Anybody who has read my work will know something of my admiration for Rum Nation, a company that came to my attention back in 2011 and which I’ve followed ever since. As Yesu Persaud springs to mind when thinking of DDL, or Luca Gargano is indelibly associated with Velier, Fabio Rossi, the CEO of Rossi & Rossi, is the man whose name is synonymous with Rum Nation.
The Venetian family of Rossi has been in the business of spirits and general trading for a long time, even though Rum Nation has only been in existence since 1999. Its sister company Wilson & Morgan predated RN’s formation by nine years (it’s into whisky — I like to joke that Fabio only realized his mistake after many years and formed Rum Nation to apologize) and the family involvement in spirits dates back to the pre-war years, when the Rossis dealt in wine. The original patriarch of the family, Guiseppe Rossi, was a wine and oil merchant with a small and thriving business, and after the turmoil of the second world war, his son Mario took over the company and expanded it. Rising success and profits in the 1960s persuaded Mario Rossi to begin importing whisky from Scotland, mostly blends – at the time whisky didn’t have quite the same exclusive cachet it later acquired; as time passed and craft and premium blends took center stage, such higher quality spirits were imported directly from the source distilleries in Scotland.
Fabio Rossi at the German Rum Festival, 2014, where I was fortunate enough to meet him and say hello
In the 1980s this portion of the business became so successful that the Rossis – both of Mario’s sons, Walter and Fabio, had by then joined the company – introduced craft spirits to their portfolio. These were single malt whiskies, independently bottled by the company, and, as time went on, stocks that made up these bottling were selected by Fabio Rossi. Fabio had trained as an oenologist in Conegliano, and, like many successful independents, married both education and experience into a personal philosophy summarized by the statement: “Trust your palate and your instinct.” The creation of the “King of Whiskies” brand encapsulated that idea – Fabio went personally to Scotland in 1990 to source his selections, went into partnership with W. M. Cadenhead and created the line of “Barrel Selection” whiskies with a new company, which he called Wilson & Morgan.
Wilson & Morgan exists to this day, and rode the wave of independent craft bottling of aged single malts. But as it happened, in his search for whiskies, Fabio often noticed that next to ageing barrels of such single malts, were other barrels: rums, old ones, brought over from the Caribbean to mature more gradually. Often they were blended into the more popular navy rums of the day, rather than being issued in their own right. He conceded that at the time he had no clue about rums, really…he tasted them and moved on. Yet he never forgot; and after the explosion of El Dorado on the scene in 1992, he saw the opportunities. After all, if the expertise garnered in the whisky business should be readily transferrable, then distilleries previously making average grog could produce aged and off-the-scale quality rums with some judicious ageing and blending. Too, the world in the 1990s was already moving towards exclusivity in spirits like vodkas, tequilas, whiskies…why not rum?
Fabio Rossi in Martinique
He discussed the idea with another Italian, a business colleague of the family, Silvano Samaroli (a whisky broker and bottler since 1968, and who also made and makes craft rums), and that gentleman gave him the necessary background education in the various rum styles, as well as pointers regarding marketing and business strategy. (As an aside, Mr. Samaroli may be one of the first to take craft bottling of rum seriously, but that’s another essay entirely.)
Armed with this information, and being unwilling to blend the recognized W&M brand with an upstart drink which could crash and burn (okay, that’s the storyteller in me reaching a bit), Fabio formed Rum Nation in 1999; many of the characteristics of W&M were copied wholesale for this new company – the rigourous sourcing of stock from obscure and not-so-obscure distilleries, partial maturation in Europe, the finishing in other casks (port, rum or marsala casks, for example). As before in his Scottish adventure, Fabio Rossi went island hopping around the Caribbean, sourcing what he could, buying what he liked, sometimes leaving the barrels in situ, sometimes shipping them to Europe. The ethos of both companies, unsurprisingly, remains very much the same: source barrels from favoured distilleries based on personal investigation, age and blend further as appropriate, and issue. Expand the line into other niche markets and other distilleries and countries and styles, as the business grows.
Unlike the recognized and recognizable distillery-profiles of Scotland – after all, which dedicated Maltster can possibly confuse an Ardbeg with a Glenfarclas? – rum profiles are more generally associated with islands, or even whole regions, not often specific distilleries (though this does, of course, occur). This led to the decision to produce and market rums by such regions – Demerara (for Guyana), Jamaica, Barbados, and so on – though many really rarefied snooters can tell, or at least hazard a guess, whether the Enmore, Longpond or Rockley still produced a given rum for these.
The first rums RN issued were Demeraras and Jamaicans, in 1999 and 2000. I’d dearly like to know what kind of impact they had on the marketplace, but one thing is certain – in 2014 they can only be classed as collector’s items, and are as rare as hen’s teeth. I imagine that the reception of these rums was extremely positive, because Rum Nation expanded the line to include rums from several other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, in the subsequent years: expressions hailing from Martinique, Trinidad, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala were added in short order. Fabio may have eschewed distillery-specific marketing, but he certainly did his best to raise the rum-profile of whole countries, over and beyond national brands previously and solely identified with them (and which were distillery- or estate-specific), like DDL, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, or Longpond, to name a few. I don’t doubt that he used stock from those places, he just refused to identify them as such, and made his own specific blend from what he found there.
