Maggie Campbell, 30, knows what it takes to make a good bottle of rum.
Campbell, a California native, is the head distiller at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where her goal is to ensure that every bottle of rum made in the facility is unique and of high quality.
“We’re really dedicated to the idea of what is best for the rum. You can get caught up a lot in marketing or branding or cost of goods and shortcuts and quick fixes, but we always say, ‘What is best for the rum?’” Campbell said. “We see the rum as its own identity that we raise and nurture.”
Campbell first became interested in distilling at age 20 during a visit to Scotland. “I went to the distillery in Oban and got really inspired. I came back to the U.S. and right after college I went into wine school.
“I was working in this fine wine shop and I realized that no one at the company really knew fine spirits. I figured I would get really good at that and have a really good advantage at work. The more distillers I talked to and the more spirits I tasted, it was so exciting. I really loved the people behind spirits. They were my kind of people: laid back like a brewer but still really technical and philosophical like a wine maker. I really connected with that community and really saw for the first time that it was something that I could actually do,” she recalled.
Campbell was not always passionate about rum. She initially distilled for companies that produced whiskey and cognac. She had doubts when Andrew Cabot, founder of Privateer Rum, approached her about working in his rum distillery.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, rum? I don’t make rum. I make fine spirits.’ I totally had all the stereotypes in my mind of [rum] being for college kids,” she said.
After conducting her own research on the history and potential of quality rum, Campbell decided to take Cabot’s job offer and became Privateer’s only full-time distiller.
“One of the things that was so inspiring about coming to work for Privateer and working for the founder, Andrew, was that he was totally willing to let me make the choices I needed to make to make a really fine spirit. We treat it like you would a whiskey and we make it like you would a cognac. We don’t sweeten it. We don’t flavor it. It’s a really pure classic American hybrid of history, yet making it modern,” she explained. “It’s been such a joy being able to do something totally new and make this great American rum.”
Campbell chooses the ingredients of the rum carefully. She stresses that one of the most important aspects of making good-tasting rum is to use high quality molasses.
“A lot of people use very cheap forms of molasses because it’s cheaper. They’re very high in sulfur. When you ferment, you have to ferment long and cool, which we very much do, to make sure you don’t create sulfur,” she explained.
“When you’re drinking a cheaper spirit, what a lot of professional tasters look for – the first flaw – is sulfur. It smells like a matchstick or a rubbery smell. You’ll smell it in a lot of rum. If you make it from a very cheap sugar, you’ll very much have that character. Sulfur is very damaging and you have to be very aware of it when you’re making rum,” Campbell continued.
Privateer’s location in the coastal town of Ipswich also affects the outcome of their rum.
“When we put rum into barrels, the barrels ‘respirate’ and they breathe and it creates a lot of flavor and character that you wouldn’t really expect. Where we’re located, we’re right on a salt marsh that backs out to the ocean so you get this Atlantic maritime influence, this briny ocean air that the barrels breathe in and out all day. It really does change the character,” Campbell said.
Privateer recently began offering tours of its facility to the public. Those who attend the tours can see exactly where and how the rum is made, while also meeting the team that makes it.
“The product we make is really intimate and very personal and I think when people have a personal experience with it, it is so much more meaningful than this brand you’ve seen forever, that you don’t even know where it is,” Campbell said. “For people to come into our space, for us to host them, to give them a guided tasting, to teach them how we make spirits will be really cool.
“I think that one of the cool things is being able to buy directly from a farmer. For us, you can come and visit a distillery just like you would a farm,” she continued.
Female distillers like Campbell often face difficulty being seen as experts. Campbell explained that although there are many famous women in the industry, it is difficult for them to receive the same level of recognition as their male counterparts. Women head many famous distilleries, such as Rachel Barrie at Bowmore Whiskey and Joy Spence at Appleton Rum, but the industry is still perceived to be male dominated.
“It’s more a visibility issue than it is actually women are not distilling. There are a lot of really famous women in the spirits industry; they just don’t get the recognition,” Campbell said
“As a female it’s different. You’re less likely to be seen as an expert. It’s harder sometimes to be seen as an expert. People rarely assume I’m the head distiller, they often assume my husband is when we’re at events. There are a lot of assumptions of capability and skill,” she continued.
Campbell recommends that women who want to work in the distilling industry should be confident in their abilities and be brave enough to take on challenges. Her advice is to “ask for more.”
“I think I could’ve done a lot more a lot sooner than I thought I could. I didn’t know how capable I was. I didn’t know that I was skilled enough,” she admitted. “You have to be brave enough to say ‘Yeah, I will totally take that on’ and just kind of go with it and make it happen. I think that confidence to ask for more is a really good thing.”
Campbell explained that she needed more than knowledge of spirits to succeed in the distilling industry. She researched information on the business world in order to succeed.
“I read some professional development stuff so I knew how to work in the world of business. I think that type of language and those types of skills aren’t something that is socially acceptable to women in the same way that they are men. I think filling out and developing those skills just so you have that same shared culture and that same shared language was a huge advantage for me getting so far in the business so quickly,” she said.
Campbell has applied to the Masters of Wine program in London and hopes to be accepted. Over the course of three years, the institution provides its students with the historic, scientific, and business knowledge that they need to become Masters of Wine. Campbell said she hopes to use the skills that she acquires from the program to become a better distiller at Privateer.
Christina Raus is a creative writing student who plugs her ears with her fingers whenever anybody tries to tell her that a degree in writing is good for nothing more than to guarantee her a lifelong, fulltime job as a barista. She works as a tutor at the Western New England University Writing Center, where she empowers students of all academic disciplines to express themselves through written language. After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree, Christina intends to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing.