Jul 052018
 

Sometimes looking at companies that have ceased operations is interesting (Renegade was one), and the historical detail behind the Forres Park Puncheon made by Angostura was engrossing enough that some additional research was warranted, not least because the moniker “Fernandes” remains on the labels of some currently available Trinidad rums, and some might be curious as to the background

The Puncheon was originally made by the Fernandes Group in Trinidad & Tobago, which had its roots in the efforts of a Madeiran (Portuguese) immigrant named Manoel Fernandes, who established an import business for wine and spirits in the late 1880s or early 1890s in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad (in that he was similar to the founder of Banks DIH in Guyana).  The date is a little imprecise, but by the time he and his family attained British citizenship in 1895, the business was already bottling its own rums, and one of them (Fernandes Old Rum) won a gold medal at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1905. They issued a White Star rum in 1918, the Black Label in the mid-1920s and one called Ferdi’s, a 10 year old, in the 1930s (which was briefly referred to in Part 1 of the essay “The Age Of Velier’s Demeraras.”)

In 1930 Manoel died and Joseph Bento Fernandes (his 27-year-old son) took over Fernandes & Co. He showed his acumen in 1932 after a fire destroyed the Govenment rum bond; Joseph acquired the stocks of remaining rum at a good price, and since the paperwork stated the majority of the spirits were distilled in 1919 (a Trini named Aneil Lutchman wrote to me on FB that Angostura’s Master Blender told him in early 2018 there was some Caroni 1918 in there as well), he blended the lot and labelled it “Fernandes 1919 – Age Guaranteed!” It was the first vintage rum made in Trinidad to that time, and the forerunner of the most successful Fernandes brand for thirty years, with the name changed to “Fernandes Vat 19″ when the original 1919 stock ran out; the still-in-production Angostura 1919 8 YO is this rum’s direct descendant, and even though Caroni had once been part of the original Fernandes Vat 19 recipe, by now it is no longer part of the blend.

These ventures and blended rums were so successful that in 1933 the company acquired the Forres Park sugar estate and its derelict sugar factory, located in Claxton Bay, just north of San Fernando on the west coast (but don’t look for it, because it’s gone). This was becoming necessary because the increased popularity of their blends made supply of raw material from other sugar estates too expensive and often unreliable. Over the next decade JB rebuilt and tinkered with an old wooden still and increased sugar production; but it was the influx of Americans (and their money) during World War II that really grew the business.  JB knew that in order to expand even further he had to move the focus of the company away from blending and bottling and into actual distillation – so in the late 1940s he acquired land in Morvant (a neighborhood just to theeast of Port-of-Spain) at a time when the Government of the day was starting to develop it into a sort of planned housing project, and he built a modern distillery there. As a bit of trivia, Angostura was a close neighbor, right over the road.

JB Fernandes (photo (c) Angostura)

By the 1960s Fernandes & Co changed into Fernandes Distillers Ltd and ten years later had a massive 85% market share of the local market, as well as what were reputed to be the largest stocks of ageing rum in the Caribbean.  They had also opened up a strong export market to both Europe and Asia. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the company was sold to Angostura holdings in 1973 and while it kept its name (Fernandes Distillers (1973) Ltd.), it was a subsidiary of Trinidad Distillers Ltd, Angostura’s holding company. All rums made by either company were run off the same five-column still, and whatever work Bento had done on that long ago wooden still had been forgotten or abandoned.

But that’s not all because in the Angostura Museum are papers suggesting that while the Fernandes brands were taken over by Angostura, Forres Park itself was transferred or ceded or sold  to the Government at the same time. Because in 1976 another (now-famous) company called Caroni (1975) which the T&T Government had bought from Tate & Lyle, was asked to take over the running of Forres Park “the owners of which had decided to discontinue sugar production in Trinidad” (one can only wonder how and why that ever happened). Evidently the sugar part didn’t interest Angostura, only the rums did.  In any event, the Forres Park factory was closed and sold to St Vincent (probably St. Vincent Distillers, as they are the only distiller there)  and the rest of the property became part of Caroni, which itself was shut down by the Government in 2002. (See “Sources” below for attribution.)

JB Fernandes himself went into real estate and other ventures including tourism, horse racing, art collecting and philanthropy, and died in 1992. Few outside Trinidad (or rum history geeks) now remember his name, or remember his contribution to Trinindad rums;  though of course old timers would recall the famous brands he pioneered and which Angostura still uses. Even the Fernandes name remains on some bottles I have found online (like the Black Label), though their availability is questionable…it’s possible that it is being gradually phased out and what is for sale is unsold stock from the 1990s.

This is a small biography and sources are slim. But it does pull together all strands of information as are available, and I hope that if any Trinis or old salts have further information or stories to enhance it some more, please touch base with me.


A short list of Fernandes Rums (not Angostura’s) are below.

  • Fernandes Crystal Superior White Rum
  • Fernandes Silver Aged 3 YO Rum 38%
  • Fernandes Old Rum
  • Fernandes Original Rum
  • Fernandes White Star Rum
  • Ferdi’s Trinidad 10 YO Rum
  • Ferdi’s Premium Rum
  • Vat 19 Trinidad Rum 37.5%
  • Vat 19 Golden Trinidad Rum 37.5%
  • Vat 19 White Rum
  • Forres Park Puncheon
  • Fernandes Black Label Rum

Fernandes Distillers (1973) post-takeover rums kept with the Fernandes name:

  • Fernandes Crystal White Rum (Angostura version)
  • Ferdi’s Premium Rum (“Uniquely Matured”)
  • Fernandes Vat 19 White Rum
  • Fernandes “19” Rum
  • Fernandes “19” Gold Rum
  • Fernandes Black Label Rum
  • Fernandes BL Original Rum
  • Forres Park Puncheon Rum

Sources:

 

Feb 172018
 

It is appreciated that the lion’s share of the credit for Guyanese rums goes to Demerara Distillers Limited, who have the spirituous equivalent of a killer app in the famed stills and have capitalized on that big time. In fact, their rums are so unique and well known that they have become stand ins for the entire class of “Demerara Rums”. However, DDL is in fact something of a late entrant to the field, formed in the 1970s by the consolidation of older sugar estates held by departing UK companies like Bookers or Sandbach Parker.  A far older brewing company exists in Guyana, that of Banks DIH, and although DDL has gained equal shares of international acclaim for its rums (and opprobrium — there’s that dosing issue, remember?) Banks stands apart for two reasons – locally, up to the point I left the country in the 1990s, the population’s drink of choice was not the DDL King of Diamonds, but Banks’s XM five year old and XM ten year old rums (most citizens could not afford the DDL ED-12 or ED-15, which were primarily for export anyway); and secondly, no whiff of adulteration ever touched their own products (though Wes Burgin of the FatRumPirate disputed that and I’m hoping he gets back to us with some of his hydrometer tests to settle the issue).

(c) National Trust of Guyana.

Perhaps to the detriment of the rum world, Banks does not focus as tightly on rums as its main competitor (though over the decades DDL has also diversified quite substantially, into markets outside its core competency).  That’s because it is not, strictly speaking, into rum for the majority of its revenues:  it is a financial and food & beverage conglomerate, with franchises, licensing agreements for foreign drinks, and makes and distributes rums, wines, vodkas, beers, soft drinks, bottled water and a plethora of snack foods.  It owns its own bank (the Citizen’s Bank) and has fast food joints and retail operations around the country . Given the small footprint of the XM brand worldwide and lack of prominence in their annual report (yes, I read it), that can come as little surprise.  

