In 2019, Daniel Regueira became absolutely engrossed in the world of rum — its history and how it related to his family’s Cuban roots. It was only a matter of time before he was trying to make his own. Then he met Sean Ellis Hussey, a kindred spirit who shared an infatuation with rum, its infusions, and the fraught history of sugar cane.
“Sean was one of the first people that really pushed me,” Regueira says.
As the rum experiments improved, Regueira began to seriously consider starting a rum business with Hussey. To help with the business side, another friend, Gaurav “Prince” Jain, joined the project. Soon it began to take shape as a worker cooperative. After hundreds of Zoom calls in 2020 and 2021, the three incorporated Chicago Cane Cooperative as a limited worker cooperative association, and in spring 2022 the cooperative began to produce and age rum.
It’s taken Regueira, Hussey, and Jain over three years to debut the small distillery, starting with experimental bottles brought to housewarmings and eventually moving on to passing out samples at Rogers Park Provisions. But it finally happened in February, when Chicago Cane Cooperative celebrated its opening in Rogers Park Social with cocktails, new buyers, and 400 bottles of local rum.
Chicago Cane Cooperative is worker-owned, matching a national trend in restaurants that are looking for a more equitable model in the hospitality industry.
Regueira’s sister, Rebecca, wasn’t surprised. “From the jump, Daniel’s been interested in socialist values,” she says. “He’s been bartering beard oil for rum for a long time.”
Chicago Cane Cooperative is the first worker-cooperative distillery in the Chicago area, meaning that employees will be invited to be worker-owners after a year, receiving a voting share in the company and any profit sharing. The cooperative has three such worker-owners already. They agree company decisions should be democratically controlled, no matter its size. “It feels very self-unaware to create a rum distillery, for us, and not have it tied into worker ownership, into worker equity, into social equality,” Hussey says.
Regueira sees Chicago Cane’s role as a company evolving to more of an activist worker cooperative. Once they can throw around their weight, they want to. Regueira tossed out a hypothetical situation in which bartenders went on strike; in such a scenario Chicago Cane Cooperative might support strikers in a labor dispute by applying financial or social pressure from the rum supply side, an example reminiscent of unionized bartender actions at United Center this year or the cross-coalition beer boycott of the ’70s. Chicago Cane plans to eventually open a tasting room, which the founders imagine as a “third place of sorts” and a meeting hall for community organizers.
This worker-ownership model was only possible because of the passing of the Illinois Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act in 2019, a law that allowed cooperatives to be founded similar to limited liability corporations, or LLCs. “It’s a bit nebulous,” Regueira says. “And, clearly, it’s not super well-defined in certain parts.” But they powered through with persistence, carefully framed bylaws, and the help of Sarah Kaplan, a lawyer specializing in worker cooperatives.
Regueira and Hussey spent 10 months fine-tuning the rum flavor and process. Six weeks before opening, they abruptly decided to sell a new variety, an unblended Silver rum, which is an unaged molasses-based rum. All Chicago Cane Cooperative rum starts with baking molasses sourced from Madre Tierra, a Guatemalan sugar mill with a reputation for environmental and social responsibility. The molasses is shipped to Two Eagles Distillery in Mount Prospect where it is watered down, mixed with yeast strains from Omega Yeast (a lab in Old Irving Park) to ferment, run through a still, and then distilled out into rum.
In a rare twist, Regueira decided to pursue “solera” aging for the company’s Gold rum — a process that’s identical to how sherry is aged. Through the solera method, older rums are blended in newer barrels before bottling, creating a bottle without an age statement like “six months aged,” but one that stays consistent between batches. Too many times, Regueira has seen barrel-aged beverages taste drastically different from one batch to the next because of minute differences in heat, chemistry, or procedure. By blending together barrels, the cooperative hopes to create consistency while mixing aged “rancio” notes of nuts with the more vegetal, younger rum.
Alex Berk, president of the newly founded Chicago Rum Club, was Chicago Cane Cooperative’s first retail customer. Berk recalls opening the Gold bottle as soon as he got home and was amazed by how it tasted like a five-year-aged rum despite being six to eight months old. “That’s distiller’s magic,” Berk says.
The Silver rum isn’t put through the solera blending. It’s funky, forward, and strong: “It can serve as a really punchy alpha dog in a cocktail if you’re looking for a white rum,” Berk says.
During the opening party at Rogers Park Social, tables were crowded by the wide brims of hurricane cocktails, a fan favorite made with both rums, passionfruit juice, lime, and grenadine. Guests mingled and discussed the best applications for the rum: daiquiris, rum cakes, or just as a sipping spirit similar to whiskey.
Chicago Cane’s journey has been unconventional, and has only just begun: The cooperative is hoping to use the launch of its brand to attract company investors and get bars and distributors interested in stocking its rum. “From the get-go, our business model is reliant on bartenders and servers, because they are the voices of product,” Hussey says. “We want to cater to these individuals because we know they’re going to be the spokespeople for a brand that cares about them, and that also is exciting and interesting and new and local. That has always been our focus, to focus on those workers.”
Regueira is already tentatively thinking about outside cities to target: Madison, Wisconsin; Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; and more. When his wife, Sadie Witkowski, visited Nashville for a comic convention, she brought rum samples to ply Supernatural actors — successfully getting star Jared Padalecki’s attention.
For now, Chicago Cane Cooperative rums are available at Bottles Up!, Beard & Belly, Rogers Park Social, Rogers Park Provisions, and Uptown Provisions, with the worker-owners hoping to expand into retail locally soon. At the Provisions stores, both Solera Aged Gold and Silver rums are available in 750 milliliter bottles for $41 and $37. But as with everything in the hospitality industry, the prices are subject to change.