Most people when they hear “rum” they instantly think of the Caribbean countries with their sunny beaches and fruity punches – Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Guyana, they are all known for their quality rums and are well established as cane spirits producing countries. But what about England? In the past few years there has been a surge of small, craft distilleries in the UK and this is my little effort to shine a light on them. Retribution Distilling Co is one such English rum producer, based in a small farm shed in Frome, Somerset.
The story of Retribution started, by a weird twist, with an accident. Richard Lock, the owner and maker of Retribution, suffered an injury in 2011 during the Plymouth half marathon which, unfortunately, left him unable to run any more marathons and hence a hobby gap had to be filled. He started self-teaching himself brewing and started home brewing beer which has actually won him a number of competitions. Due to his desire to elevate his skills he studied at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh, a world famous university for brewing and distilling – and so he became interested in spirit making.
Richard was initially working for 10 years in the oil and gas industry and this new hobby became his opportunity to address his life-work balance and make a change to do something he’s become really passionate about. That’s how in 2019 his home project, Retribution Brewing, became Retribution Distilling Co.
The first product to be launched was Retribution Gin in February 2020, whose recipe was in the works for 8 months. The bottle design and branding was inspired by the sailors that were bored at sea and were making ships in bottles in order to pass the time – similar how Richard has been thinking about this project while he was away from home at sea. Nowadays Retribution also makes whisky and rum, but for obvious reasons I will be focusing on the rum production – which started at Retribution exactly on the 17th of February 2021.
As I mentioned, the Retribution Distillery is based in Frome, Somerset. The distillery was initially set in place of the home brewery, but in March 2020 it was moved in a slightly remote, little farm shed. Getting there is not easy if you don’t own a car, but fortunately, after I got myself as close as possible using public transport (which is not without its faults, but I don’t review the British Rail here), Richard was kind enough to give me a lift to the distillery – and I’m incredibly grateful he did so. In my foolishness I was genuinely planning to walk there, but seeing the rural route we had to take to get there, I realised it would’ve been quite challenging for a city boy like me. The sights were really beautiful though, as you would expect from a region that has its own GI for cider brandy production.
The setup of the distillery is traditional and compact, pretty much as you would expect from its location, and it’s all ran by Richard alone. Now let’s start with the technicals.
The distillery has 3 temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks, 2 with a capacity of 1500 litre and one that can hold 2200 litre. Generally, a mix of 400 kilograms of molasses and 900 litres of water, alongside a French sparkling wine yeast are used to start the fermentation. The temperature is brought down to 18 degrees Celsius and over 72 hours it can rise up to 34 degrees.
The duration of the fermentation for the Retribution rum can vary between 7 to 14 days and the ABV of the resulted wash is usually around 14% ABV. Richard told me he’s potentially thinking of bringing in some wooden fermentation tanks, but that’s just an idea for now.
There are 3 stills at Retribution, one of which, a 50 litre Genio still, is used exclusively for gin. The other 2 stills, dubbed “Small” and “Big” are used in the whisky and rum production.
The Small still is the original Retribution still, a 400 litre alembic copper pot still that is heated using direct gas fire. Interestingly, the firebox for this still was custom built by Richard based on the design of the ones used by Montanya Distillers.
The Big still was brought in later on in December 2022 and it’s a 1800 litre custom built pot still that also heats up through direct flame. The still was designed by Richard himself and was built by Elite Stainless Fabrications in Swindon.
For the process, Retribution runs the first distillation (stripping run) on the Big still with a yield of around 400 litres of spirit at 30% ABV. The second distillation (spirit run) happens on the Small still and the result is 55 litre of drinkable rum clocking at 80% ABV. As a result the final product retains plenty of flavour and character – you can read my review of the Retribution White if you’d like more tasting notes on their unaged rum.
While Richard is currently focusing more on casking whisky than rum, there are a few rum filled barrels, some more unique than others, stored and maturing. The one I knew about before visiting the distillery was from his Cask 001 Rum Club where, if you signed in, you’d get a bottle of aged rum from their first barrel (ex-Bourbon) of rum laid down and a few other benefits such as some cask strength samples (see my quick overview on them here). Initially the rum bottles were supposed to be sent to all members earlier this year when it completed 2 years of maturation, but after tasting it, Richard decided it needs one more year to be ready – and after sampling it myself, I very much agree with his decision.
Now during my visit, Richard took me to a separate unit, a few meters away, where he is keeping most of his barrels – I was like a kid in candy shop. There he was kind enough to let me taste 2 different rums straight from the cask as a sneak peek of what will come in the future. The barrels in question were a former Ruby Port wine cask and a former Madeira wine cask, both filled with rum for 6 months at the time of sampling. Despite how young they were, they were both absolutely stunning and the influence from the wine was already coming through – I do have to say, tasting rum directly from a barrel is one of my favourite things in the world.
The Ruby Port cask rum felt rich with notes of orchard fruits, warm spices and balancing tannins. The Madeira cask was boasting more citrusy flavours alongside some dried fruits. They both clearly need more time to mature and develop complexity, but the results so far are very promising.
There are potential plans to use some sherry and sweet wine casks as well, which is very exciting, but for now I’m looking forward for my 3 year old Retribution rum bottle next year.
Retribution uses energy from a renewable supplier, the gas they use for the stills is carbon offset and all the organic distillery waste is being sent to an AD (Anaerobic Digestion) Plant and used to produce electricity.
All in all this was a great experience and I’m very glad I got to visit. Besides the rum chat and the samples, Richard also treated me to some tea and local charcuterie and I couldn’t be happier. If you’d like to support Retribution, go to their shop and grab yourself a bottle or two and/or spread the word about them. It’s also worth following their Instagram as they are doing some really interesting stuff in terms of rum – or even whisky if that’s more your cup of tea.
Many thanks to Richard Lock for baring with me and for offering me his time and hospitality!