So, outside the Caribbean and expatriate Guyanese enclaves, Banks’s XM rum is not that well known – indeed, apart from the odd review here or there, or a tourist bringing back a bottle, when was the last time you heard their rums mentioned?  They are certainly not the same as the perhaps better-known (Bacardi produced) Banks 5-island 7-island rums (made by a UK based blender whose brand was named after a British naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour). But this disguises a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years, and has almost always been run by and generally associated with, a single family, the D’Aguiars of Georgetown.

The property of D’Aguiar’s Imperal House by Stabroek Market (the clock tower for which can be seen on the far left) in the 1950s

Officially, the core company of D’Aguiar Brothers was formed in 1896, when the four sons of Jose Gomes D’Aguiar – one of the Portuguese diaspora who came to the colony subsequent to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1838 – created the partnership after the death of their father three years earlier.  But Jose had himself been in business since the 1840s and laid the foundation for the commercial activities of his family when he started a retail spirits shop (let’s be honest and call it by its local title, a “rumshop”), which rapidly expanded into a chain of such establishments.  Boozing being as popular then as now, by 1885 Mr. D’Aguiar had sufficient capital to not only open a cocoa and chocolate factory, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a shipping agency.  This became more crucial once the partnership mentioned above was created, because the first part of an ambitious expansion plan was the purchase of the buildings belonging to the Demerara Ice House.  These buildings included a hotel, a number of bars, and a plant that made aerated soft drinks.  The Ice House itself was named because it was the company that shipped in ice from Canada using schooners, so it dovetailed nicely with the brothers’ own shipping company, to say nothing of the drinks they were now selling.

The company continued under the leadership of the partnership, and gradually turned into a sole proprietorship as the brothers died one by one.  In 1929 the last remaining son of old J.G. (also called Jose Gomes), a doctor, died. Curiously, lands upon which the leased buildings stood (they were leased from the crown) were finally purchased outright in that same year, but this created cash flow problems and without a dynamic CEO at the helm, the company – which by now was a limited liability concern called D’Aguiar Brothers – started on a downward spiral. The chocolate and cocoa business and shipping agency were sold off, and Mrs. D’Aguiar, J.G.’s widow and principal shareholder, kept things running in spite of being made an offer of $100,000 (an insignificant sum even by the standards of the age), waiting for her youngest son Peter to become ready to take over.  She felt that he alone had the business savvy to turn the company around and revitalize it. He became the Managing Director in 1934 at the age of 22.

Photo (c) Banks DIH

Mr. Peter D’Aguiar was everything his mother hoped he would be.  He concentrated on the manufacture of soft drinks and rum (the monopoly of the ice house continued as a cash generator, and even in the 1990s it still sold ice blocks for parties and catered events though of course by then they were making their own), and borrowed heavily to refinance the business and its expansion. Things stabilized during the 1930s, debts were paid off and it became self-sustaining.  In 1942 D’Aguiar Brothers acquired the first South American franchise for Pepsi Cola, and ten years later the soft drink brand of I-Cee was launched (it remains one of the main soft drinks sold locally).  The production of the XM brand of rums which had been in production since the early 1900s, was expanded and with the fragmented nature and bulk export of rums by other producers based on the estates run by Bookers and Sandbach Parker, was the most popular rum in British Guiana.  It was always, it should be noted, a blended rum, sourced by the family members going around the various distilleries and estates up and down the coast and buying their rum in bulk. The company never invested in a distillation apparatus of its own, and the rum was based on the expertise the family had brought over from Madeira — and the production of specifically aged blended rum (10 years old etc), was many years in the future. What Mr. D’Aguiar did was focus on self reinforcing business lines – the soft drink factory, the rum bond, the bottling plant, liquor store, retail bars and the hotel.  To this was added Banks Breweries as a separate company (a public one, another innovation) in the mid 1950s – it made, bottled and sold Banks Beer, also a brand which remains extant to this day. In fact, for decades, way before fast foods hit the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, D’Aguiar’s ran the extremely profitable Demico House burger and pizza joint from their property (which included most of the foregoing businesses) that was across from both Stabroek Market and Parliament Building.

By the year of Independence of British Guiana (1966) the various lines of company involvement had become so complex that some consolidation was in order, and the structure of the various organizations was folded into a single overarching public company, D’Aguiar Bros. (D.I.H.) Limited (the DIH supposedly meant D’Aguiar’s Imperial House, a change from the Demerara Ice House);  in 1969 this was further amended by adding Banks Breweries into a new conglomerate called Banks DIH, with the DIH now standing for D’Aguiar’s Industries and Holdings.  They relocated that same year to a portion of South Georgetown close by Houston Estate where the brewery was already located, which they christened Thirst Park, and built a round office complex called the Rotunda to be its head office (it remains a local landmark on the East Bank Highway).

Photo (c) PaulineandJohn2008 via Flikr

Unfortunately, rum took something of a backseat during the company’s development and expansion.  Part of this was Mr. D’Aguiar’s interests in other matters, such as politics – he was the leader of the small United Force political party in the 1960s – and partly it was the scarcity of foreign exchange during a period of stringent exchange controls; but it was also to some extent company policy and culture. Rum was not “big ting” back then the way it is now, beer was, and Banks not only had a hammerlock on that in Guyana, but also in Barbados where they started another beer company in the 1960s, also called Banks (the two companies are now cross-shareholding parties). In the 1970s and 1980s, Banks DIH, seeing rum as one portion of its portfolio among many others, and being quite happy with the XM brand’s dominant role in the local marketplace, did not see the need to aggressively expand.

An old label from the 1960s, bearing the signature of Peter D’Aguiar

The Caribbean islands each had their local  companies and lacked large consuming populations so did not present much of market potential.  Exports to North America did take place, but were relatively minimal. So investing in a major upgrade to distillation operations to the tune of getting a pot or column still and starting to make bulk rum (which would in any case require a secure source of molasses or a sugar estate), took second place to tried and true blending operations.  I lack direct proof for this, but I believe that in the years 1975-2000, most of the rum stock was bought from the Diamond Distillery, and Banks just blended and aged their own from that. By the 1990s Banks did have a 3 year old XM, a 5 year old, a wildly popular ten year old and a rare-as-hen’s-teeth fifteen year old which we heard, but I never saw. By contrast, DDL’s King of Diamonds brand prior to the introduction of the El Dorado line in 1992, was considered third tier bush rum at best, just a step above moonshine, or so many old porknockers told me when I worked with them –so it was not surprising that XM was a much more popular local rum.

Mr. Peter D’Aguiar died in 1989 and a new chairman, Mr. Clifford Reis took the helm: he has been the Chairman and Managing Director of the conglomerate ever since.  Though well known for its food and beverage dominance (even in the face of increased competition from DDL and Ansa McAl) Banks has expanded into other fields, for example owning 51% of a local bank in 1998, and opening restaurants and fast food outlets. It is the agent and local distributor for Johnny Walker, Absolut, Smirnoff and various juices, snacks and other products, while also developing an export market for its beer (via Barbados) and rum.  In all, as of 2017, the sale of beverages make up some 80% of Banks’s revenue and an equivalent proportion of its profit….but alas, how much of that is rum we can only speculate. What we do know is that as of this writing, XM rums are distributed in Antigua, Dominica, Trinidad & Tobago, France, Italy, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Canada.

(c) Peter’s Rum Labels, www.rum.cz

Speaking of which,  getting back to the rums.

