Thomas Tew gained such renown for his exploits from 1692 until 1695 that he was nicknamed the Rhode Island Pirate. Tew, a privateer from Newport who turned to piracy, led two major voyages, and accrued more treasure than he could spend before he met a violent death.
Due to his colorful role in the city’s history, the Newport Distilling Company named their first product after him--Thomas Tew Rum. Tew’s namesake is not the first rum to be made in these parts. Before the nineteenth century, Newport was the “rum capital of the world.” Today’s rum distillers use a process similar to that employed in the eighteenth century, mixing blackstrap molasses with local water and fermenting it in tanks using yeast from the adjacent brewery. This process yields a liquid called a “wash” that is then distilled twice. The resulting spirit is aged for several years in oak barrels before water is added to lower the proof. Finally, the rum is individually bottled, corked, and sealed with wax.
Rum played a central role in “the triangle trade,” a term used to describe the selling of rum, sugar, goods, and enslaved Africans among the nations of Europe, Western Africa, the Caribbean, and the Eastern United States. Rum-making and the triangle trade historically provided much of Newport’s wealth, and depended on the labor and selling of enslaved Africans and African Americans whose contributions are too often ignored. In addition, African Americans contributed a great deal to the culinary heritage of the Ocean State, such as the oysters and other foods offered by restaurateur George T. Downing at the Sea Girt Hotel in Newport, another stop on this tour and on the Rhode Island Black Heritage Tour.
Today, visitors to the Newport Distilling Company can go on free tours of the facility, also home to Newport Storm Brewery, and reflect on the shifting social and political climates of the past three centuries that have led to the revival of this once-ubiquitous spirit.