From Royal to Roughneck

From Royal to Roughneck


Words by Trip Owens

If Indiana Jones sold booze, he’d be a little like Hatton Smith. Aw hell, Jones wishes he was that cool. How many people do you know who blend modern-day economics with old-school pirate practices—yes, you read that right—in hopes of creating an empire?

Here’s the what: Hatton creates custom blends of rum through his company, Campesino. Pretty straightforward.

But the how. Oh, the how isn’t just interesting—it’s arresting.

You see, this is a dude who was born into a golden opportunity. His life would have been set if he just chose to play nice, mind his manners, and continue with his family’s business. But instead, he went on a ripsnorter adventure in the middle of the jungle, took cues from several different breeds of rebel, and chose to forge his own path, to write his own ticket. 

Hatton was born a legacy at Royal Cup Coffee and Tea in Birmingham, Alabama. Even if that doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve probably tasted the company’s products. They’re everywhere from ritzy hotels to waffle houses.  In 2014, Royal Cup netted some $349 million. It’s the fifth largest coffee company in America. And it was run by his father and namesake. So yeah, he could have had a cushy life. 

Hatton was good. Hatton was set. But Hatton was unhappy.

“If I’m in Birmingham and I say my name, there’s a very good chance people automatically associate me with my father. I hate that. That’s why I got out of Birmingham as soon as I got out of high school. I hated the fact that I couldn’t be my own person. And I wanted to go somewhere that no one knew my name and no one spoke my language.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He shirked the life of trust funds and shareholders, and when he was 19, Hatton moved to the remote Panamanian jungle and became a hiking guide. “I was a point man who would lead photographers and scientists through really remote areas of the jungle.” 

Life there was, in a word, dangerous. He found himself dodging “run-of-the-mill” life-threatening predators, such as snakes, sharks, and jaguars. And culturally, he was certainly out of his element. “There’s a lot of other things that come with being a gringo in a foreign country, particularly one that’s heavily involved in the drug trade. I won’t lie when I say that I had friends that went to prison.” 

But Hatton? He counted it all as an adventure. To him, sleeping in a hammock and shaving with a machete were appealing. “I can’t wait to get back.”

Four months later, he headed back to the states and went to college in Virginia where he languished. “I was bored as shit.” He coped with a few trips back to the tropics, but eventually he netted himself an economics degree.

School taught him a few things about himself. “I’m naturally dyslexic. It provides me with a lot of challenges.” But he barrels through them. “I’ve also found in my life that it provides me with a lot of unique skill sets, like pattern recognition, creativity, and innovation. I’ve always been really good with trends, markets, and technical analysis.”

So he tried using those skills in ho-hum nine-to-fives—everything from startups to working on Wall Street. Here’s what he learned: “I’m not the type of personality that’s meant to work for somebody else. You would hate to have me as an employee. I’d probably wreck your business before I’d help it.” Why? “Nobody tells me what to do.”

Believe it or not, Hatton found himself homeless for a bit. He had quit his previous job after buying a car, so he didn’t have any real money to speak of. “I was sleeping in my car on a highway in a state park just north of San Diego. “ But Mr. Sleeps-in-a-bug-net didn’t flinch. At least his car had some friggin’ AC. “I was just surfing every day. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do. I was kinda in a weird spot.”

So, he headed back to the jungle, out of both desire and necessity. “I knew I could always go back to the jungle. I could eat off the farm. I could sleep in a hammock. And it was basically free. So I bought a one-way ticket to Panama.” 

And that’s when he became a roughneck maven. Over time, he developed four different side hustles to make some scratch. 

Ironically, he fell back on an old family skill set. To make cash, he started roasting coffee beans over a fire and selling them to the locals. Hatton gives a nod to his heritage: “I grew up a Royal Cup. It’s just what happens.”

Then, one day he discovered an abandoned rum still near a hiking trail. So, he did the natural thing and learned how to make rum. It was extremely profitable. “I had no rent, used recycled bottles, my only expense was propane [to power the still], and I tried to sell 20 bottles a day for 20 dollars each.”

It was also illegal. “If I had gotten caught, I would have gone to jail.” It was good money but at times nerve-racking, and it kept him looking over his shoulder, particularly since the police force in his area didn’t always walk the straight and narrow. “You’re always wondering when that day was coming.” Fortunately, it never did.

Fast-forward two years. Between the rum and roasting, he found himself sitting on a box of cash—around $7,000. To put it in perspective, a beer in Panama costs 50 cents. Suffice it to say, he was sitting pretty. But he knew that if he really wanted to take his work to the next level, he needed to go back to the States.

Today, he operates out of Nashville, buying barrel-aged inventory from two world-famous rum distilleries and creating custom blends of his own design. A process inspired by yet more rebels—pirates. “Pirates would pillage and plunder all of the goods they couldn’t get back home. One of which was rum. To maximize efficiency, they blended it.” 

Even now, while holding down a “real job,” Hatton still manages to be an outlier in his industry. Many of the more popular brands of rum are cranked out on an assembly line while slobbering out sweeteners, colors, and flavors into the bottle. Hatton considers this a cardinal sin. 

Whereas most folks may take their first giggly sip of booze at a party or after breaking into their parents’ liquor cabinet, Hatton had his at the base of a Mayan ruin when he was 14. “A guy came up to me, poured me a glass of rum, and said, “Never ever mix this.’ And he just walked away.”

For Hatton, “the last thing you want to call rum is sweet. It’s harsh ethyl alcohol. We don’t add any sugars, flavors, or coloring.” But by blending them, his product takes on a flavor of its own.

So now, after six months, Hatton’s rebel spirit and business acumen have coalesced to create a very successful product. Thanks to an aggressive and scalable business plan, his blends have found their way onto bar shelves in Alabama and Tennessee, with Georgia and Florida on the horizon by the end of 2020. He is especially focused on the South. Bourbon buyers beware, he has you in his crosshairs. “Rum shares a flavor palette with whiskey because it’s aged in old bourbon barrels.” Because they share characteristics, he believes that the “rum curious” in whiskey culture will have an easy transition over to his wares. “I think that there’s so much that has to be discovered by the consumer.”

And here’s the kicker. By doing his own thing, Hatton is afforded a level influence at Royal Cup that arguably never would have happened if he had entered the family business. He and his father meet regularly to talk shop, combining the vibrance of youth and the wisdom of age.“We can meet as peers. He can share his experiences and I can lend him mine.”

He closes by making some bold statements, but he verbalizes them in “If-then” tones. 

Not so much bragging, but almost mathematical in its essence. As if to say, this input nets this output. It’s just the way it is. “I want Campesino to be found on every bar shelf across the globe. The rum revolution is coming. And I’m leading it.”

Damned if you don’t want to see him win. Get it, dude.