Not everyone saw 1992 for what it was, the beginning of the renaissance of rum in the eyes of the western world.  Although of course the whisky makers had long been buying barrels of rum to age in Scotland, releasing them as aged special cask-strength editions for decades, they were at best a niche market; the real money was being made by selling bulk rum to blenders the world around (including Scheer).  DDL helped change that by creating the 15 year old rum that was manufactured on location, in bulk (the amazing profiles of the stills certainly helped) so instead of a few hundred bottles of a single cask issued as something special and available only to the few, now scores of thousands of bottles of seriously aged juice were being exported all over the map.  Within a decade, such five, ten, fifteen and 20+ year old rums were being made by practically all the big guns in the Caribbean – Appleton, Foursquare, Mount Gay and others.

Banks certainly jumped on the bandwagon, and any Guyanese of my generation will remember the dark blue label of the XM five year old, and the lighter one of the ten year old.  The ten in particular was, I believe, exported to the UK, USA and Canada (verification needed). The lower priced sub-ten year old rums like the Gold Medal, the Royal Gold or the Extra Matured rums were all noted as being Demerara rums, since (at that time) the concept of geographical appellations and protections with respect to rums had yet to gather any steam and was mostly relegated to the French islands.

Banks continued its past practice of sourcing rum stock from the distillers up the road at Diamond, who by the turn of the millennium had consolidated all the stills there, but obviously this was not a situation that could continue, since as DDL expanded its business operations globally under the leadership of its dynamic chairman Yesu Persaud, not only did it require its own stocks, but saw Banks as a potential competitor.  Therefore, by the early 2000s DDL claimed a shortage of barrels and bulk rum and ceased supplying Banks with any at all, forcing Banks to turn to Trinidad (Angostura) and Barbados (Foursquare) for rum stock which they continued to blend.  DDL kept up the pressure in the late 1990s and 2000s by offsetting the loss of bulk rum sales to Europe with an EU funding tranche to put in a new column still, while Banks, not seen as a distiller or true “rum company” did not upgrade its own facility to take advantage of the uptick in global rum appreciation and sales. To add insult to injury, when DDL was certified as the registered proprietor of geographical indication in 2017 for the label “Demerara Rum”, it and it alone could use the moniker for its rums and they filed an injunction against Banks’s labelling its products as such, and even stopped a shipment of XM that had arrived in New York until the labelling was “corrected”.  Banks was therefore forced to cease referring to the XM line as Demerara rums (as were all other makers in the global marketplace) and this is why currently they are all now noted as being “Caribbean”.

Vintage Banks DIH LTD XM Extra Matured 2 Years Old Rum Label. This is an old label from the late 1980’s and is now a discontinued product. (c) Vintage Guyana – History Preservation FB page

That said, XM’s rum blends have maintained their local popularity, not least of which is the XM 5 year old. Another rum, the XM 2 Year Old Brown, was introduced in the 1990s and promoted in concert with a local dish, duck curry, becoming so entwined with its own promotion that it’s known locally as “Duck Curry Rum”; and the Xtra White, developed in the 2000s remains a favourite and staple tippling rum in rural agricultural areas and the sugar estates, where its purported property of not creating a hangover gave it the housewive’s moniker of “Stay Home Darlin’ rum” – we can take that with  pinch of salt, but it says something of how deeply the various rums Banks DIH makes have entwined themselves into the local culture to this day.

As far as Banks is concerned, I have no indication that this state of affairs will change.  I know of no plans to purchase and install a still, column or pot.  Blending not only remains the company’s core competency with respect to rum, but appears to be their preferred way forward, since it minimizes capital investment while staying true to the company’s roots.  In any event, they seem to be quite good at it no matter what raw stock they use.  For example, I heard a story that after the Xtra White Rum was introduced a few years back (with Angostura base stock) it immediately jumped up to a local 75% market share.  When they started exporting it to Trinidad, it got a 50% market share, “cutting White Oak’s ass” as a friend of mine gleefully related, and Angostura threatened loss of supplies if they didn’t stop exporting it there.  So certainly the skill to make decent rums exists.  There may be plans to issue some cask strength versions of the XM line in the future, and certainly the export market to the USA and Canada will be more aggressively pursued.

Whatever the case, whether Banks DIH continues along the current steady course or radically revamping their rum lineup, the fact is that they have a long and distinguished heritage of their own. No history of Guyanese rums could possibly be complete without mentioning the company at least once.  It remains one of the most successful organizations in the country, a local icon, and one with its own unique rum-making tradition which deserves recognition and acknowledgement every time Guyana and rum are discussed.

Banks DIH Rums (as known)

* = Discontinued

Sources

Aug 062017
 

Renegade is – or was, in its previous incarnation – the inheritor of the rum work done by Murray McDavid, a bottler of scotch whisky established in 1996, and which acquired Bruichladdich in 2000 (Bruichladdich was itself formed in 1881, changed ownership many times until its acquisition by MM).  Renegade was formed as a separate company under this umbrella in 2006 (with a single one-pound share) and their first edition of four vintages was released the following year, with a further six in 2008 and more thereafter. Only three years of releases formed the backbone of the company’s rums (if one discounts the single bottling issued in 2012) and then the operation just wrapped up the whole show.

The story I heard was that the success and positive word of mouth of the Murray McDavid limited edition rums – one of their rums was rated as among the world’s top 50 spirits in 2006 by the Malt Enthusiast – suggested that it might be possible to not only move up the ladder into stronger proofed drinks (46%, when the standard was 40%), but into higher price brackets altogether.  Too, they spotted a niche in the rum market that would leverage their distribution systems and existing customer base into a new area (high end limited editions) while perhaps even giving whisky lovers a chance to move into another spirit that was quite similar.  This tactic presaged much of what has gone on to become canon in the next decade, and while I would not say it was particularly original – Velier and Rum Nation were already on the scene, if only with minimal exposure, and the other whisky makers like A.D Rattray and Gordon & MacPhail also had such rum bottlings from time to time – such things as finishings were new at the time, and overall it certainly upped the game considerably.

So, Renegade as a brand was a departure from the MM label – they aimed upscale with beautifully etched frosted-glass bottles that were instantly recognizable, and for each of their rums there was a fancy wine finish.  Also – and again, somewhat ahead of the modern ethos, though perhaps they were simply channelling Velier (who at the time was a virtual unknown outside of Italy) their labels were masterpieces of concise information – dates of distillation and bottling, the wine casks used to finish them, the estate or plantation or company of origin of the distillate, and a note regarding its unfiltered, unadded-to status, which also was just beginning to get some attention in those years.

The man most closely identified with the rise of Renegade was Mark Reynier, one of the original founders of Murray McDavid back in 1996, who was also instrumental in acquiring Bruichladdich in 2000, by which time that distillery had been dormant for six years. After rebuilding the distillery he turned back to his ideas regarding rums, which had crystallized in the years since Murray McDavid had done their releases (also under his aegis). “We started the company as an independent bottler extension of Murray McDavid,” he wrote to me. “At the time it was relatively easy to get mature and interesting  single estate rums, many from obsolete distilleries. It was an extension of our Scotch whisky ethos, providing more interesting bottling from casks  married together to create more balance and harmony than the  somewhat simplistic single cask bottling fad that did not, we felt, recognise the characteristics of individual barrels where every barrel was bottled regardless of its quality. For this reason we rarely bottled single casks…as we found few that truly, from a professional tasters’ perspective, merited being on their own.”

What this meant was that right from the inception, the release of a few hundred bottles from a single cask was not on the agenda, and Renegade preferred to marry several casks at once, much as Rum Nation does. This gave the double benefit (to them) of being able to create the precise flavour profile they were after without the batch variation of single barrels coming into play – weaknesses in one cask evened out by the mixing with others –  as well as having a larger outturn, sometimes around 1500-2000 bottles, but occasionally as much as 4000 (or more). Note that as far as I was able to establish, the barrels were bought from the source distilleries and shipped to Bruichladdich’s premises for maturation, so none of these rums were tropically aged, which became its own trend in the age we’re currently living through.

