Ted Wathen/Whitney Morris
Turner Wathen and Jordan Morris
Nearly eight years ago, Jordan Morris, now 32, and his friend Turner Wathen, 35, began planning a business to bring the best, purest rums they could find to the U.S. "We're looking for rums that are unadulterated," Wathen says. "No sugar, no caramels. We like the purity of rum." They identified a 12-year-old rum from Trinidad that they loved, bought some, and had it shipped to a warehouse in Louisville where—due to a mistake—it got mixed with whiskey. Their pure, unadulterated rum had been adulterated, and Wathen and Morris would have to figure out what to do about it.
Whiskey practically runs in Wathen's veins: his family has been making the spirit for five generations, starting in 1788 and continuing through Prohibition as one of the few companies licensed to sell medicinal whiskey (since then, Wathen says, "we drank and sold ourselves out of all our assets"). Morris's background is also in whiskey; he's worked in liquor stores, led bourbon tastings, and written whiskey reviews for the online magazine Whiskey Wash
. So perhaps it's fitting that when the two decided to start importing rum, whiskey inevitably found its way into the mix.
When he and Wathen began talking about starting their own business, Morris says, they discussed trends in the spirits industry. "The one market I saw that had a very historic spirit that actually had a passionate following, but not in America, was rum," he says. " There are a lot of great distilleries making great rum in the Caribbean that don't have any market penetration in the United States."
They decided the business model for their company, which they called Rolling Fork Spirits, would be to seek out excellent rum, import it, and finish it in various casks—for example, barrels that had previously held sherry. Or, in the case of the 12-year Trinidad rum, bourbon. That rum had spent six months sitting in Kentucky bourbon barrels in a shared warehouse space rented by Wathen and Morris before being transferred to a holding tank for bottling. The warehouse workers who moved it, though, didn't realize that the tank already contained a five-year-old rye made by MGP (Midwest Grain Products, which supplies whiskey to many smaller brands
The mix is mostly rum, says Morris; less than a quarter of it is whiskey. When they got the call telling them about the mistake, he says, they first told the warehouse to pay back whoever owned the whiskey that had been mixed with their rum. "Then we had to look at this spirit to see, is it godawful?" According to Wathen, "it was just enough rye to make a spicier finish to a sweeter rum, so you get a variety of flavors going from sweet to spicy. That's where we lucked out." Both Morris and Wathen liked the spirit a lot, as it turned out. But they didn't trust themselves to be impartial, so they asked other people in the spirits industry in Louisville for their opinions—which also turned out to be favorable.
They called the spirit Fortuitous Union—but despite the name, neither of the owners thinks the mix-up was a happy accident. In fact, Wathen says, "Fortuitous Union stands for FU, it stands for fuck-up." Both say they got lucky that the blend turned out as well as it did, but they never would have let it happen if they'd had a choice. "If we hadn't had it forced upon us by accident, I can say with 100 percent certainty, we would not have done it," Morris says. "Not with aged rum."
Because the product contains both rum and whiskey, it can't be labeled as either. There's a category for alcohol that doesn't fit into any other category: distilled spirit specialty. "It's this weird category that many in the industry view as the bottom shelf of bottom shelves," Wathen says. Morris adds, "One distributor told us we were crazy—you can't sell a distilled spirits specialty. That same distributor took the first allotment from us and sold out in like two days."
Wathen says that while rum as a category is still underappreciated in the U.S., tiki culture has helped to make the spirit more popular in major cities. Partly because of Chicago’s strong cocktail scene, partly because there’s a limited amount of Fortuitous Union (1,650 bottles), the spirit is available only in Louisville—where the company is based—and Chicago. “We found a welcome we weren’t expecting in high-end cocktail bars like Prairie School,” Morris says.
head bartender Kristina Magro was surprised she liked the spirit as much as she did. "You hear a story like that and you're like, oh, so you guys made a really expensive mistake?" she says. "I think it's really cool because it's a nice rich, robust rum, but with the rye you have a spicy component. Not only do I get the baking spice from the wood but from the rum; they play off of one another. The rum is really rich but it drives home that wood, oak, spice, dill. When I taste rye I always taste dill."
The Union Park Swizzle
Magro used Fortuitous Union in a riff on the Queen's Park Swizzle that she named the Union Park Swizzle. In addition to the rum-whiskey blend, the cocktail includes maple syrup, lime juice, and 11th Orchard bitters (it's no longer on the menu, but she expects to use the spirit again in the future, she says). "It's perfectly in line with what we're doing here—we try to make really simple, elegant cocktails that put the spirits that we're using at the forefront," she says. "But it's also something cool that no one's ever seen; I get to introduce people to this spirit that they wouldn't likely try if it wasn't in this cocktail."
Part of the goal of Rolling Fork Spirits is to help whiskey drinkers appreciate rum. "We source unique rums from across the Caribbean and do interesting finishes to help match what consumers look for in bourbon and Scotch whiskey," Wathen says. Both he and Morris believe that what whiskey drinkers want is quality, and there's plenty of quality rum out there. "It's crazy to me that you can walk into a liquor store and there's Appleton Estate 21-year rum sitting on the shelf," Morris says. "They make fantastic rum, and no one wants it. Whereas people will line up the day before for a 12-year bourbon."
At the moment, the owners are focused on their original goal: importing high-end rum, finishing it in various barrels, and releasing it under their Rolling Fork label. But while Fortuitous Union can't be replicated, it's not the last rum-whiskey blend the company will produce. "We wanted to do small batches of this for the cocktail bars, the people who embraced us and are asking if we're going to make more," Morris says. It's been a process of trial and error, and only recently have they found another blend they like. "We've done some blends with higher rye-whiskey ratios, and they taste . . . not as good," Morris says. "We got really kind of lucky [with Fortuitous Union]."