Happy Hour: Erik Vonk of Richland Rum

The Holland-born transplant is making rum a thing in South Georgia

Georgia and rum are two words that don’t naturally go together in most people’s mind, but Erik Vonk aims to change that. Vonk hails from Holland, but after a career that brought him to Atlanta in 1991, he settled in South Georgia — first with a house and farm, then with a distillery. Now, he’s not only distilling, aging, and bottling Richland Rum in South Georgia, he’s doing it with Georgia-grown sugar cane. Unlike the much more common molasses-based rums, rum distilled directly from sugar cane syrup helps to retain the delicate flavors inherent in the cane. Accolades and awards — gold at this year’s SIP Awards and International Craft Awards — have come pouring in, proving that Georgia rum is indeed something worth talking about.

What was your first experience with rum?

In Holland growing up, my grandfather was a true rum aficionado. He spent an important part of his life at sea as a merchant marine officer, and I think his maritime career was just an excuse for his lifelong quest to find the world’s best rums! He lived in a large old house in Rotterdam with high ceilings and paneled walls lined with bookshelves and ... bottles of rum. During the holidays, our ritual was to have the lights dimmed at the end of a festive dinner and have a rum-drenched plum pudding brought in “flambé.” I can’t imagine a better way to taste rum as an underage teenager! Even today, the aromas of rum and oak that fill our barrel house here at the distillery remind me of his home and family visits.

People don’t often think of rum (or sugar cane for that matter) when they think of Georgia, but clearly you’re making it work — what’s unique about Georgia rum?

Where we are — Richland, about two hours south of Atlanta — is as far north as sugar cane will grow. Consequently, our cane grows slower and develops differently than it does in the tropics. That said, as is the case with wine grapes, our more temperate climate creates a balance in the sugars within the cane stalks, and cane from the Southern U.S. is great for rum production. We have our own “terroir” so to speak.

Daiquiri or Dark & Stormy?

That is what you might make with a molasses rum, but if I’m using a rum like ours, a good Mojito, perhaps. Secretly, when no one looks.

What did you think of Atlanta when you first arrived versus today?

I landed in Atlanta in 1991 to start up an office for Randstad. In the early ’90s Atlanta was in the process of growing up. There was still somewhat of a Southern pioneer spirit. Today, it is a world-class city.

Your distillery has become a big part of the revitalization of the town of Richland.

Yes, we moved the distillery from our farm, 7 miles south of town, to downtown, in part to help with the economic revival. Like many rural towns, Richland has been in a downward spiral since the ’60s. As distilleries tend to be travel destinations, we felt that a downtown location would help draw commerce to town, which is exactly what is happening. We have hundreds of visitors per month now and are making every effort to tenfold that. The community has been enormously supportive.

What other things might a visitor to Richland do?

Stewart County is home to several hidden gems. First, there is Westville, 10 miles from Richland, which is a truly unique “live” history museum, built as a fully functioning town from the 1850s. It’s vastly underrecognized. There’s also Providence Canyon — Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon” — a state park with amazing views and nature trails. We also have a state park on Lake George, which offers great boating, fishing, hiking, and wildlife spotting (bald eagles!). Oh, and did I tell you about that place that makes America’s best rum?