Reception of the Renegade rum line was positive if not spectacular, which was why in 2009 the outturn increased to ten separate bottlings from nine different islands/countries.  However there were already clouds on the horizon dating back to Murray McDavid days.  According to Mr. Reynier, as existing stocks were utilized, the quality of casks available for purchase became somewhat repetitive – more of the same, so to speak – and this was one reason why the finishing took on such a central role in the Renegade line (as it was not the under MM).  They called it Additional Cask Evolution and sought, very much as Foursquare is doing right now, to enhance the work of the barrel by using other, non-bourbon casks. “We started … Additional Cask Evolution in different, more interesting [casks], to try and  bring some much needed vibrancy to the  spirit.  Poor wood policy is as much a function of the industry’s attitude to economic efficiency…or lack of resources to buy good, fresh wood — and therefore [such rum and whisky companies] excessively re-used old, tired wood.”

Finally, even after such a short period of time, obtaining interesting and good quality barrels which adhered to Renegade’s exacting philosophy became a problem, and the extra remedial work became too onerous (similar issues afflicted MM – in short, “the hassle outweighed the benefits,” as Mr. Reynier opined), and this led to no releases at all for 2010 and 2011, with a single bottling being issued in 2012 – though by this time the writing was already on the wall and it was clear that Renegade was not going to continue along this path, whether for poor sales returns, too much money tied up in warehousing, or the imminent disposition of the company. In early 2013, Bruichladdich, Renegade and Murray McDavid were acquired by Rémy Cointreau, with MM subsequently resold to UK based company Aceo Limited.  Mr. Reynier did not continue with any of these companies (see below), although he did retain the Renegade brand name.

Stripped of all the verbiage, this is a remarkably short history for any rum company, and twenty-one releases over seven years is hardly a spectacular outturn.  But I believe – with no disrespect to or lack of love for, the other names in the indie rum industry that have survived and thrived to this day – that Renegade was, in its own way, something of a pioneer, and demonstrated the way forward for the independent bottlers. Even though Samaroli, Veronelli, Fassbind, Moon Imports, Silver Seal, Velier and Rum Nation (among others) were already on the scene, and had been for many years, they stayed within a narrow geographical confine (mostly Italy) and issued single cask bottlings that attracted little attention outside the rabid cognoscenti.  Renegade was among the first of the Scottish whisky makers to throw the weight of their whisky operations and associated brand awareness behind what was seen then as a niche market — and a small one at that.  They were not the first to issue a series of rums at once, of course, but they sure elevated the profile, and certainly they were among the most consistent users of the finishing idea across the entire lineup.  Plus – and how could you deny this? – those bottles, man…they were so damned cool, y’now? “Rum Unplugged”, Mark Reynier remarked once, referring to the brand.  He sure wasn’t kidding about that.

So, I cannot make the case for any kind of incredible reputation or groundbreaking rum philosophy which the company garnered for itself.  They exited the business, and many of their bottles rested unsold in Alberta shops for many years, unknown and unappreciated – I picked up several just by driving around, and I’m sure that they can still be picked up to this day by the enterprising rumhound. And yet, and yet….the rums they made remain curiously alive in the memories of those who tried them (I’m one of those weird beings), and may even, I can hope, grow in reputation in the future…if they can still be found. They were larger than usual outturns of a now almost forgotten, largely unreviewed independent bottlers’ philosophy, and deserve a look – whatever one’s final opinion might be – for perhaps that reason alone.


Postscript:

Mr. Reynier’s conclusion in the nineties when he was working with Murray McDavid, was that for full control of the quality of distillation and wood meant one had to had to have a distillery — he was referring to whisky, and has since extended his thinking on the subject, to encompass rums. He thought about the matter ever since, searching for a suitable rum distillery project or  functioning distillery to buy, but never finding the proper one, and concluded he would have to start from scratch. That project came to fruition in Grenada, where for the last two years he has been involved in propagating seven different varieties of cane on Grenada, with a new, modern distillery on the cards, which is expected to go operational by 2019 – in July 2018 ground was broken, foundations are expected to be completed by October, steel frames by December and machinery installed by the first quarter of 2019.  By July of that year, distillation operations are expected to commence, and then this post will have to be updated again, though what with laying down stocks to age, the earliest we can expect a rum from Renegade is perhaps 2021.

The new operation will be called the New Renegade Rum Distillery, and so (if you’ll forgive my little bon mot), the brand which was thought to have bought the farm has in fact been resurrected and established another one.  The plan is, with Graham Williams of Westerhall, to release an interesting new range of independently bottled rums from this Grenadian base, under a revitalised Westerhall label.

Other notes

My source for much of this essay is Mr. Reynier and online web pages.  But perhaps I should take the time to tip my hat – twice – to all those employees of the company who were involved in making this brand but who are so rarely acknowledged.

Compliments to Marco Freyr , whose MM/Renegade biography and bottle list was my first stop. Just as Serge Valentin is the gold standard for tasting notes, Marco is the man for historical detail.

Bottlings

2007

2008

2009

2012

  • Guyana, Diamond Distillery, 11 YO (2001 – 2012), Tempranillo finish (1800 bottles)

References

 

Mar 112017
 

Moscoso Distillers (also known as Barik) is a third-generation Haitian rum-maker whose klerens caught my attention as I was researching rums from there that were specifically not Barbancourt or distributed by Velier.  You’d think that some enterprising producers would extoll their family ancestry by tracing it back to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s great grandfather’s first cousin as part of the company legend, but as with many other things, Haitians do seem to enjoy confounding expectations.  In fact, the official founder of the company, Jules Moscoso, came over from the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s and settled in a small town called Léogâne in Haiti (just SW of Port-au-Prince, the capital), which was a centre of the sugar economy for centuries and which remains the source for the current company’s cane.

Marie Mascoso

That’s just a convenient sort of dating though, because Jules ended up marrying into the local aristocracy (or petit bourgeoisie, depending how you look at it) of the Vulcains, who were large landowners possessing several sizeable tracts of land and cane fields. Jules’s wife Marie confuses the timeline, since he established the distillery…but she and her relatives going back about five or six previous generations had been making and selling clairin the whole time (they also owned several general stores, which made distribution much easier).  Jules and Marie’s descendant – Michael Moscoso, the current owner – calls himself a third generation distiller because the paper trail only begins in 1925, with Jules and some old barrels that were imported – the company, such as it was, was never formally incorporated and was simply known as Mascoso’s. He does not recall if any single pot stills were utilized in making their clairins, but to his knowledge the original distilling apparatus consisted of  combination of pot and creole column still of five to six plates, copper made, with direct fire or water baths (which was and remains very much the tradition across the whole island).  As Haiti had once been a French colony, its influences came from the other French islands, explaining the Charentais alembics that were more common, as opposed to single pot stills used in other parts of the Caribbean by indigenous producers.  

Jules was more than just a local hooch handler.  He was in fact quite a talented tinkerer and very good with his hands: mechanical common-sense ran in the family, and much of the distillery was constructed with his direct input. The story goes that at one time, the French government donated a bleacher (those stadium like prefab metallic rows) to the Haitian government of the time. This bleacher was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame), but for some reason the assembly instructions accompanying the bleachers came in Chinese (don’t ask). The minister of public words of the moment, a bona fide engineer, confessed to Jules – a friend of his – that he couldn’t build it.  Jules casually asked for the manual, came back seven days later and then built the thing in fourteen days. It was famously known as the “Estrade du Champs de Mars” and is unfortunately no longer in existence…but any Haitian from that era would know of it.

