David Pearce interviews Jim Ashley, one of the founders of Outlaw Rum in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, a unique specialist distillery which marries Trinidadian rum and premium malt whisky. Article written by Annie Bowles.

As a pair of ‘rig pigs’ working on oil rigs in Trinidad, Jim and his friend Pat were spoiled by the wide availability of premium Caribbean rum on offer. However, upon returning to the UK, the only options were the usual mass-produced spiced stuff – nowhere near the high quality they had grown used to back in the tropics. Despite having no experience in the drinks industry, they threw ideas back and forth as to how they could introduce a rum like no other to their home isles. From one island to another, they came up with the original idea to source a fantastic base spirit from Trinidad, sail it across the seas to find a new home in whisky casks – creating a specialist, premium grade rum with a wholly unique flavour profile and finish.

This creative, ambitious project was certainly challenging to two newbies in the industry. Jim still works in global energy, juggling two jobs to get Outlaw properly up and running. No one had done rum like this before, and their greenness cost them a lot of extra work – an unknown entity doing something never attempted previously meant a lot of jumping through hoops to get their warehouse certified, the process of which took over a year. They had to convince the big boys they were serious – that they weren’t just a cowboy outfit giving it a go, they were in it for the real deal.

For Jim, the goal has always been to present rum in its best light. They didn’t want to turn rum into whisky – but rather to create an alchemical spirit which marries two rich distilling histories, showcasing the best qualities of each spirit and its unique processes. After reading an article in Cask and Still Magazine by Vic Cameron (affectionately known as the Whisky Minister), Jim was drawn to his objective opinion and experience. He didn’t look down upon rum as a lesser spirit than a single malt; a challenge Jim regularly faces in the industry. After emailing Vic in 2018, he was onboard almost straightaway after tasting samples of the unfinished base rum. The tasting reportedly mostly consisted of Vic attempting to get Jim to admit he was giving him whisky, not rum. He must have been convinced of the true spirit eventually, as Vic has now been working with Outlaw for two years.

On the border of Speyside, Outlaw’s warehouse is nestled in the heart of malt whisky country. According to Jim, distilleries are always asked for their casks, with smaller, local outfits generally being more receptive to supporting a new business. Despite handing over casks, distilleries are extremely protective of their brand, so Jim isn’t dropping any names yet, though hopefully as Outlaw expands in the future, that will all change. For their flagship rum, sporting a black and gold label, they use a mix of Speyside and Highland casks together with bourbon, mixing the maturation. Following an agreement with Angostura, Outlaw has their own exclusive, matured cask aged rum from Trinidad, which reportedly already has a good finish compared to most. By maturing in whisky casks, Outlaw are able to tie their product to the area, but mainly to show this underdog spirit in the best possible light, with a deeper complexity and finish to taste. Jim and Vic check their casks every two months (monthly for their Islay single cask), keeping a close eye on the alchemical process taking place beneath the wood.

Outlaw stresses that the whisky casks provide a maturation, not a finish – the rum developing in casks for a year, evolving dramatically throughout this time. The way the sprit works with the wood means that the flavours penetrate from the wood itself, delving beyond the whisky in the cask, due the high alcoholic percentage. Plenty of factors come into play which deliver a unique end result. Further maturation in the whisky casks takes place in a vastly different climate to the initial birthplace of the rum – shaping the flavour by plenty of environmental movement we see here in the UK, depending on how much moisture is in the air, and the climate throughout the seasons. Ensuring consistency with production, Outlaw plan to come out with aged statement rum product lines in the next year or so. 

The impact of Covid has meant that trade has been challenging, although Outlaw have managed to distribute to some independent whisky shops. Their first release was last year, in an auction through Whisky Hammer. Jim is hoping that in May or June 2022 they will be able to stand alongside whiskies in blind tastings. Upon tasting the flagship blend rum, the initial molasses gives way to whisky notes through development in the glass, ending with vanilla from the wood, hints of deep orange and baking spice, reminiscent of hot cross buns, well balanced despite the sweetness of rum. As the initial rum is cask aged in the tropics, the humidity really works the wood, adding a complexity and length in the finish, which Jim is very pleased with.

Their special release Islay single cask was a bit of an experiment for Jim, as he found a little resistance from Pat and Vic. Concerns that the rum would be completely steamrollered by the heavy Islay wood were not shared by Jim, who was sure it would be perfectly balanced. It is incredibly smoky – with orange coming through the peat, with an undulating finish, which reportedly can be kept going for three to five minutes if one takes a good, hearty sip. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it product, with Vic still thinking it veers a tad on the marmite side. Jim adores the strength of it and the balance of sweet fruit with smoked peat – a properly matured spirit.

The locals of Huntly, the small town where Outlaw’s warehouse is based, have had a mixed approach to the brand. Being malt whisky country, plenty are interested through being employed by distilleries themselves, buying a bottle from the launch for Christmas to try. Not content with making beverage history, Jim’s future goals are to provide work to local people who need it. He wants to give opportunities to former professional sportspeople and ex-servicemen, who may be struggling to know what’s next for them after their initial careers. Jim’s even worked with strong men in the past and has been thinking of hosting local strength competitions, in which competitors would lift kegs and casks. They plan to support the Luke and Tom Stoltman, Scottish strength competitor brothers, host a strongman event in the near future. 

Despite a rocky start due to the tumultuous international events of the past year, and the ambitious challenge of producing a unique spirit with no prior experience, Outlaw Rum proves that their experiment is a success. Jim fondly quotes a glowing customer review, ‘Whisky in rum casks is difficult to make work, but rum in whisky casks proves it works really, really well … Bonkers, when it’s available I’d like to buy a couple of cases,’. If the idea alone isn’t tempting enough, the customer satisfaction certainly draws attention to these rig pigs making their way in the industry.

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