The Unsinkable Maggie Campbell: How Boston's First Lady of Rum Beat the Odds

Maggie Campbell glam
Courtesy of Privateer
Courtesy of Privateer

There was a time when Maggie Campbell almost quit distilling. It was just a few years ago, when the award-winning head distiller and vice president at Privateer Rum thought being a woman might be an insurmountable obstacle in her pursuit of doing what she wanted to do: make spirits, and make them well. Despite unrivaled experience and stacks of recommendations, Campbell's search for a distillery that would let her do what she did best was marked by deafening radio silence. "I thought I was doing something wrong," she says.

She remembers applications being unanswered. She recalls finally getting someone to talk to her, only to be told they wouldn't be comfortable having a woman in the distillery. (Yes, that was in this century. Campbell is only 32.) There were stressed-out 4am phone calls to mentors in different time zones, and -- above all else -- there was a whole heap of self-doubt. "I was like, 'Maybe I'm really not qualified. Maybe I don't actually know that much.'"

Turns out, she knows more than most, and she's sure as shit qualified.

Privateer rum
Courtesy of Privateer

When a career in rum starts with Rousseau

Campbell is telling me her story of sexism and triumph between bites of cheeseburger. We're at the Privateer distillery in Ipswich, about 45 minutes north of Boston, and the burgers are from a little joint around the corner called Bunz. Bunz is co-owned by a young woman whose no-nonsense setup Campbell admires, and the burger is seriously good -- I am trying to take notes and not drip ketchup on myself. The garage doors to this little distillery off a country road are pulled up, flooding the simple industrial space with light and warm breezes. It's surprisingly welcoming and calm, considering it's not much more than a steel box with concrete floors. Maybe it's the white noise of the large copper still bubbling away; maybe it's the low buzz of marsh frogs in the distance. More likely, though, it's Campbell's studious serenity pervading the space. After just a few minutes in the same room with her, it's clear there's unassuming power behind her damn-near-twinkling eyes.

Every single spirit produced under Campbell has received a four-star rating.

Campbell found her way to distilling at the advent of the spirits renaissance in America. At the age of 20, this daughter of a truck driver took off to Scotland for some mild soul searching. It was 2004, and she was halfway through a philosophy degree. A trip to famed Scotch whisky distillery Oban was all it took to light a fire in young Campbell's mind. "I was like, 'Oh, people do this. For a living.'" She returned home to Denver and finished her degree in philosophy, but after graduation, "I could not find a job. Obviously," she laughs. So she enrolled in wine classes, figuring it was a step in the right direction. Soon after, she found work in a local wine shop, where she learned the ins and outs of distribution -- an oft-overlooked lesson she counts among her most valuable. "Most distillers never get that experience," she says. "You need to know how your product exists in the world."

And then, the cultural phenomenon that brought back both booze and the crimson lip: Mad Men. "All of a sudden, everyone wanted a well-stocked bar," Campbell says. She saw an opportunity in the lack of spirits professionals in her industry, and she jumped on it. "I thought, 'I'll learn more than all these dudes, and I'll kick ass.'"

Kick ass she did. After making an effort to have her face known at local breweries and distilleries, she landed the mentorship of Todd Leopold, of Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver. The family-owned distillery gets huge respect in the small-batch American spirits world, and its hands-on owners exposed Campbell to the day-to-day of distillery life. With Leopold's encouragement, she completed her diploma in craft distilling technologies from the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Shortly after that, she got her first big break: Hubert Germain-Robin offered her the assistant distiller position at Germain-Robin, the esteemed Cognac-inspired brandy distillery in Northern California. "I was very lucky to learn Cognac techniques. Cognac is very closed-door," she says. 

Sometimes we all want to burn this place down

When she decided to move on from Germain-Robin, Campbell had a gilded resume and venerable recommendations from some of the most respected names in the business. She was filled with the verve and confidence of a young go-getter; in many industries, she would have been a shoo-in for dream jobs. Instead? Insert that aforementioned radio silence.

Resume after resume went out into the seemingly bottomless void of an industry dominated by what Campbell refers to as Don Draper-cum-John Wayne characters -- a contemporary extension of the good old boys of yore. She remembers calling Leopold at 4am, full of doubt. "I was like, 'Should I legally change my name to Mark so when I send out an application I actually get a callback?'" Leopold assured her that she had what it took --  she just needed to find the right distillery. "I don't think I understood what was happening at the time," she says. "I almost gave up on my dreams."

Maggie Campbell distilling
Courtesy of Privateer

Enter the city of Boston

It was a phone call from her former employer that finally set her on the trajectory to badassery. Hubert Germain-Robin knew about Campbell's job woes, and he told her to check out Privateer. (Campbell does a deft high-flown Frenchman impression when she talks about the phone call. "He was like, 'Maggie! You must look at this Privateer! They are doing something special, very special!'") She sent her resume to Andrew Cabot, an established businessman who founded Privateer after discovering his family's ties to colonial rum distilling in the area. Lo and behold, Cabot called back. Maggie spent her flight to Boston studying up on rum -- a spirit she had never distilled before -- and that was that.