The whole family was in on the business and it did not limit itself to merely clairins. Over time they expanded to providing 95% alcohol and ethanol to hospitals and pharmacies, base rhum stock to other clairin makers on the island and even branched out into the manufacture of essential oils (one such oil went on to provide the base for what would become Chanel No. 5).  Aunts, cousins and uncles were all part of the operation and were involved in running both wholesale and retail part of the company and its various sidelines.

The business passed on on to the second generation (Edouard Mascoso) in the late 1950s and Barik fared reasonably well.  Clairin sales (bulk and retail) and manufacture held steady, but the industry on the half island was moving into the direction of larger distilleries using industrial sized column stills which left smaller establishments at a disadvantage.  Barbancourt remains the best known, and the late 1970s also saw the increased scale of other major producers like the Nazon family who make rhums under the banner of Distillerie de la Rue in Cap Haitian, and Michael’s own uncle Gerald Moscoso (of Ayiti Aromatik SA) who with is partner bought press and plant from around the Caribbean, and make the Kleren Nacyonal and other brands out of St. Michel. Slowly the business stagnated and regressed in the 1970s to the point where Edouard was forced by both this and his own health to drastically ramp down production in the 1980s.  There followed a period of about twenty years when Mascoso / Barik as a clairin maker almost disappeared, though as noted, other branches of the family did have rhum operations of their own (and with confusingly similar brand names).  All the while, though, a trickle of the juice kept coming, even if only for local consumption.

Michael Mascoso with two of his klerens

After some years of puttering around from job to job (including that of a DJ), Edouard’s son Michael “Didi” Mascoso, who had been brought up in the culture of his family’s businesses and had apprenticed with his uncle’s more modern clairin operation, took over the near-abandoned clairin distillery in 2008.  From the inception, his ambition had been to move away from local bathtub-style popskull with poor quality controls and wide batch variations, to something more professional.  In short he wanted to create a double-distilled and aged rhum that could not only elevate the product and sales on Haiti, but be of sufficient quality for export.  It was of course not quite as simple as he had initially thought, but nevertheless he wanted to reopen a refurbished distillery with the same equipment, repaired and spiffed up, and tried to bring in more modern improvements and innovations over time.

It should be pointed out that it is almost a Haitian tradition to have one’s stills and factory infrastructure look as rundown and beat up as is humanly possible without actually ceasing operation.  Part of that has always been the rather unsavoury, unglamorous, peasantlike back-country reputation possessed by the clairins themselves – why spruce up the still when the juice is just being sold to the proles?  But more importantly, it keeps the eyes of the authorities off one’s operations if is just perceived as some small fly-by-night family outfit brewing small quantities of moonshine.  According to Michael, life under the dictatorial Duvaliers was never as brutal as the western media made out. “Under Duvalier I was not aware of any challenges. During that time if one minded his own business and walked a straight line they were safe.” But the taxman was something else again. The moment one’s operation looked a little too professional or the infrastructure too modern, and bottling became part of the company output (factory bottling in real bottles with labels and stuff), then the taxman came sniffing around.  And that was the major reason why 99% of the Haitian rum industry stuck with their old fashioned stills, and steadfastly refused to move ahead and modernize.

For financial and resource reasons, to recreate or even upgrade a functional distillery was very difficult for Michael.  However, humans are nothing if not inventive, and much like to soviets in the 1970s and 1980s who were known for putting together amazing inventions with string, baling wire and some vodka (or in modern times, having the tightest code due to limitations on available computer time in the old days), there was a lot of knowledge, passed-down-lore and plain experience…and a strain of Jules’s talent for mechanical tinkering and skill with his hands was still in the family tree. The distillery was repaired and refurbished, essentially by dint of diligent scrounging: abandoned kitchen equipment, commercial supermarket freezers, coolers (any source of metals that could be found, really), wires, electrical stuff – steel and copper and plate and everything else, down to the screws.  And then, as Michael put it, not without a hint of pride, “…watch us do magic by building our own pot and column stills, tubular condensers…. We also took old gas or #2 oil steam boilers and converted them into burning bagasse.  A typical modern distillery here in Haiti, with a steam boiler, pot column…more than 90% built on the premises with scrap metal.”

Scrap and scrounging, begging and borrowing, doing it all manually, all this was fine – it was, nevertheless, expensive.  It took all of Michael’s savings, credit cards, personal loans, raiding the family treasure chests (when not locked or guarded by fierce aunties) and getting help from his father and his brother (also named Jules)…and eight months after taking over, the still was ready to begin production.  At this point Edouard struck a co-production deal with a competitor which caused Michael to withdraw from operations for a while.  In December 2008 a successful test run on the distillery was finally done, and commercial production began in January 2009, with the intention of making both bulk clairin distillate for the local producers and possible export sales, and a line of white, caramelized and infused rhums.

Bad luck seemed to dog the distillery at the inception.  First there was the lack of funding for upgrades which had stretched the repair job into nine months; then there was the co-production deal that diverted attention and resources from the Barik brand; the earthquake hit in 2010 and shattered much of the island’s infrastructure …and as if all this wasn’t enough, there was an increasing incidence of industrial scale ethanol being used to make cut-rate clairins. Clairins are enormously pungent and flavourful and what producers were doing was mixing in a small portion of true distillate with the ethanol to make cheaper, low quality “clairin” that dragged down sales of the real McCoy.

Michael: “Although we had the ambition of branding and bottling rhums since 2009, financials did not allow it.  When things went from bad to worse in 2014, with the importation of industrial ethanol reaching its peak at that time, that was the end of selling bulk clairin.  I therefore decided to switch my focus to bottling and move away from the bulk sales.”  Michael noted that he had started working on his formulas and other blends since before the earthquake.  “I started with my sugar mash premium rhum right off the still, filtered and straight in the bottle; a few other blends like the Marabou (a caramelized version of the premium), a mint infused one and a few other tropical fruits infusion…and boom I was in business.  Selling a few bottles privately to a few customers in Europe but mainly France, I noticed that they have a preference for white agricoles — so I started bottling the Traditional 22 which is the pure juice version.”

So far the company remains (in accounting parlance) a sole trader operation and has not been officially incorporated. It is informally known and will one day be established in law as Moscoso Distillers, and under its umbrella have issued the Kleren Nacyonal and Rhum Barik brands, with additional variations of these (there’s also a rum-based Amaretto di Moscoso).  Sales remain slow and relatively minimal as a consequence of both novelty and a nonexistent mass-marketing advertising budget – in that sense, as Michael observed, a debt of thanks is owed to Luca for putting clairins on the international map and raising the drink’s profile. He hopes that his prescence at the 2017 Paris RhumFest will establish his brand more firmly in the mind of the rhum loving public and perhaps lead to more investment and possibly another large Haitian brand.  Having a personal thing for these potent unaged white rhums, as well as being interested in how the ageing would be handled, I for one will certainly be keeping an eye out on his products going forward.

 

Other notes

The word “Barik” means barrel in Haitian creole.  The choice of the name for brand (and possibly the company) was deliberate, because it was such a strong, easily pronounceable title in any language (Rolex, as I recall, chose its name for similar reasons).

Originally Michael wanted to name his product “Rhum La Guldive” but felt it to be too challenging a name.  It would be hard to ask for in a bar, the way one says “Havana Club” or “Bacardi”.  Plus, Pere Labat next door might launch a lawsuit over the name since they have a product with that title.

