In 2007 fate came knocking at the door of Dutch-born rum connoisseur Erik Vonk in a most unassuming form: a gray-haired man in a pickup truck. Adolph McLendon, the now-77-year-old mayor of Richland, pulled up to Vonk’s 1,700-acre farm and asked him and his wife, Karin, if they’d consider moving their small distillery eight miles north, into town. At the time, there was barely a town to speak of; much of Broad Street was boarded up, and the municipality was flat broke.
“It was so dead, Karin and I never drove there,” Vonk recalls. “They couldn’t even offer tax credits or a loan to new businesses.” Plus, “I never intended to commercialize the operation,” says Vonk, whose grandfather in Rotterdam had instilled in him an appreciation for rum. Vonk started the distillery as a pet project after retiring from his position as CEO of Randstad North America in 2000 and moving from Atlanta to the South Georgia countryside. But the mayor convinced him that having a successful local business downtown would bring jobs and good PR to Richland.
So the Vonks bought and renovated a turn-of-the-century building on Broad Street and changed the name of their product from Vennebroeck Velvet to Richland Rum. The couple also traded in their home-built 20-gallon still for a 200-gallon pot-bellied copper still from Portugal. They released the first bottle of Richland-branded rum in 2012.
Five years later the distillery has expanded to seven buildings downtown, which 1,000 people tour each month. They come to see the three gas-fired copper stills, five stainless steel open fermenters, two barrel houses, and a tasting room. “It’s become a centerpiece in Richland, a town that has been figuring out what’s next as the economic energy has moved elsewhere,” says Wayne Curtis, a rum expert and author of the book And a Bottle of Rum.
Richland is the only single-estate, single-barrel rum made in the country. Before the first frost of each year, the company’s employees use machetes to harvest fresh cane—Georgia Red, which the Vonks, with input from agronomists at the United States Department of Agriculture, settled on after experimenting with 17 different kinds of cane. Distiller Roger Zimmerman boils juice pressed from the harvest into syrup, which he then ferments with a yeast that Vonk spent 12 years developing. Zimmerman distills the liquid before aging it in charred virgin white oak barrels for at least 40 months. The end result is a golden spirit with notes of sweet grass and butterscotch. “My grandpa scorned most rum because it was made from molasses, a waste product,” says Vonk. “He praised single-estate rums.”
Brunswick, just over a four-hour drive from Richland, has been declared a Main Street City by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Broad Street has become a living relic of old Americana.
“It’s a formidable opponent to many of the other rums around the world,” says Vajra Stratigos, director of food and beverage standards for Atlanta’s Fifth Group Restaurants. Since 2014, gold medals from numerous craft spirit and international competitions have come pouring in.
Now fate may have intervened again. This month sweeping changes to Georgia’s alcohol regulations go into effect, allowing distilleries to sell 500 barrels of spirits a year directly to the public—including three 750-milliliter bottles of liquor a day to anybody of legal age. Previously Richland Rum was sold just in liquor stores or online. “It’s going to change everything,” says Vonk, who notes that the state now has more than a dozen licensed distilleries.
The timing couldn’t be better, as Richland Rum prepares for the grand opening of a second distillery this fall in the historic coastal town of Brunswick.
“This is going to be a great step in furthering the revitalization we have underway,” says Mathew Hill, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority. Richland’s presence has already helped Brunswick attract a microbrewery.
The new distillery and tasting room will be located on Newcastle Street in a 6,400-square-foot space that dates back to the late 1800s and has sat unused since 2006. Vonk plans to redesign the building with a nod to 17th- and 18th-century canal houses in Amsterdam, which were built by Dutch merchants who traded in rum: exposed brick, stained concrete floors, exposed heavy oak and steel beams, and English Chesterfield sofas and gold leaf–framed mirrors. Zimmerman’s son, who lives in Brunswick, will distill unaged “virgin” white rum there.
Back in Richland, Vonk sips a glass of deep-amber liquid drawn from barrel 144, which is ready to be diluted and bottled. “Flowery,” he says as he closes his eyes, passing the glass under his nose. “Ethereal. Ochre.” He pauses and inhales again. “Caramel. Leather. Tobacco.” Then he looks up. “I still can’t believe the only ingredients are sugarcane and water.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.