Campbell says the move to Boston made all the difference; suddenly, the work she's been doing all along is getting recognized. "Boston is a town where women are allowed to succeed," she says, crediting the city's academic roots with fostering a more forward-thinking culture. "With Andrew, my gender never even came up," she says. "Once the right person trusted me, we became unstoppable."

You could say Campbell is unstoppable, but "fierce" might be a better word for the California native. A self-described "scrappy, punk-rock kid," Campbell has performed the equivalent of a rum-soaked mic drop since landing at Privateer in 2012. Despite being a relative newcomer to rum, she has earned both local and national recognition for what she calls Privateer's line of "cane to glass" rums and spirits; every single spirit produced under Campbell's tutelage has received a four-star rating from the esteemed F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal, and the distillery's revival-style Queen's Share rum earned the highly coveted five-star rating in March of 2016. In its review, Spirit Journal called Queen's Share "one of the finest American rums of recent memory." The review noted that "[s]uperstar master distiller Maggie Campbell now has established a new standard [sic] and that will be her challenge."

A phone call from her former employer finally set Campbell on the trajectory to badassery.

Campbell seems determined to continue not only meeting that standard, but exceeding it. At the moment, the phenom is on track to complete the infamously rigorous Masters of Wine Examination (yes, like in that movie) in the spring of 2017. She's the only distiller to successfully attempt the exam, which is generally undertaken by wine pros, in its 63-year history. It's a process to which she credits much of her success; Campbell says it's the MW's exacting tasting protocol that has helped develop her palate to recognize characteristics like flaws and barrel maturity in ways she wasn't able to before she started studying for the exam. "I used to taste a barrel of rum and have a gut feeling that it was special, but now I know why it's special," she says. "Now I know what can stand on its own."

Taking names

That knowledge payed off just this past Saturday, when Privateer released a brand-new line of three limited-edition, single-barrel spirits called Distiller's Drawer. The series features the fruits of some of Campbell's most successful experimental projects: a double-pot-still amber rum matured in Dickel bourbon barrels; a Navy Yard rum variation called Origin Story that's matured for three years, eight months (and 11 days, ahem) in third-use barrels; and -- in an homage to Campbell's days at Germain-Robin -- a peach brandy made from single-orchard peaches sourced from local Cider Hill Farm. Like all of Privateer's spirits, the Distiller's Drawer selections are additive-free and unfiltered -- rare attributes in an industry rife with scandal surrounding things like "bourbon flavor" additives and repackaged bulk spirits labeled "local," a practice she decries as deceitful. "When you start deceiving customers, you're basically stealing," she says.

In fact, it's the trend of inexperienced distilleries without professional training that Campbell says is the biggest challenge to the success of American distilling. Campbell notes that it's important for Privateer to differentiate itself in an industry in which newly minted "local" distilleries appear on the scene with the frequency of Starbucks storefronts. "Inexperienced distillers can't taste that something's not right, or if they can, they don't know how to fix it," she says. "We'd rather have something in common with Buffalo Trace than someone distilling in a plastic bucket. It's not just bad, it's dangerous." It's why she refuses to refer to Privateer's spirits as craft, despite their potentially deserving production methods. "It's vague, and it doesn't mean anything at this point," she says. "Mezcal fermented in a cowhide -- that's fucking craft."

Campbell has performed the equivalent of a rum-soaked mic drop since landing at Privateer in 2012.

Maybe it's her philosophy degree, but that commitment to integrity seems to find its way into everything Campbell touches, including the way she runs the brewery. She talks passionately about things like paternal leave and ensuring employees can have real days off with no unwanted digital interruption. When she talks about these things, it's easy to see the same drive to be the best that made the 20-something want to school the boys in spirits knowledge. It's the same drive that also makes her a great distiller -- and a great asset to the industry. Campbell is focused on ensuring she meets her own standards, of course, but not just at Privateer. She wants to help diversify the industry by encouraging more women and people of color to enter the distilling profession. Rum, she argues, provides a unique inroad to inclusion. "It's made all over the world. It's this global community -- all races, all genders. You can't say that about other spirits categories."

Privateer's spirits are additive-free and unfiltered -- rare attributes in an industry rife with scandal.

On the heels of the scandal over Jack Daniels' whitewashed origin story (the distillery recently admitted its founder's slave taught him how to distill), Campbell believes it's even more important to be vocal about rum's history. "Rum is a black art," she says. While conversations about gender in the industry generally come up in her presence, there are fewer organic opportunities for conversations about race to occur because there are fewer distillers of color. "The narrative in distilling is exclusionary, and that means we're not getting the best talent," she says. "The more visibility we give to women and people of color, the better, because when everyone thinks they can be a distiller, we'll have the best distillers." To her, inclusivity is an obvious path to achieving new heights in the industry. (There's that drive again.)

It's been a bumpy road to success, but Campbell is finally here, eating burgers amidst the barrels upon barrels of likely award-winning spirits yet to be unleashed upon the world. Despite her triumph, though, she doesn't take anything for granted. "I know I'm lucky to have what I do," she says. At the end of the day, it seems as though what's most important to Campbell hasn't changed much since she first set out: "Do the right thing," she says. "Make the best rum."

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Lauren Friel is a freelance writer living in Boston who also really, really loves rum -- especially in Hemingway Daiquiri format. You can find more of her work via her website, Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @vin_drop.