There’s nothing quite like sitting out on the terrace as the sun dips below the horizon, looking out onto the water that’s taken on the pastel hues of the sunset and sipping on a cocktail with good company. I should know; I got to do just that at The Grand Hotel in May.
I’m sorry, I shouldn’t brag.
But I will continue doing so, even if not for myself.
I was at The Grand to celebrate the release of Big Escambia Spirits’ first Alabama-made liquor. The Atmore-based distillery took over the patio of the historic hotel and welcomed guests to sample their one-of-a-kind rum, CRU Rum. Owner Seth Dettling is confident even the most inexperienced of tasters will notice the difference between his lovingly crafted spirit and the common rum. “I wanted to take rum to a new direction, ” he explains. “I took everything I didn’t like about rum and fixed it. CRU Rum contains no added colors, flavors or ingredients of any kind.”
Natural processes enhance the spirits, but the fermenting process takes it over the top. CRU Rum is aged in barrels that have previously held other liquors. There are three variations: tequila, white wine and red wine. Dettling calls these variants “expressions” of the rum, and the subtleties that the pre-used barrels add to the drinks seriously grants the lucky drinker a brand new experience. It’s simultaneously familiar and new.
“We hope to set a new bar for spirit quality, uniqueness, innovation and transparency. We ran away from cliché branding and other common industry trends. We wouldn’t have it any other way, ” Dettling shares.
In the Beginning
It should come as no surprise that Dettling tends to his spirits with tenderness and love, like a father or a shepherd with a flock. The process has always fascinated this entrepreneur, so in 2014, he dove right in. “I decided to go for it at the Battle House in Mobile during a Mardi Gras event, ” he explains with his characteristic zeal. “I met Robert ‘Bubba’ Hall, formerly of High Ridge Spirits (in Bullock County) at the event, and he inspired me to take on the challenge. We remain close to this day.”
Learning the ropes was a thrill ride plus some for Dettling, who called it the “most complex organization I have been a part of in my 20 years in business.” While federal licensing went smoothly, getting the state approval took a bit more patience. “When I first obtained an Alabama distillery license, ” he says, “there were only two or three licenses that had been issued, so everyone was learning as we went.”
Through it all, though, watching his still produce the first ever Big Escambia product made all the hoops worth it; in fact, judging by the enthusiasm that spills over every word and the determination clearly visible in his eyes, I’d guess that he would probably jump through them all over again.
First Steps to a Bright Future
Big Escambia debuted their innovative rum at The Grand on a humid day in May – it had been raining on and off most of the day (as it tends to do in Mobile as summer approaches), but the sun burned off even the most stubborn of rain clouds mere moments before the event was set to start. Despite the earlier weather, the patio of the Saltwater Grill saw a steady influx of patrons, curious about these drinks with the strange rum. Groups sat at tables while couples stopped by, sipped a drink and chatted with Dettling before heading on their way. At any one time, 25 people or more may have been gathered around the table, vying for Dettling’s attention.
And I can certainly see why. The cocktails, made with the CRU Rum expressions, were perfect for those out there (like myself) who struggle to even sniff straight liquor. My pick, the Grand Bishop, featured the CRU Rum aged in the red wine barrel and was delightfully fruity and light without tasting too sugary, as some fruit drinks are wont to do. The other options were just as satisfying.
CRU Rum is just the beginning for this small distillery in a small Alabama town. Dettling has set his sights sky high – even higher than the containers currently aging Alabama’s first bourbon, sitting high in the rafters of the rickhouse.
“We are working on custom-made distillation equipment, ” he reveals, and though he speaks professionally with an even tone, I can tell by the twinkle in his eye that these words only hint at his plans. “It looks something like a mad scientist film. Distilling is such a unique combination of disciplines that I should be able to remain challenged for decades to come.”
That’s the attitude that gives Big Escambia and Seth Dettling the right to brag a bit. It’s adventurous, it’s innovative, and it’s pretty darn tasty.
If my bragging has made you envious and you wish to relive the launch, visit the Saltwater Grill at The Grand Hotel and sip on the Full Court (white wine expression), the Grand Bishop (red wine expression) or the Rumarita (tequila expression). You can also stop by Bucky’s at The Grand Hotel in Point Clear for a CRU flight to taste all three straight from the bottle, or pick up CRU Rum from any ABC store to enjoy at home.
Text and photos by Chelsea Wallace Adams