Black Coral Rum Co-Owner Ben Etheridge (Interview)

Published by The Rumlab ago about the Black Coral company

Black Coral Rum Co-Owner Ben Etheridge (Interview) article cover image

By Jose Hoffmann

Steel Tie Spirits are the home of Black Coral Rum. It is a local distiller producing rum and vodka in the heart of the warehouse district. Located in a historic building, it’s the largest distillery by production capacity/volume in the Southeastern United States.

Their spirits are made using old-world techniques fused with modern technology to deliver the finest products available. Learn more about Ben Etheridge, Co-Owner of Steel Tie Spirits, in the following interview:

TRL: Who is Ben Etheridge?

Hard to do a self-analysis but here we go… a tinkerer for sure; my parents always caught me taking apart the VCR. Being brand new and pretty expensive back in the day, they were never pleased. That turned into picking them up when our neighbors threw them away, only for me to replace the worn ejection band and sell it back to them. They were confused, to say the least for an 11-year-old to sell them back their VCR after fixing it. From blowing out breakers at the house trying to rewire something that was not broken to learning to weld under the not so careful eye of my older brother I kind of just figured it out. I owe my father that for sure, he always lets us learn without that “you’re doing it wrong” attitude that I feel stifles creativity and the sense of accomplishment. When my siblings and I wanted to take on a task, whether it was rebuilding a transmission in our bedroom, or pulling apart a 1968 Chevelle in the backyard, his response was always: “you’ll figure it out”.

I had been making rum for years, bringing bottles over the house to sip with pops every month or so. His reactions to my spirits were priceless, sometimes a smile, and sometimes he would recoil in fear that he might have just been poisoned. The latter happened earlier in my experimentation stage, I will admit. But one day in 2012, I brought over a batch that he fell in love with. We sat on the back porch sipping this spiced rum and filed our articles of incorporation for black coral rum. That was the day our journey began. The next day we met to make plans on how this could work, being we would be the first distillery in the county, there were no guidelines to work within. He asked: “how are we gonna build this thing?” I simply responded, “We’ll figure it out”.

From there, we got my welder, some material, and started building our 500-gallon copper and stainless still, heated by an in-house made natural gas burner assembly that took 121 #45 drill bits to make. Conical bottom fermenters with custom motor mounts, gear reduction drives, and variable frequency drives, a hand-built overflow valve 4 bottle filler with a linear actuator on an aluminum sled riding on Delrin sliders actuated by a timer relay, we built it all. It would suffice to say that we surpassed our 20k expected build cost by 300%. Should have seen that coming. Skip forward to selling my home, moving into the distillery, and living in a loft above the office for 6 years. The still ran for 24 hours, and so did we. Batch after batch, we perfected our craft. From liquor store tastings to knocking down doors, we did 100% of what it takes to make it in this very expensive and very challenging business, and I wouldn’t trade a second of that time I spent with my father for the world.

Our distillery is located in the heart of West Palm Beach FL. The building, built-in 1928, was made of St Louis brick and Dade county pine. Using reclaimed pecky cypress and 300-year-old Douglas fir beams, we framed the distillation equipment, creating a separation of barroom and distilling floor. 200-year-old books line the library, as family pictures dating back to 1868, taken in Palm Beach county line the walls. Swing in for a tour and a taste!

TRL: What does the rum mean for you? What made you fall in love with rum and when did it happen?

Since birth, my family has spent time in the keys every year for vacation, and it was during one of these trips that I happened to smell a glass of Ron Centenario sitting atop a piling at the end of the dock. My father, an avid fisherman, always had his preferences in everything from boats, guns, and of course, rum, and that was his sipper of choice. I remember smelling this glass and thinking, what a strong scent, why would you drink this? While my father was occupied wringing lobster tails, I snuck a sip. The 3 fingers of rum with ice had watered down just enough for my young pallet to appreciate the complexity of what I tasted, from smoke and oak to molasses and caramel flavors. I simply nodded and set the glass down with a newfound respect for rum and how different the same style of spirit can be. It was from that trip forward that I started reading about the art of distilling as well as the history of the early pioneers of the industry.

TRL: What is the most important contribution you have made in the rum industry? Benefits that the rum industry has given you.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that small guys like my father and I have made a substantial impact on an industry as giant as the spirits market, but it has made an impact on us for sure. This industry allowed my father and me to build the first and only authentic craft distillery in Palm Beach county Florida. It allowed he and I to work together for 8 years, every day, sometimes day and night, until his passing in 2019. This industry allowed us an opportunity to create from scratch, from flat sheets of stainless and copper, a hand-built still from a drawing on a sheet of paper to a beautifully finished custom and piece of art that is still functional to this day. It allowed us to build as a family, an American craft spirit that in my mind is 100% of what is meant by the terms “craft” and “handmade”. That term now seems to be overused and sadly no longer represents the amount of work it takes to design, weld, and fabricate your own equipment, or even produce your own spirit.

TRL: What’s another thing you are passionate about, in addition to rum? Why?