Two rum marques that deserve mention are the Millonario and the Reimonenq line, because both resulted in rums (and in the former case, a company) that were ostensibly apart from Rum Nation, yet beefed up its profile.
The success of Zacapa in Italy in 2001 made Fabio resolve to find something that could take it on, if not actually exceed it: in Peru in 2004, he discovered a small distillery (he never named it, and while I think I know which one it is, I’m still not 100% certain) that made a delicate and sweet rum in the solera style. With skills garnered from Lorena Vasquez of Zacapa – she, like Mr. Samaroli years before, provided Fabio with the core information on setting up a solera system, how to mix barrels (different sizes and woods) in order to blend distillates with different aromatic profiles and ages to obtain a balanced final vatting. The resulting rum was a phenomenally smooth product – the Millonario Solera 15 and the XO, the latter of which is, in my opinion, a smidgen better (but also more pricey). I leave it to you to decide whether they are either or both better than the new (or old) Zacapa that is a perennial favourite among rum drinkers of the world. The XO in particular has received rave reviews from across the board (mine among them), is a constant favourite of my wife, and the 15 may be one of the best value-for-money rums of its kind ever made.
Reimonenq is a bit more problematical. In this instance the Reimoinenq name of these agricoles maker was left intact, and the rums Fabio found on Guadeloupe distillery (still family owned) were bottled under that name as a special edition exclusive to Rossi&Rossi – so are they Rossi products or not? I’d suggest they are, because he selected them and was instrumental in their issue. When asked about why he chose this path to market the rums – i.e., separating them from the Rum Nation line, which already had a very good Martinique rum or two and a Guadeloupe – he remarked that the extreme character of the rum might have come as shock to the palates of his core constituency, who were more used to the softer rums RN had issued to that point. (I have never tasted any, so cannot comment on the reputed tastes of wood, licorice, coffee, oil and Tobermory and Ledaig single malts which comprise the profile). You might note that this kind of caution has been eroded somewhat with the unaged, feisty and pungent Jamaican pot-still full-proof white rum which Rum Nation issued in 2014. Clearly Rum Nation now has enough hard-won street-cred not to worry overmuch about the potential of one poorly received edition among many.
The technique of acquiring the knowledge and expertise of others in the field did not stop there. A particular point of pride for Fabio was the creation of the two Panama rums (the 18 and 21 year old, released in 2004 and 2010 respectively), which came about after a meeting with Don Francisco Fernández, a Cuban Master Blender well known for his work with the Panamonte line, possibly the Abuelo rums (my supposition – I’m not sure, but the tastes hint at the possibility) and (I sigh to say it) Ron de Jeremy. Don “Pancho” was instrumental in creating the blend of “mezcla” for the luxury 21 year old, about which I was extremely enthused, and which I think is a remarkable rum for its price (Can$100 or so).
The philosophy of the company remains stable, and firmly married to that of Wilson & Morgan. Rum will continue to have a primary ageing cycle in the tropics, and secondary ageing and finishing in Europe. To quote Fabio – “The first [ageing] is more intense, it helps the distillate to lose the ‘young’ notes and to take up sweetness and fruitiness (also thanks to a large percentage of ex-bourbon barrels). The problem is that after some years under the Caribbean sun, alcohol levels fall too low and the wood starts to dominate. Here the second phase comes to our aid, letting the subtler aromas come out slowly and allowing us better control of the flavour profile by means of different barrel sizes, smaller or larger according to how much we want to have oak influence on the rum or simply let it rest and soften up, leaving time to work its magic on the distillate rounding it up with the elegance that only a long wait can give. In this second phase we can play freely, like tailors, to shape our bottlings according to our taste, and it’s as important as the choice of distillate coming out of the stills.” Depending on the desired finish, barrels from the Spanish bodegas are often used – sherry, Pedro Ximenez, or even barrels which once held Spanish brandy.
As far as Fabio is concerned, the search for new products to expand his catalogue is neverending. One can see something of the future plans of the company just in observing the 2014 releases. The clear Jamaican pot still rum is one (to be released in progressively older variants), the change in bottle shapes is another, and, like all companies that have found a growing niche market with dedicated consumers wanting to extend their horizons beyond the obvious, you can tell RN is positioning itself to expand even further into rum bottlings as esoteric and eccentric as my questions. So while it was never stated outright, I imagine we’ll be seeing aged variations of the old favourites, some more agricoles, and maybe rums from even further afield…India, maybe, or even Fiji, Thailand, or Australia. It’ll be a fun experience, watching it all unfold in the years to come, and one thing is for sure, we’ll be enjoying them. I know I will.