All photographs are from the Barik Facebook page, used with Michael Moscoso’s permission

References

The short list below, of rhums Mascoso Distillers makes, is not exhaustive (I’ve excluded all flavoured and infused versions since my focus is not on such products) but it’s a start for those who are interested.

 

Feb 212017
 

 

Savanna, a distillery on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion (it’s east of Madagascar) was founded in 1870 as part of the drive by France to diversify sugar production after the loss of Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Ile de France (Mauritius) in the early 1800s. Distilleries had already appeared on Réunion by 1815 when Charles Desbassayns built the most sophisticated sugar cane mill of the island in the region of Chaudron, but records suggest primitive versions were in existence there for at least a hundred years before that. Rum production began to take on greater importance as a diversification measure after 1865, when the sugar crisis precipitated by the discovery of the beetroot sugar-making process required other sources of income to be exploited.  The sugar crisis also had the effect of requiring consolidations and closures of the various estates – in 1830 there were 189 sugar factories, by 1914 they were reduced to around twenty and now there are only three.

Originally located in Saint Paul on the west of the island, what was later Savanna was then called “Parc à Jacques” or “Bout de l’étang” and was one of the first settlements there. At the beginning of the 19th century, Olive Lemarchand bought the property, which was then called the Sugar Estate of Savanna. In 1876, the Society of the Domain of Savanna was formed and the records of a functional distillery begin around this time, with molasses being the principal source of the spirit.

Photo (c) distilleriesavanna.com

Under various owners the sugar factory and its associated distillery continued operations until the post WWII years. The man most associated with Savanna in its current iteration was an enterprising islander named  Émile Hugot (1904-1993), an engineer.  He trained as a chemist in sugar factories on the French mainland at Artres and Bucy-le-Long before returning to Réunion in May 1928 where his priority was the provision of energy to the sugar factories.  He became the Managing Dirctor of the Adam de Villiers Sugar Company at La Mare in 1932 (this was a factory to the west of the current Savanna location) before the Second World War interrupted his work and he mobilized.  In the post-war years he restructured the sugar-based economy of the island and merged the factories and properties of La Mare, Savanna and Grand-Bois and the properties of La Convenance and l’Eperon) to form the Bourbon Sugar Company in 1948, to which he added the assets of Stella in 1952.

Savanna remained as a separate distillery under this umbrella, although there were some rhums issued as “Rhum Bourbon” by the parent company (dates unknown).  In 1992 the distillery – as noted, it was originally established in Savanna in Saint Paul de la Réunion — was transferred to the Bois-Rouge site in the north-east of the island, near to the sugar refinery of the same name, with the ageing cellars following suit in 1995 and expanded further in 1999. It is completely integrated from the cane fields to the final bottling all taking place on site and, somewhat uniquely, makes both agricoles and molasses based rums as well as exporting bulk rum.  The distillery runs with a continuous still which was constructed and put into operation around 1964.

Photo (c) PlanetRum.com

Changing market conditions and expansion into other areas of the Bourbon Sugar Company – most importantly international shipping and retailing – overshadowed the historic sugar-based backbone of the company, and gradually it divested itself of these holdings, and by 2001 it had sold Savanna to Groupe Quartier Français (which already controlled Rivière du Mât). GCF was a Reunion based company headquartered in the north of the island which dealt primarily in sugar and rum. But in 2010 GQF itself was acquired by Tereos, a global French-based conglomerate which had its origins in the 19th century, and deals to this day in sugar, beets and its derivatives, distilleries and cereals. (GQF was dissolved in 2013 and no longer exists).  This is the situation today.

The Distillery of Savanna distills and aging a complete range of rum: light rum, traditional rum, agricultural rum, and various aged rums. It is the first European distillery to be ISO 9002 certified. The French Association for Quality Assurance  awarded it ISO 9001 (2000 version) in July 2003.  Although from the outset Savanna produced rums for bulk sales, with 80% of its production exported to metropolitan France and the European Union, in 2003 the company developed its own range of rums, some agricoles, some not.

Note: Particular attention can be paid to their so called “Grand Arôme” Lontan line of rums, which are high-ester spirits that are to all intents and purposes the tastiest of the lot.  Once I start to buy and try some, I’ll report back.

References

 

Rum list

(Note: because the company has been active for so long, this list is the best I could come up with and I may have missed a few…but as always, it’s a good starting point).

  • Vieux Rhum Bourbon 49% ABV (year unknown – may not be Savanna)
  • Rhum Bourbon Blanc 49% ABV (year unknown – may not be Savanna)
  • Cap Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 43%
  • Cap Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 7 YO 43%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2004-2014 9YO Port Finish 46%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2002-2011 8YO Port Finish 46%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2007-2014 7YO Port Finish 46%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2000-2008 7YO 64.5%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Blanc 40%
  • Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel 1999-2015 15 YO Port Finish 46%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2001-2008 6YO 63.2%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2002-2011 8YO 57.8%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2003-2015 11 YO 59.7%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2003-2011 8 YO 46%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2004-2011 8YO 57.4%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2004-2016 12YO 64.2%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2007-2016 7YO 60.4%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Traditonnel Grand Arôme Blanc 57% (60th anniversary)
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Tradionnel Vieux 2001-2009 7YO 46%
  • Savanna Lontan Rhum Traditionnel Grand Arôme Blanc 40%
  • Savanna Millenium Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 1999-2014 15 YO 43%
  • Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 15 YO 43% (issued 2003)
  • Savanna Millesime 2002 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2002-2014 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Millesime 2005 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2005-2015 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Blanc 45%
  • Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Vieux 2002-2010 7 YO 46% Muscatel Finish
  • Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Vieux 2002-2012 10 YO 46% Porto Finish
  • Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 3 YO 43%
  • Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 5 YO 43%
  • Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 7 YO 43%
  • Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel Cuvée Spéciale 5 YO 43%
  • Savanna HERR (High Ester Rhum of Reunion) 2006-2016 10YO 63.8%
  • Savanna Rhum Traditionnel Métis 40%

 

Feb 082017
 

***

L’Esprit is a small French brand founded by Tristan Prodhomme of mixed Welsh, Scottish and Breton ancestry.  His biography is about as interesting as any I’ve come across.  Strictly speaking, he and his small operation are not into rhums, but whiskies (which miffs me, because I think their relative importance should be reversed, but I can’t have everything, so…).  Somewhat like Don Jose Navarro of Havana Club who gained a degree in thermodynamics and then turned to distilled spirits, Tristan majored in Philosophy before evincing a strong interest in the obscure Scottish tipple, although to that point he had been no more than a dabbler in the field – in other words, he drank it.  In 2003, needing to finance a holiday in Scotland, he ended up working at The Whisky Shop in Edinburgh, and much to his own surprise, did not return to France (Brittany) for four years.  In that time he gained a wealth of experience about the different kinds of whiskies, tasting and selecting and buying them, and something about the fundamentals of the business as a whole.

Photo (c) Whiskyandco.net

By 2007 he was straining at the leash and wanted to return home.  Moreover, he wanted to expand the selection of whiskies available to the French consumers, and he simply could not fathom why, with such a large scotch-swilling population, there were so few stores dedicated to their sale.  He was confident enough by then to feel he could start up his own shop, and set about doing so.  Somewhat like Nine Leaves but without the still, Tristan opened up Whisky&Rhum with his partner, and became the owner, purchasing agent, sales manager, accountant, secretary, designer, webmaster, deliveryman, carpenter, independent bottler, all in one (or two, depending on how you look at it).  Calling himself a specialist, not a generalist, he kept his shelves stocked with what he himself had selected, rather then going on buying sprees and shelling out for everything in sight, a practice of which he disapproves.  This way, one infers, he gets to be able to recommend everything he sells, and knows it by its first name, which may keep sales smaller than an “everything is here” establishment, but permits him to stand behind each and every product he stocks.

