Living in Saudi Arabia in 1978, at the start of an international banking and management career, he figured out how to cook up boozy bathtub-fermented “siddiqui” from bags of sugar and baker’s yeast, because, crude as it was, it reminded him of rum.
Later, he built a series of experimental stills, bought a farm in southwest Georgia near Richland and, with the help of the University of Georgia extension office, learned how to grow “Georgia Red” sugarcane.
“I always thought that if there was ever an opportunity to grow sugarcane and make rum, I would do it,” Vonk says.
Now, Vonk and his wife, Karin, own and operate Richland Distilling Company, which produces high-quality, small-batch rum from sugarcane and a proprietary fermentation recipe that took years to perfect. Like other fine spirits, such as single malt Scotch and small batch Bourbon, that quality and care is reflected in the retail price. A bottle of Richland Rum currently sells for around $60.
Stepping inside the Victorian brick storefront at 333 Broad St. in Richland, which was boarded-up for 26 years before Vonk bought it, the busy sights and sounds of artisan rum-making are everywhere.
A pair of bright copper alembic pot stills fabricated in Portugal look like plump Christmas ornaments. American white oak barrels stacked in neat rows on metal stands line the open, rectangular space. Antique shelves and tables display elegant gold-labeled bottles and tasting glasses.
Mostly, though, its the rum — active and aromatic in its various stages, fermenting in steel, distilling in copper, aging in oak — that creates the strongest dint of spirituous alchemy.
Like the smell of yeasty bread in a bakery or roasty beans in a coffee shop, rum’s sugary essence makes an immediate impression. And so does Erik Vonk.
At 60, Vonk is fit and tan, a gentleman farmer and sort-of-retired entrepreneur, who drives a diesel pickup, sometimes perches rimless granny glasses above his nose, and punctuates sentences with an easygoing laugh.
When it comes to the gospel of good rum, though, he can be serious as a preacher on Sunday, fervently delineating the differences between bad mass-produced rum and good artisan-made rum.
“Rum was the past king of spirits,” Vonk says. “Now it’s beginning to make it’s way back as the king again. Rum, with one base ingredient, sugarcane, is an aromatic, soft, sweet product.”
Look up Vonk’s Forbes profile and you’ll find he earned his undergraduate degree in Holland and an MBA from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He was president and CEO of Randstad North America, one of the world’s largest staffing companies.
Randstad landed Vonk in Atlanta, where he negotiated the lucrative staffing contract with the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Committee. Afterward, Vonk and his wife left Buckhead for the quiet land in Stewart County they named Vennebroeck (Dutch for “ponds and brooks”) and small-town life in Richland.
Showing a visitor from Atlanta around the distillery, Vonk’s sermon starts with the fact that most rum is made with molasses, a cheap byproduct of sugar production. His rum is fermented with premium cane syrup and a special yeast. Virtually distilled by hand, it’s a product defined by quality, not efficiency, he insists.
“The yeast we’re using is a strain that we developed ourselves over a 12-year period,” Vonk says. “The fermentation process takes about five days. Fermentation is where most of the flavor profile is determined. You could ferment in as little as 18 hours, but we decided from day one that we wanted to make the best rum.”
Vonk is equally ardent about his copper stills, which he says add another layer to the flavor. Vonk’s distiller, Jay McCain, has the painstaking job of collecting rum from each still’s daily “run,” gallon by gallon, inspecting and tasting as he works, and separating out the “heads” and “tails” to get to the “hearts” — the best third of the run, which will be barrel-aged as Richland Rum.
McCain, a Columbus native who has a farm outside of Richland, says he dabbled in winemaking and distilling but never thought of doing it professionally before coming to work for Vonk.
“Let’s just say this is the one where I’m actually being paid legally,” McCain says, flashing a grin. “It’s been an awesome thing to learn about rum. I knew homemade moonshine and whiskey and wine, but this stuff is really different. You work and work and work to get certain flavors.”
In preparation for opening Richland, Vonk and McCain apprenticed at several small distilleries, where they worked beside master distillers, learning the science and getting a taste of the art. From those experiences, Vonk likens working a still to playing a musical instrument.
“You could put a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in front of me, but I wouldn’t be able to play it like Elton John,” Vonk says. “The same applies to a still. You need to learn how to play it.”
Vonk runs his stills five days a week, building up a supply of aged rum that will go from the current 14-month-old bottled product to vintages of up to 10-years and older.
Right now, the rum is only available at a few bars, restaurants and shops around Richland and Atlanta. But as Vonk continues to increase production, he’s also renovating an adjacent storefront to become the main tasting room and storehouse, leaving more space for adding capacity in the distillery.
Greg Best, bartender and partner at Holeman & Finch Public House and H&F Bottle Shop, says Richland Rum has sold well. He admits he had some reservations before he tasted it for himself.
“When I got word that somebody was making rum in Georgia, the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, this should be a cataclysmic embarrassment.’ But the cool thing was, it came completely out of left field,” Best says. “No one knew anything about it and then, boom! It was in the market — aged rum, and delicious at that.”
From a bartender’s vantage point, Best is even more effusive, saying Richland is the kind of artisan product aficionados of fine spirits latch onto, and then demand skyrockets.
“One thing I’m amazed by is how bright and floral it is,” Best says. “There’s vanilla and caramel and butterscotch, but there’s also a great vegetal brightness that comes from the sugarcane. It’s really light on its feet and really exciting both as a sipping rum and as a mixer. It works really well in a daiquiri and in a classic rum and tonic, too.”
Of course, Vonk is hoping Best is right about the aficionados and skyrocket thing. And so is the mayor of Richland, Adolph McLendon, who hasn’t missed out on the fact that there’s a sudden, steady stream of visitors from Atlanta and beyond coming by for a taste of the rum named for his sleepy little town.
“I didn’t think they knew where Richland was,” McLendon says, standing in front of the distillery and joshing like Andy of Mayberry. “I guess they want to see those stills from Portugal. But I seriously do like the rum. My wife thinks the bottles are pretty enough to make table decorations.”
Asked if he thinks his rum might do for Richland what Jack Daniels did for Lynchburg, Tenn., Vonk smiles at the mayor and says, “I think that might take a few generations.”