Some opinions and notes of my own, over and beyond the facts as reported above:
I wanted to remark on the difference between the maturation philosophies of the two companies, Rum Nation and Velier, or, as I like to joke, Athens and Sparta. Velier, as I noted in their company profile, does not muck about. Cask strength, bam, always fully matured in tropics, so here, take that – there’s something awe inspiring about their commitment to brute simplicity and quality. And then there’s Rum Nation – softer and perhaps more elegant stylists, who age their barrels in situ and then in Europe. They issue rums at middling strengths (generally 40-45%), almost nothing in power like the massive blows of a full-proof. There’s a soft kind of serene voluptuousness about their rums, yet also a real heft and thickness that transcends mere taste and encompasses texture, mouthfeel, how it fades – it’s really lovely stuff, and even the rums Fabio tosses off as “entry-level spirits” were, to me, a cut above the ordinary. One company adheres to a minimalist, strong-is-better philosophy, and I can just imagine them throwing out the weak or the unfit; the other takes some time, babies its offspring a bit, takes them on journeys, changes their barrels and seems a bit more playful. Both take their s**t really seriously. And both deserve enormous respect because of it, different as their products might be.
A list of Rums RN have produced is below, linked to any review I might have done. Also included is the Millonarios and Reimonenqs, since these are brands Fabio manages as part of his overall spirits business. Please note that because of the same rum being issued with the same name in multiple years, it is almost inevitable that I would have missed something. As always, drop me a line for what I’ve overlooked.
Note that Barrel-Aged-Thoughts, that great German rum resource, also has a similar page on RN.
- Caroni 16 YO 1998-2014 55%
- Barbados 12 YO 1995-2008 43% (2008 release)
- Barbados 10 YO 2001-2011, 40%
- Barbados 8 YO 2002 -2010 43%
- Barbados 8 YO 2000-2008 43%
- Barbados 10 YO 2004-2014 43%
- Barbados 12 YO Anniversary (2014 release) 40% (RL Seale)
- Jamaica Rum 25 YO 1974-1999, 45%
- Jamaica Rum 15 YO 1986-2002 45% (“Jade” JAM-DEM Robusto Blend)
- Jamaica Rum 15YO 1986-2002, 45%
- Jamaica Rum 18 YO, 45% vol.
- Jamaica Rum 31YO 1977-2008 43%
- Supreme Lord I Jamaica Rum 26 YO 1974-2000 45%
- Supreme Lord II Jamaican Rum 26 YO 1977-2003 45%
- Supreme Lord III Jamaican Rum 23 YO 1982-2005 45%
- Supreme Lord IV Jamaican Rum 21YO 1986-2007 45%
- Supreme Lord V Jamaican Rum 25YO 1985-2010 43%
- Supreme Lord VI Jamaican Rum 26YO 1986-2012 45%
- Supreme Lord VII Jamaican Rum 23YO 1990-2013 45%
- Jamaica White Pot Still 2014 release, 57%
- Demerara 27 YO 1973-2000 45%
- Demerara 26 YO 1974-2000 45%
- Demerara 24 YO 1975-1999 45%
- Demerara 25 YO 1975-2000 45%
- Demerara 31 YO 1975-2007 43%
- Demerara 21 YO 1980-2001 45%
- Demerara 18 YO 1981-2000 45%
- Demerara 18 YO 1982-2000 45%
- Demerara 23 YO 1985-2008 43%
- Demerara 16 YO 1989-2005 45% (private client)
- Demerara 23 YO 1989-2012 45%
- Demerara 15 YO 1989-2004 43%
- Demerara “1989” 12 YO (2001) 45%
- Demerara “1990” 12 YO (2002) 45%
- Demerara “1991” 12 YO (2003) 45%
- Demerara 15 YO 1990-2005 43%
- Demerara 23 YO 1990-2014 45%
- Demerara 15 YO 1991-2006 43%
- Demerara 12 YO 1992-2004 43%
- Demerara 15 YO 1992-2007 43%
- Demerara 12 YO 1993-2005 43%
- Demerara 12 YO 1994-2006 43%
- Demerara Solera No. 14 Realease 2008 40%
- Demerara Solera No. 14 Release 2010 40%
- Demerara Solera No. 14 Release 2012 40%
- Guatemala 23 YO 1982-2005 Release 2005 40%
- Guatemala 23 YO 1984-2007 Release 2005 40%
- Nicaragua 14 YO, 41% (years unknown)
- Nicaragua 15 YO 1989-2004 43%
- Panama 18 YO (3 pre-2004 releases, years unknown, per RN/FR)
- Panama 18 YO Release 2004 40%
- Panama 18 YO Release 2005 40%
- Panama 18 YO Release 2007 40%
- Panama 18 YO Release 2009 40%
- Panama 18 YO Release 2010 40%
- Panama 18 YO Release 2014 40%
- Panama 21 YO Release 2010 40% (other release years unknown)
- Peruano 8 YO 1998-2006 42%
- Peruano 8 YO 1999-2007 42%
- Peruano 8 YO 2000-2008 42%
- Rhum Reimonenq 9 YO 1999-2008 40%
- Rhum Reimonenq 5 YO 2006-2011 40%
- Rhum Reimonenq Rhum Vieux 1998 40%
- Rhum Reimonenq Rhum Vieux 2003 40%
- Rhum Reimonenq Rhum Vieux 10 YO 2004-2014 40%
- Rhum Reimonenq Rhum Vieux 5 YO 2009-2014 40%
- Venezuela 10 YO 1992-2003 43%