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  • Writer's pictureCheré Dastugue Coen

Richland Rum: A Spirited Journey of Small-Batch Goodness

A Father's Day Cigars and Rum event will be held on Saturday, June 15, 2024, in the southwest Georgia town.

richland rum

Karin and Erik Vonk began a spirited hobby that has taken them on a long business ride.


The two met at Emory University in Atlanta, Karin once a farmer’s daughter and Erik intrigued with his grandfather’s worldwide rum collection. When they decided to leave the city for country life, they chose a farm near Richland, Ga., and started growing sugar cane.


The idea of small-batch rum under the label of Richland Rum started in 1999.


“It was a hobby and we never intended to do anything with our rum,” Karin Vonk said.


The world had other ideas. The mayor of Richland encouraged them to transform an old abandoned warehouse in the heart of town and start their business. Richland was once a bustling agricultural hub with rail service but was now almost a ghost town; the warehouse they considered purchasing and renovating sat in a block of closed-up storefronts and buildings. The business would help spur revitalization.


“The mayor said if you come to Richland, you will help us revitalize downtown,” Vonk said.

Richland Rum in Richland, Georgia
Richland Rum in Richland, Georgia

Even though the Vonks were hoping to retire and sip their rum in peace, they took the mayor up on it. The renovated the building and placed their barrels in the warehouse waiting on the rum to age. At the front of the building, however, were enormous glass windows so the slow distillation of rum caught the attention of residents and visitors happening by.


And those window shoppers kept asking where they could purchase this specialty craft rum. It seemed an ideal situation—sell their rum and they would finance future operations, but the only problem was, Georgia law at the time wouldn’t allow it.


“It was frustrating because we were trying to build the local economy but if you can’t sell your product, the end’s in sight,” Vonk said.


By 2012, they picked up a distributor in Atlanta and a liquor store opened across the street. Sounds like great news, right?


To sell Richland Rum, the liquor store had to put in an order with Richland Rum’s distributor, who would drive down from Atlanta to purchase the rum from the Vonks. Then the distributor would return to Atlanta with the rum and process it, pay appropriate Georgia taxes, and bring the rum back to the store in Richland.


“The rum had the biggest carbon footprint,” Vonk said.


Laws changed to allow the rum to leave the distillery in customers' hands, but only as a “souvenir” after a tour. So, the Vonk gave tours for a hefty price and handed the visitors a bottle on their way out. The tours were considered “service” so no sales tax was collected. When Erik Vonk pointed out to a Georgia legislator that Georgia was losing money in taxes, things began to change.


Karin Vonk of Richland Rum
Karin Vonk of Richland Rum

“Literally three weeks later we can sell product,” Karin Vonk said. “Now, it’s (selling alcohol from distilleries) become a factor in the economy of Georgia.”


Today, visitors can both tour the distillery in Richland and purchase a variety of craft rums from Richland Rums. The Vonks have since bought and refurbished seven buildings on Richland’s main street, including a former hotel built in 1898 for the railroad that's now the tasting room and gathering space. In 2018, they opened a second location in Brunswick with the same intention, to produce a quality rum and to provide economic development. In both towns, especially in Richland, the addition of Richland Rum has helped spur revitalization.


They have also entered into "exchanges" with Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens and Chateau Elan in Braselton where barrels are shared so each partner creates a product influenced by the other. Chateau Elan, for instance, used Richland’s barrels to create a unique port wine and when the barrels were returned, Richland developed a smooth, sweeter rum enhanced by the port. They’ve even created a rum-flavored coffee with Café Campesino in nearby Americus. (Advice: Stay at the gorgeous historic Windsor Hotel in Americus when visiting Richland Rum.)


Richland Distilling Company turns 25 this year and has no intention of growing much bigger. They wish to continue spending quality time on making a pure product.


“We’re a small producer and we’ll remain a small producer,” Vonk said.

Rum & Cigars

They offer special events on occasion, such as the Father’s Day Rum & Cigars event from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 15, 2024, in Richland. Since Georgia law prohibits the sale of alcohol and tobacco in the same place, the FurrDeRo mobile cigar lounge will be on site to offer pairing classes and cigars. Live music by Alex Helms will be from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Bennett’s Smokehouse will sell hot barbecue. Tours of Richland Rum will happen all day with opportunities to enjoy rum flights and cocktails — or maybe a bottle for Dad.

Cheré Dastugue Coen loves stopping for a delicious bottle of rum and chose the Richland Rum Port Cask Exchange with Chateau Elan. She spent the night at the incredible Windsor Hotel in Americus. The hotel has a haunted history — read about it here.

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1 Comment

Bruce Coen
Bruce Coen
Jun 18

Wonderful article! The Windsor Hotel sounds like a fantastic place to stay and drink some rum!

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