bottled at barrel-proof from a single cask. Campbell figured it would be received as a sipping rum and was surprised when it started getting into bartenders’ hands as both a cocktail base and modifier.

Most technically challenging is Privateer’s Queen’s Share, made using an old technique à la cognac that gives Campbell the chance to flex her brandy muscles. It’s made from the liquid that comes off the stills right after the heart (referred to as the “secondes” in cognac), which possesses the largest molecules and therefore the richest flavors. She redistills and transfers it to a few barrels that are aged and bottled directly from the cask.

During the last two weeks of every year, the Privateer team stops rum production, hangs pineapples in the still room and cranks out a fun, funky, Tiki-style gin. Crafted from a base of Privateer’s silver rum, it boasts botanicals like grapefruit, cinnamon, mango, pomegranate, allspice, clove and nutmeg.

While pumping out world-class rum a short distance from the I-95 corridor might seem incongruous to the tropical soul of the spirit, Campbell is quick to point out that Boston has a long and historical connection to rum. Besides, she says, she’s trying to do her own thing and not copy the Caribbean.

“We want to capture the North Atlantic maritime style, with its great meso-climate for aging, [including] humidity swings that affect how it develops and evaporates, and the push and pull of the oak.” Temperature-controlled fermentation near Beantown is a breeze, retaining delicate aromas and super unique expressions.

As for the obvious associations with other women in the rum trade—Appleton Estate, El Dorado and Zacapa all have women at the helm—Campbell finds it exciting but can’t really figure out what makes this category so different from the sexism she frequently encountered in the whiskey world.

“Maybe global diversity encourages more gender diversity, or maybe the industry respects excellence over gender,” she says. “It has made my life and career better and easier. There’s a nice sisterhood; you don’t get a lot of ingrained female competition; we are all so happy for each other.”