Kelly Railean

Kelly Railean is a woman with a mission. Her official goal is “Restoring American Rum,” and since 2005, she’s been doing just that at Railean Eagle Point Distillery in the tiny coastal community of San Leon on Galveston Bay. “Most people don’t realize that rum was the original American spirit,” she says. “Or that most commercial rums today are factory-produced and often aged in used whiskey barrels. Many distilleries don’t even make their own spirits; they buy liquors and rectify [redistill], blend and flavor them.” Through her products, though, Railean is acquainting customers with the pleasures of wholly handcrafted rums made from pure American ingredients and aged in new American oak barrels. Even the bottles are American-made.

Kelly and husband Matt found their way to rum via Gulf and Caribbean sailing culture. In 1991, they moved to coastal Texas from Michigan for Matt’s chemical engineering career. They bought a sailboat and roamed the tropical seas—tasting and collecting rums. With a sommelier certification and a background in biochemistry, Kelly worked in wine distribution for 20 years. “I thought I’d open a winery or wine bar,” she says.

But tasting rums one evening at San Leon’s Buccaneer Bar, she decided she could make better—and the idea for the distillery was born. Following two years of research, experimentation, business planning and permit gathering, Kelly made her first rum in 2005 and built the Eagle Point Distillery in 2006. Railean Rum hit retail shelves in 2007, and today, Railean products are distributed in Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Pennsylvania and California.

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Working as a female distiller in a principally male domain, Kelly says she hasn’t encountered many obstacles. “I’ve never been treated differently as a woman,” she says. “Of course, I’m a tomboy and have always hung out with the guys, and that helps. When I worked in the wine industry, it was male-dominated at the time, so I was used to that situation. Occasionally at events, people mistake one of my male helpers as the distiller, but we straighten things out quickly.”

“When I started Railean, the only other woman distiller in Texas was Paula Angerstein of Paula’s Texas Spirits. We got to know each other through the Texas Distilled Spirits Association and often worked events together. Tito Beveridge [of Tito’s Handmade Vodka], was the first Texas distiller, and he was a role model for me. He opened a lot of doors for all of us.”

Currently, Kelly makes several products: Railean White Rum is distilled multiple times to produce a clear, smooth spirit. And three dark rums are single-distilled for more flavor and aged in small barrels: Railean Reserve XO Rum is blended, Small Cask Rum is produced from single barrels and Spiced Rum is aged with spices. She also makes three spirits from blue agave nectar, and in 2013, she released Railean Vodka. This year, she’s introducing a new rum made from cane juice (instead of the more commonly used molasses).

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A lush sugarcane hedge grows around the distillery’s perimeter. In September 2015, the Raileans harvested the first crop, crushing cane and extracting juice with an antique mill. “We processed cane all day and got four gallons of juice,” she says with a laugh. “To make a batch of rum, I need at least a thousand gallons. But it was a good exercise showing folks how it worked.”

In 2013, due largely to efforts by the Texas Distilled Spirits Association (Kelly is a founding officer), state liquor laws changed so that distillers could sell bottles from distilleries, conduct tastings and serve drinks made from their products. The Raileans wasted no time in building the Buccaneer Bar—named for the San Leon dive destroyed in 2008 by Hurricane Ike—next door to the distillery. It’s a friendly place with a pirate vibe, patronized by local regulars and visitors companionably enjoying cocktails made with Railean products.

And not only does Kelly distill the spirits, wrangle the barrels, bottle and label the products and manage the business and marketing, she also guides distillery tours, conducts tastings and tends bar at her own pirate den. Fortunately, she’s got two employees and a handful of enthusiastic volunteers. “Basically, we’re a bunch of fun-loving sailors and pirate lovers who are really passionate about rum,” she says. Yo ho ho, y’all.

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All About Rum

Rum is a fermented, distilled alcoholic beverage made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production. (About 15 percent of rum worldwide is made from sugarcane juice instead of molasses, including rhum agricole from Martinique and cachaça in Brazil.) Sugarcane is a giant grass filled with sweet pulp. Once harvested, the juice must be quickly extracted, filtered, purified and heated to crystallize as sugar. What’s left is the thick, dark, syrupy molasses. To make rum, molasses is fermented to create an alcohol that’s distilled and often aged in charred oak barrels. Rum can be white (colorless) or brown, depending on how it’s processed.

Rum first appeared around 1650 in the Caribbean “sugar islands,” where the backbreaking work of growing cane and processing sugar was completely dependent on slave labor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the sugar, rum and slave trades were triangular: American and European ships carried manufactured goods to barter for West African slaves; slaves were taken to the Caribbean to exchange for sugar, molasses and rum; these products were transported to New England and Europe. In Boston and New York, molasses was distilled into rum, the most popular tipple in the American colonies. “Rum is the history of America in a glass,” says Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum.” “It was invented by New World colonists for New World colonists.”

Rum’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over time; it fell from favor in the early 20th century but enjoyed a mid-century renaissance associated with Americans’ enthusiasm for island lifestyles and tiki culture. With today’s craft cocktails and spirits, artisan rums are again attracting serious attention.

 

Rum and the History of San Leon

San Leon, the home of Railean Rum, is an unincorporated town of about 5,000 on a small peninsula protruding into Galveston Bay. Surrounded on three sides by water, it’s an unprepossessing, freewheeling place that bills itself as “a small drinking community with a large fishing problem.” Shrimp and oyster boats, commercial seafood houses and recreational fish camps are San Leon’s lifeblood today. Much like rum, however, San Leon has serially reinvented itself, and San Leon’s relationship with rum is longstanding.

From 1817 to 1820, the French pirate Jean Lafitte used San Leon’s natural harbor to land contraband goods and slaves brought from the Caribbean—local legend revels in Lafitte’s buried treasure at Eagle Point. And we know what these pirates of the Caribbean were drinking…what else but rum?

In 1828, Amos Edwards received a San Leon land grant from Stephen F. Austin. Edwards’ son Monroe, a notorious slave smuggler, formed a company that developed the first short-lived town of San Leon, established in 1838, just as commercial sugar production—powered by slave labor—was burgeoning on nearby plantations. In adjacent Brazoria County, Martin Varner built a distillery on what is now the Varner-Hogg Plantation. The bottle of rum he sent to Stephen F. Austin in 1829 was some of the first spirits produced in Texas.

San Leon was reinvented in 1892 as a manufacturing center called North Galveston, but it was smashed by the great 1900 hurricane that decimated Galveston Island. While the factories were gone forever, its fine hotel was rebuilt and the town—rechristened “San Leon”—rose from the ruins as a seaside resort. During Prohibition (1920 to 1933), Galveston Bay was a hotbed of illegal rum-running from the Caribbean into Texas. Additionally, domestic production of bootleg liquor was prevalent around the coast. San Leon was no exception—in 1921, flames from a moonshine still destroyed the San Leon Hotel.

Today, San Leon’s many drinking establishments are legal, if sometimes rowdy. And Kelly Railean’s artisan distillery and Buccaneer Bar provide a spirited nod toward San Leon’s checkered and swashbuckling past.