Richland Distilling Co.

When a Dutch transplant moves to sleepy Richland, Georgia, he gives the town a namesake rum and wakes up its tourism industry.

Erik Vonk fell in love with rum as a boy visiting his grandfather in Rotterdam. Imagine a place of burnished wood paneling, old books, whiskey bottles, and the aroma of rum-soaked Christmas pudding. That buttery-caramel scent is exactly what you smell when you walk into Richland Distilling Company, where Vonk and his wife, Karin, have been cooking up their award-winning Richland Rum since 2011.

Inside one of their two red-brick Victorian buildings on Richland’s Broad Street, visitors may see distillery manager Roger Zimmerman hovering around enormous stainless steel vats filled with fermenting sugarcane syrup. Nearby are the onion-dome-shaped copper stills where the rum is cooked, then poured into charred virgin oak barrels and aged for two years. Across a courtyard in a separate building, the Vonks pour tastings of their rum in an elegantly appointed room that evokes the Old World ambience of the Netherlands. 

Richland Rum
Richland Rum

Harold Daniels

These scenes wouldn’t be happening if the town’s leaders hadn’t invited the Vonks to put their distillery in the historic downtown buildings that had been boarded up for decades. The couple perfected their recipe eight miles away at their 1,700-acre Vennebroeck Estate, where they grow the sugar cane for the rum; they had planned to name their product Vennebroeck Velvet. But when Richland Mayor Adolph McLendon asked them to help revitalize the dilapidated town center, Erik said he thought it was the right thing to do.

Today it is clear that economic transformation is afoot. “It’s really beginning to ramp up very rapidly,” Erik says. State law forbids distillers from selling bottles on the property, but a privately owned liquor store opened across the street from the distillery last year, so visitors can now stroll over to stock up on rum. There are hopes that shops and cafes will follow. “I think big change is coming,” says Rossi Ross, chair of Richland’s Downtown Development Authority. “I think right now we are just getting started. Within the next five to ten years, you are going to see Richland change completely.”