My late father, a 36 year retired lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Department, my mother a hospice nurse for decades, the two of them raised some strong-willed children, that’s for sure. My brother a guidance tech in the navy, my sister, a combat arms instructor for the Air Force, my uncle a colonial in the army, my grandfather a bomber pilot, it is safe to say that service to our family, country, and fellow Americans have always been in our blood. I, as the self-titled “black sheep” of the family, am the only one who did not serve in the military and is to this day one of my only regrets in life. While creating the vision for our brand, there was always a constant, an absolute must that would be the heart of the mission, an unwavering desire to help those that have given so much already. We decided upon inception that we would be donating a portion of proceeds to U.S. veterans’ organizations to help in any way that we can to show support for those that have, in some situations, lost love, limb, or life. We have partnered with some amazing non-profits and have tried our hardest to be a positive part of an industry that has an incredible opportunity to make an impact on those in need.

TRL: What is your favorite place for drinking rum?

I wouldn’t say there is a place I do not like a rum drink, but if we are narrowing down the best spot, I would have to say, on the dock of the Edgewater lodge on Long Key Florida. Many of my very best memories were made there and it holds a very special place in my heart.

TRL: Favorite drink + Recipe

Favorite drink, that’s an easy one. It’s our black coral spiced rum, ginger beer, and pineapple juice, we call it a tropical storm and it’s a perfectly balanced bevy for a Tervis tumbler on the boat or the beach. Add a black rum floater on it and you in business, I will admit it is my go-to and hits on all notes. The ginger beer adds some spice, the pineapple sweetens, and the vanilla and cocoa in the rum blends to be the tastiest tropical drink imaginable.

TRL: Why is it important to educate the rum consumer?

I feel it is important to educate rum consumers, as they are definitely on their own. The laws that govern rum do not mandate that a statement of composition nor the sugar content need to be present on the bottle, or even be made available for the consumer at all. I do feel that the terms “craft” and “handmade” should have been held to a higher standard and not been used to dilute a market as niche as the craft spirits industry. Billion-dollar marketing is used to sway our judgment and influence people’s decisions, blindly accepting false claims without question and holding very little sacred anymore.

TRL: Any tips to train the palate and taste a good premium rum?

I think to really understand the flavor profile of any spirit one would benefit from understanding the ester profiles that make up the scent and flavor of the spirit. It is hard to discern the note of vanilla in complex rum if you have never smelled a vanilla bean on its own. This goes for all spirits as well as cuisine, I mean, who really knew marzipan smelled like almonds until you smelled them next to each other. LOL      

TRL: Who would like to meet in the rum industry? What would you say to him/her?

Hands down the late, great, Rafael Arroyo. His papers were the first I could get my hands on as a young man, his methods were not only groundbreaking but simple, and established a baseline from which to operate. That’s a wonderful thing for someone just taking on a new “hobby”. His work has been invaluable to us and has made our path to creating our spirit much more direct and approachable. I would thank him for his expertise and for sharing his work with the rest of the world.

TRL: What are your next goals in the rum industry?

With over 120 barrels aging at the moment, with varying ages, finishes, chars, and resting proofs, we are moving into the blending of aged spirits. We have always distilled our own spirits and have not sourced aged rums so we’ve never had the ability to sell barrel-aged rum until recently. I do always find it funny to see a brand new craft distillery with bourbon… We have been experimenting with some Cadenhead barrels as well as some Florida wine producers’ barrels and are creating some amazing new juice.

TRL: Plans you have when you leave the rum industry.

Leave the industry? Rum is fun, why would you stop having fun? I fell in love with rum because it is the opposite of the snooty attitude many brands try so hard to push. With rum, everyone is welcome to pull up a chair, dig their feet in the sand, tell a tale and join the party. Rum is the everyman’s drink, and for me harkens back to the times when it was one man vs. nature. One of my favorite books “the old man and the sea” always comes to mind when I think about the pioneers of the rum industry, and I don’t think I would ever want to leave that behind.

TRL: Why is the role of the bartender important in the rum industry?

Bartenders are our first line of brand ambassadors; the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the first to sift through the junk and funk of the spirits that are pushed onto the consumer. If they like something, they will suggest it. If they don’t, you will know. Mostly, their interest in brands is organic and for that, I have great respect for their ability to separate what companies want them to push, and what they like. I have always been in awe of the masterful grace that some bartenders have in their craft and still sit with that stupid look on my face at a bar being run by a master barman. I would be remiss not to mention a good friend and master barman, John Moore, who has taught me a great deal about his craft and helped me better, understand balance, presentation, and professionalism in the industry.

TRL: What is your advice for new generations in the rum industry?

Make what you like, if it’s good and people enjoy it, that’s even better. Create new; a million 3rd party brands are bottling the same juice with a different label. Standing out is not only about having twenty million in a marketing budget, but having a brand that stands for something, I feel, is important as well.

Our distillery is located in the heart of West Palm Beach FL. The building, built-in 1928, was made of St Louis brick and Dade county pine. Using reclaimed pecky cypress and 300-year-old Douglas fir beams, we framed the distillation equipment, creating a separation of barroom and distilling floor. 200-year-old books line the library, as family pictures dating back to 1868, taken in Palm Beach county line the walls. Swing in for a tour and a taste!

Learn more about Black Coral Rum at: