Rhode Island's first licensed distillery in 135 years

PROVIDENCE, RI – A nondescript green warehouse in an industrial section of Newport doesn't seem to represent much of a link to the city's past. But inside, Brent Ryan sometimes does a little time-traveling in his mind's eye when he distills Thomas Tew Rum.

"I do like to think of the fact that I'm doing something here today that was being done in a bunch of places in Newport 250 years ago," he says.

Ryan is one of the three founders of Coastal Extreme Brewing, which makes Newport Storm beer. Coastal Extreme became Rhode Island's first micro-brewery when it opened in 1999. Ryan says the company's three partners launched their Thomas Tew Rum in 2006 because of the connection to when Newport was home to 22 distilleries.

"It was really the history of rum in Newport," Ryan says. "At one point in the 18th century, Newport was the rum capital of the world. So we decided to do a little bit more research and try to revive this tradition. We were actually the first licensed distillery in Rhode Island in 135 years when we got our license in 2006."

The rum is named for Thomas Tew, who was a local pirate in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

"He made a lot of journeys to the Arabian Sea and around the coast of Africa, but Newport was his home," Ryan says.

Rum is made by mixing molasses, brewer's yeast and water, and then by further concentrating the alcohol through a series of steps.

The old wooden barrels used to age Thomas Tew rum for two to three years look like they'd fit right in in colonial Newport. The aging process makes the rum different from most mass-produced commercial rums. Ryan says that's why the taste takes some visitors by surprise.

"That's why they'll come in here and they'll remark how much our rum tastes like whiskey or tastes like cognac," he says. "What they're noticing isn't necessarily that the spirits taste the same, but that they're both aged in barrels, so like those spirits - the finest ones - people are drinking them neat."

Bottles of Thomas Tew sell for between $29 and $34. Ryan says Thomas Tew's parent company, Coastal Extreme, sells about 2000 cases of the rum each year in Rhode Island. The product got a boost when it featured two years ago on a Discovery Channel show, "Dirty Jobs."

"We're hoping to extend it to other states before the end of the year," Ryan says.

Making rum during colonial days was part of the triangle trade that brought slaves from Africa to New England. Looking back at the time, Ryan sometimes wonders how Newport would be different now if the city hadn't been occupied by British forces.

"All of the merchants moved out of town," he says. "With that went all of the rum distilling. And so without that industry, Newport never grew the way all these other communities did."

Coastal Extreme's three founders are from Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Newport proved charming enough during visits they made while growing up that they launched their business first in nearby Middletown. Ryan says the City of Newport was helpful when the company, which now employs 11 people, needed space to expand in 2009.

"We didn't want to move to Fall River," he says. "We really like being down here."

Distilling for the next batch of Thomas Tew Rum began in late September and it will continue through May.

The company offers tours and welcomes those with a thirst for a taste of Newport history to stop by.

"I'd love to have a little taste here," Ryan says. "Let's go into the tasting room . .. . I'll pour you a little sample of the 80-proof white rum."

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@ripr.org