Check out the original article published online February 16, 2022 here
Hercules Mulligan: Patriot, ‘Hamilton’ character, and a hot new liquor made in Upstate New York
It sure seems like the right time for a new drink called Hercules Mulligan Rum & Rye.
It’s named for a real-life American Revolutionary War hero who is also a character in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” It launched nationwide exclusively via online sales during the Covid pandemic. And it’s produced at a craft distillery in Upstate New York.
Now, New York state is its first market for sales in retail outlets like liquor stores.
The drink itself is perhaps as unlikely as its back story: It’s a bottled “ready to drink” concoction that combines rum, rye whiskey, ginger and bitters.
It comes in 750-mililiter bottles, like many liquors, and is described by its creators as something you can drink over the rocks, with a mixer, or even in specialty cocktails. It’s 86 proof (43% alcohol) and sells for about $38 per bottle.
“It’s an interesting drink, an unusual drink, that has a great story behind it,” said Mario Mazza, a partner in the Hercules Mulligan brand. His role in the partnership is making and bottling it at Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing, his family-owned distillery in Westfield, Chautauqua County.
Other partners in the Hercules Mulligan enterprise are Steve Luttmann, a New York City drinks entrepreneur and amateur historian; Grisa Soba, co-founder of online drinks distributor Flaviar; and Ryan Malkin, a beverage industry lawyer.
It was Luttmann who found inspiration from the life of Hercules Mulligan after reading author Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers. Chernow’s book also provided the spark for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular and award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
Mulligan was an Irish-born tailor who lived in New York City at the time of the revolution, befriended both Hamilton and George Washington and may have saved Washington’s life on a few occasions while serving as a spy for the Continental Army.
“It was the same inspiration — for Lin-Manuel Miranda it was a musical and for me it was a drink,” said Luttmann, whose previous drinks business ventures include founding Leblon Chacaça, a brand of Brazil’s favorite rum-like spirit. (Luttmann, through his connections to the DeSantis family, also has many relatives in the Syracuse area).
Researching Hercules Mulligan led Luttmann to the drinking culture of the time.
Rum had been the drink of choice for many colonists before the American Revolution, Luttmann said. But it was beginning to be replaced by whiskey made from locally grown ingredients like rye once the war began and rum supplies became more difficult to get.
“It became common behavior to mix spirits at the time, especially as the supply changed,” he said.
So Luttmann conceived a modern drink combining the two spirits, with the addition of the ginger and bitters making it sort of a bottled variation of an Old Fashioned.
But Luttmann needed someone to make the drink. That led him to Mario Mazza and the Five & 20 distillery, part of a family business that includes Mazza Wines operations on both side of the New York-Pennsylvania border.
There were plenty of blending and tasting sessions with Luttmann and Soba at the Chautauqua County distillery before Mazza and his head distiller, Joe Nelson, settled on the right formula.
“It wasn’t necessarily a drink that we know for sure was consumed around the time of the Revolution, but it’s possible it was and we knew the elements in it would have been appropriate to the era,” Mazza said.
Mazza blends three different aged rums, with three different ryes, including one distilled at Five & 20.
The trick, Mazza said, was coming up with a blend in which the rums didn’t overpower the rye. So he chose whiskeys that embody more of the signature “spicy” rye character.
The blending got an unintentional assist from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which insisted on a 50-50 split of rum and rye to avoid more complicated labelling, Mazza said.
“So we didn’t have to play around a bunch of different ratios, at least,” he said. “That made it a little less complicated.”
The hardest part, Mazza said, was figuring out the best way to add fresh ginger. In the end, they macerated fresh ginger root and came up with their own proprietary bitters.
Once the formula was settled, the Hercules Mulligan crew then worked on getting it to market. They decided to market only Direct To Consumer (DTC) at first, using Soba’s Flaviar.com online platform. It sold 15,000 bottles in less than two years. It also became one of the top brands on the Flaviar site for repurchases by those who tried it.
“Hercules Mulligan launched in November 2019, shortly before Broadway — and much of the world — shut down due to Covid,” Rolling Stone noted. “And while the ‘Hamilton’ connection was lost as the lights went down on the Great White Way, the brand managed to survive — and thrive — online.”
In December, Bon Appetit recommended it as a relatively inexpensive way to spike a holiday eggnog or other winter drinks.
“The result is a bright, playful, complex riff on an old-fashioned with layered notes of oak, honey, and warm spice,” writer Chala Tyson Tshituntu wrote in the “Highly Recommended” column at Bon Appetit. “It’s great on the rocks and plays well with others—especially in cold weather concoctions like apple cider, hot toddies, and a delightfully fatty cinnamon- and nutmeg-forward eggnog.”
Hercules Mulligan Rum & Rye is still finding its way to shelves in Upstate New York. One Central New York retailer, Maximum Wine + Liquor in Cicero, special ordered it for customers in December but has yet to keep it in stock, said owner Brian Hughes.
“But now that I’ve heard about it and the story, it certainly sounds intriguing,” Hughes said.
The combination of its unusual ingredients, backstory and marketing strategies is the selling point the Hercules Mulligan partners were looking for.
“It captures all these cool elements,” Mazza said. “You can’t deny that the popularity of ‘Hamilton’ has not hurt it. But it still has to stand on its own as something people want to enjoy.”