Some years later, Tristan remembered his own personal reference rum, the Rum Nation Guatemala 23 year old (for which I have myself been searching for years – it’s one of their earlier bottlings), and in thinking about it, wondered why rum was not as commercialized, or even as well known, as the whiskies were.  Rum had, at this time, just started to take its first real baby steps into its own renaissance, helped by many new bloggers who had become active around this point and were raising the profile of the spirit around the world.  Single-cask full-proof rums “back then” were making small splashes but few ripples, helped along by indies such as Renegade, Silver Seal, Moon Imports, Rum Nation, Fassbind, Samaroli and a few others (in spite of its age, Velier had not yet penetrated the mainstream and changed the game…that came later). But, like others before and after him, Tristan thought that rather than mass produced 40% bottlings everyone drank, he could do better, bootstrapping his experience with The Whisky Shop which also produced their own such variations, the quality of which was always above-par.

Tristan Prodhomme at Paris 2014 RumFest; Photo (c) Whisky-rhum.com – taken from FB page

With this in mind, in 2010 he launched the marque of L’Esprit (“the spirit”, or, “the mind”, which kind of makes sense, right?) with two whiskies and a single rum.  In the following years, for his rums and rhums, he bought one barrel at a time – from brokers, not distilleries, so primarily aged in Europe – and spent time ensuring that what he put on the shelf was something he personally enjoyed.  Because his establishment was still small, he didn’t go the Rum Nation route and never issued hundreds of cases of the rarefied juice at a time, spread out over the entire world.  His expectation and strategy was more modest, and stayed at single casks, at most a couple hundred bottles, and to this day you’ll have to do some legwork to find one outside of Europe in general, and France in particular.  Of course, it’s still whisky that dominates his interest, but in quiet corners of the rumiverse where the grog-blog boys hang out, there are growing whispers that the man makes a decent rhum and it might be worth getting them while they last.

While eschewing filtration and additions of any kind, Tristan doesn’t really go in for the full cask strength experience, preferring to tame the beasts with water – this is why most of his sample kits have a sample bottle with water included.  He believes that dilution is perfectly fine, since “It works!” – it brings out subtler flavours in the spirits, permits perfumes, smokiness, the quieter notes, to shine and become more evident; high-power intensity often masks these.  As a consequence, he prefers a range of 45-50% in his bottlings, though in recent years, bowing to the wishes of the market, he has produced rums that are stronger, always in lots of a hundred, from the same barrels as the lower proofed ones; he noted in an interview that while this is what other shops wanted from him, his own experience was that 46% rums sold much better and were also better value for money in his own estimation, so he produces both.  A proponent of terroire, he doesn’t blindly follow that as a lodestar, and selects the casks he buys primarily because of his notion of their quality, and his own judgement.

That judgement seems to be quite solid: he’s issued rums from Brazil, Belize, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, Guyana and Jamaica (all the old stalwarts, I like to joke), and it’s likely that as his reputation and brand becomes better known, he’ll expand and go to other countries, issue different variations. Already he has an arrangement to have La Maison de l’Hédonisme distribute his bottlings (including the other drink), and it’s probably just a matter of time before we see more.  There are two shops now, one in Rennes an another in Vannes. DuRhum, ever ahead of the curve, did a feature on the company in 2013, the Rumporter magazine featured his rums twice, Serge of WhiskyFun has consistently rated the rums well (the Caroni got a 91), he was at the 2014 Paris Rumfest showing off his stuff, and there’s no doubt more is coming.

Independent bottlers are not as rare as four years ago when Cyril first wrote about this tiny company and many are much better known.  Most dip from the same well in assembling their single-cask, fullproof rums and rhums – what to some extent marks Tristan out from the others is the slow, patient way he has of improving those casks he buys, incrementally expanding the range and the quality each time.  If the mark of any independent bottler is how much we want to source the earlier rums they made at the beginning of their careers (like Rum Nation’s 1974 Demerara, or Velier’s Skeldon 1973), then I believe that we should pay some attention to L’Esprit as well.  This is a company that, small or not, has potential to grow into something bigger in the years to come, a journey in which I at least, wish the man a lot of luck.

References (most are in French):

The list of rums issued as of January 2017 is below.  I’m fairly certain this is most of them.

  • Haiti – Barbancourt 2004-2016 11 YO 46% Cask BB86
  • Haiti – Barbancourt 2004-2016 11 YO 66.2% Cask BB86
  • Guyana – Diamond 2003-2011 7 YO 46% Cask 58
  • Guyana – Diamond 2005-2016 11 YO 71.4% Cask BB114
  • Guyana – Port Mourant 2005-2016 11 YO 46% Cask BB108
  • Guyana – Port Mourant 2005-2016 11 YO 60.1% Cask BB108
  • Jamaica – Worthy Park 2007-2016 9 YO 55.9% Cask BB10
  • Jamaica – Worthy Park 2007-2016 10 YO 56.9% Cask BB9
  • Jamaica – Monymusk 2007-2016 10 YO 67% Cask BB11
  • Trinidad – Caroni 1996-2016 19 YO 64.3% Cask BB4
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2010 12 YO 46% Cask 3
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2013 15 YO 46% Cask BB44
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2010 12 YO 58% Cask 3
  • Guadeloupe – Bellevue 1998-2013 15 YO 57.5% Cask BB44
  • Barbados – Black Rock 2000-2012 12 YO 46% Cask 2
  • Barbados – Black Rock 2000-2012 12 YO 57.5% Cask 2
  • Barbados – FourSquare 2002-2016 14 YO 56.4%
  • Trinidad – Caroni 1996-2016 19 YO 64.3% Cask BB4
  • Nicaragua – Chichigalpa 2002-2013 11 YO 46% Cask BB5
  • Nicaragua – Chichigalpa 2002-2013 11 YO 63.1% Cask BB5
  • Panama – Don Jose 2000-2012 12 YO 46% Cask 2
  • Panama – Don Jose 2000-2012 12 YO 57.8% Cask 2
  • Brazil – Epris 1999-2012 12 YO 47.7% Cask 52
  • Belize – Travellers 2005-2013 7 YO 46% Cask BB11
  • Belize – Travellers 2005-2013 7 YO 66.1% Cask BB11
Dec 192016
 

caputo-1973-label-1

It is a little known fact that in the 1800s, several small families whose names were to become intertwined with the history of unknown, unspeakable and unmentionable rum, started to arrive in what was then British Guiana.

The Heisens may have been the first; and from this line descended the Heisenberg Distillery, as well as the all but disappeared Alban estate run by a branch of the family begun by Grogger Heisen, later to become the Banban marque; and coiling among them all were the Fagnants, illegitimate, piratical rum makers of ill-repute who claimed without justification or evidence, to be the only descendants of Pere Labatt.  

For various reasons having little to do with common sense, and mostly lost to history, these families were both connected and at loggerheads almost from the beginning, but were united (if the term can be used) in their ability to make the worst rums in the colony. This not-quite-masterwork of historical revisionism with no relation to persons living, dead or undead, is the first in a series of histories to deal with the near mythical estates and their output.

(Note: Copyright information for all photos is contained at the end).

