Muddy River Distillery: A pirate’s life for him

Muddy River Distillery: A pirate’s life for him

Rum is the romantic spirit. It stokes visions of powdery beaches, a hammock between crooked palms and turquoise seas. Basically any travel brochure or vacation website features a tropical cocktail, probably made with rum. But that’s the end product. Getting there is a whole other story.

It was just good parenting that helped Robbie Delaney learn the value of a hard day’s work while helping his parents on their horse farm while growing up in Wake Forest, N.C., outside of Raleigh. It was quite serendipitous that Robbie Delaney would choose to attend college at East Carolina, home of the Pirates (who, if Johnny Depp’s characters and folklore hold true, were comprised mostly of rum, with fractions of water, flesh and bone). It was a stroke of luck that Delaney picked up one of those well-traveled airplane magazines on flight back to North Carolina from Texas, where he was working as a project engineer for a construction management company, and happened to stumble upon an article on artisan distilling.

But it was hard work, and lots of it, that has propelled Delaney, his wife and co-founder Caroline, to bring that crazy idea to a restaurant, bar and ABC store near you in the form of Muddy River Distillery, maker’s of Carolina Rum and Queen Charlotte’s Reserve Rum.

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Just a little more than two years removed from distilling his first batch, Delaney has got his rum operation, the first in North Carolina, humming. He’s got his rum mash recipe down pat and is churning barrels of consistent product in his part of an old textile factory on the banks of the Catawba River (at the top of Lake Wylie) in Belmont, just south of the U.S. 74 bridge.

Delaney’s mother, Judy, coined the business’ name when she went to scout the warehouse property and the Catawba had flooded its banks leaving behind a muddy mess. It took Delaney about a month before the name started to resonate with him, but he loves it now. He’s even incorporated a catfish into the main logo, of which there are plenty just a stone’s throw from the distillery.

Delaney has had a hand in building and setting up nearly all of the operations of the distillery. He’s currently on his second still and about to put a third one on line to double his production capability.
“We do everything here except for blow the glass for the bottles,” he said last week.

Robbie Delaney stands near one of the stills at Muddy River Distillery.

Robbie Delaney stands near one of the stills at Muddy River Distillery.

That includes the mashing, distilling, aging and bottling process – all bottles are covered with a black wax, similar to a Maker’s Mark bottle, just a little something extra that shows customers how much of the process is done by-hand, in-house. Whether you call it, micro, artisan or boutique distilling, you’ll be able to taste the difference.

The steps the Delaneys have taken to get to this process haven’t been easy. They’ve faced the bureaucracy and red tape of navigating local, state and federal alcohol permitting processes. Caroline quit her day job to come aboard full-time with her husband to head up the accounting and marketing duties, while pitching in on running the still and helping with bottling and anything else that needs help.

But a product can only thrive if it can make its way to the marketplace and create demand. To this end, Caroline crisscrosses the state to visit bars, restaurants and ABC stores and boards, pitching the rum to those in charge of purchasing. To bartenders and bar managers, all it usually takes is a sip of the Carolina’s Rum or Queen Charlotte’s Reserve compared to one of the more established, national brands for many to quickly agree the rum is a quality product. Still there are some places throughout the state where it’s been a challenge to get the product in front of potential customers. Caroline said at least one college town said the product would likely sit on the shelf longer than its cheaper alternatives.

Muddy River rums prepare to be shipped out.

Muddy River rums prepare to be shipped out.

But the support of local bars in restaurants in the Charlotte area has helped build brand awareness. Places like Harry’s Grille and Tavern, The Corner Pub, Riverview Raw Bar and Chill, The String Bean, Belmont Food & Beverage and Fahrenheit have been particularly helpful in promoting Muddy River, they said.

But none of the setbacks Robbie and Caroline have faced seem to faze the pair that much. Whether its fixing a problem with the still or educating bartenders on the correct way to make their cocktails, they have an incredibly positive attitude and belief in their product, without losing sight of how they’ve started and where they’d like to go. At no time did Robbie start the business to try and knock off the Bacardi and Captain Morgan giants of the rum world. They’re working hard to grow their business but don’t want to lose the special touches they’ve mastered along the way that give the product its uniqueness.

Robbie Delaney makes sure the yeast is working its magic.

Robbie Delaney makes sure the yeast is working its magic.

Even Robbie will admit that he’s ahead of any 5-year plan that he could have dreamed of when starting Muddy River. But that’s probably because he’s crammed about 5 years of “traditional” work hours into the past 2 ½ years. Running the still often takes between 14 and 18 hours and usually one eye on it while trying to get other things done. He even has a cot in the back of the office with a sleeping bag for the really long days.

Muddy River talked about collaborations with local brewers using some of the old rum barrels or maybe working on creating a spiced rum. Robbie is proud to use all American ingredients and is exploring opportunities to work with regional farmers on other ingredients for his products.

The rum ages in American new oak charred barrels.

The rum ages in American new oak charred barrels.

The future is bright for the Delaneys. But don’t take my word for it. Purchase on of their tasting tours online – available for a limited time through Living Social and Amazon Local, go to their website, carolinarum.com to find available tour times and meet the down-to-earth, nice-as-can-be couple yourself. Or if you want to go to straight to the source, pick up a bottle at your local ABC store. Many stores have set aside shelf space for North Carolina-made products, where you can usually find Muddy River’s brands, if not in the rum section.

CAROLINA BASIL LEMONADE RECIPE (“DISTILLER’S FAVORITE)

  • Muddle 1 basil leaf and 1 slice of lemon in the bottom of a highball glass.
  • Fill with ice.
  • Add 1 shot of Carolina Rum.
  • Top off with a lemon-lime or diet lemon-lime soda.
  • Add a splash of simple syrup.
  • Garnish with a lemon slice or basil and enjoy.
Seth Stratton
Midwest transplant passing out buttery takes on sports, beer, food and music like hot biscuits.

5 Comments

  1. Never heard of this place but that is amazing they are brewing rum in North Carolina.

  2. We should all support local. Local craft breweries and restaurants that use locally sourced food sources. Even rum which is not much of a hardship. I will look for Muddy River next time I am out and order it.

  3. Why don’t they make vodka too?

  4. Seth Stratton

    @anonymous, according to Robbie, they considered all sorts of spirits when they first started but found out that there was no one brewing rum in North Carolina and decided to become the first.

  5. Great Article! Just amazed at all this young couple has accomplished!

    I’m going shopping today!

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