***

The small Heisenberg family was a very old — if insignificant — one in Germany, descending from the Junkers of what was once Prussia (no relation to Werner Heisenberg).  The now nearly-extinct family branch in Guyana trace their ancestry from Count Drinkel van Rumski zum Smirnoff, a member of the minor nobility who fell on hard times in the 19th century, largely as a result of excessive gambling debts and recurring bouts of syphilis arising from his predisposition to frequent houses of ill repute.  Although well educated in chemistry in Russia (legend has it he once threw up a half digested bratwurst on Mendeleev’s chessboard, which gave that famous man the idea for a periodic table after observing the patterns of the spew), he did not spend long there, and returned to Prussia to continue his life of hedonism and debauchery.  Finally ending up close to bankruptcy, he started to distill his own home made vershnitt in his bathtub for sale to the local peasantry; unfortunately, the bathtub was repossessed by one of his creditors, after which he began using a chamberpot to produce his moonshine, and sales for some reason dropped precipitously.

drinkel-2

Poorly done artist’s rendition of Drinkel van Rumski, from an original photograph, now lost

Facing ruin, irascible creditors and the threat of debtor’s prison, he made his way to Western Europe, stopping off in Holland where he was kicked out of the house of Herr Sheer after he was discovered hiding in a rum barrel, which he almost drank dry.  Since he found himself again unwelcome, he moved on to Spain, where he irritated the locals immensely.  Part of the reason they disliked him was the way he loudly and obnoxiously told them they did not know anything about making distilled spirits.  A young Catalan named Facundo, who had provided him with a small attic room in Catalonia, listened to him for a few months, learned what he could – which was not much – and then, just to escape his constant demands for loans and free room and board, shipped out to Cuba and began his own little company.  To the end of his life, Count Drinkel insisted that Bacardi owed him 50% royalties for every bottle they produced, though nothing ever came of it, and Facundo and his heirs steadfastly refused to admit the existence of the Count, let alone acknowledge his influence.

Foiled in his attempt to sponge off of others, Count Drinkel decided to emigrate to the New World, where he heard there were fortunes to be made and people weren’t too particular about the quality of rum they drank.  He stowed away on a ship he heard was bound for Haiti (allegedly from a passer-by named Dupree Barbancourt whom he tried to pickpocket), but because he couldn’t read or understand maps, was deposited in Barbados instead, along with assorted bruises and sprains which, the captain of the “Sprightly Bugger” stated in an official report, came from accidentally falling down the gangway…thirteen times. He made his way to the parish of St. Peter on foot, and was subsequently chased out of the Cherry Tree Hill by Charles Cave, though not before making sure he relieved himself (copiously) on each one of the small mahogany trees leading up the hill, which may be one reason they have grown so well to this day.  It was clear Barbados was not a place for him – word of his past, gambling debts and disregard for the niceties of personal property soon came to haunt him, and the English shipped him off in irons to their other colony, Guiana, where it was felt he could do some work of a more useful nature.

Guiana was every bit as much of a disappointment to Count Drinkel – he always insisted on the title – as were all the other places he visited, largely due to local residents’ inability to understand that he knew more than they did, was better than they were, and should be accorded not only respect and adoration, but actual room and board (for free).  Guianese, whether from the plantocracy or freed slaves or Indian workers, were prepared to humour his delusions, but when it came to money that was quite another matter, and soon he found himself penniless and with no-one to gamble with, as everyone knew him to be a notorious (if ineffective) cheat at both cards and dice.

plantation-enmoreHe was an odd sort of optimist, always assuming that something would turn up and that Lady Luck would one day smile on him and grant him her slippery favours.  And indeed, at this point a great stroke of good fortune came calling.  Griselda Verdie Delissey Heisenberg Porter, the seventh daughter of Thomas Porter who owned the Enmore plantation, was proving impossible to marry off due to some delicate inconsistencies relating to her birth, but mostly because of her poisonously acerbic character and generally slovenly appearance and indifference to personal cleanliness, which scared off all potential suitors.  Being hardened to all forms of filth by years of wandering in the fleshpots of the world, this did not severely inconvenience or alarm Count Drinkel, who spruced up his only good suit of clothes (much mildewed in the tropical heat), and came courting.  He won her hand by simply pointing to himself, grandly declaiming his noble heritage, and saying he wouldn’t mind.  Mr. Porter had been at his wits’ end regarding his almost unacknowledged daughter, gladly acquiesced, and as a dowry deeded her and his new son-in-law, with an acre of sugar cane land way down behind his own plantation, which Mrs. Griselda van Rumski zum Smirnoff promptly and grandiosely christened “The Heisenberg Plantation”.

house2

What is now left of the Heisenberg family house. The still was behind the house

It was perhaps because he was tired of moving around; Count Drinkel settled down in a shack his father in law built, and looking around, decided there was nothing he wanted to do except drink.  Since he knew a little about distilled spirits, he asked Mr. Porter for an old cast iron bathtub and some pipe, and with Griselda lending most of the muscle (she was reputed to be six feet tall and had hands the size of hams) built a leaky, farting pot still, and had enough metal left over for a condenser and cooling apparatus. For a share of the sugar cane “harvest” on his solitary acre, he got a freed slave to chop the cane and feed the manual crusher, and on average managed to make about five or six barrels of high proof white lightning a season, which, if he paced himself, was enough to keep him half drunk for the better part of the year.  The barrels he appropriated from his father in law, and in a misplaced sense of generosity, used his wife’s middle initials VD as his marque. Admittedly, his English was still not very good, and the meaning of the initials escaped him, though it was doubtful he would have cared, as the entire output of his small “estate” was for personal consumption, not sale or export.

He and his wife, perhaps surprisingly, were able to survive with a mixture of appeals to Mr. Porter for support, occasional gambling bouts in the nearby villages with those too innocent to know they were being fleeced, sales of an excess barrel or two to an Indian named Jaikarran (who used it – variously, depending on need – to make bathtub cleaner or to scour passing merchant ships of barnacles, in between taking care of his pharmacy), and outright theft.  When their only child Tipple Heisenberg Van Rumski Zum Smirnoff was born, the local registrar had been drinking copiously with Drinkel while Griselda was in labour, and misspelled the name, and so Tipple’s birth certificate said Tipple Heisenberg van Drunken, although for his entire life he was just known as Tipple Heisen.  Tipple was a chip off the old block, a truant from an early age, enamoured of the same vices that had brought his now aged sire to ruin.  After the flu carried off both his parents in 1919, he must have come to his senses, because he displayed a rudimentary sort of economic understanding, and since he drank less heavily than his father had, he had a few extra barrels of the now-renamed Heisenberg vintage to sell to passing ships or local merchants.

barrel

A barrel recovered from the Heisen property in 1978

In this way, the lore and myth of the Heisenberg barrels began. There were never very many since the acreage was small and quality a constant variable.  Tipple never managed, or never cared, to expand the estate beyond a few additional acres will to him by his grandfather, but he kept the snorting, leaky, steaming, farty pot still, and even managed to add an extra thumper keg or two to make it an ersatz creole still.  He also displayed little interest as to what he added to the wash, and there were stories told in the bush years later about dead cats, discarded suits and rotten pumpkins but these were most likely the old equivalent of modern urban legends.  Certainly a few barrels over the years found their way to EH Sheer’s offices, and even Cadenhead was rumoured to have bought one. Some say that Gordon & MacPhail doctored its Jamaican 1941 58 year old with a few ounces of Heisenberg distillate to give it some bite and kill the floating rats, but there is no evidence for this at all.

A perusal of records of the local parish shows that Tipple Heisen Van Drunken eventually married a solid, no-nonsense shopkeeper’s daughter named Doris Berg.  Doris was big, Doris was tough, Doris was smart, and Doris took absolutely no crap from anyone.  She immediately declared that she would never give up her own name, and preferred the double-barrelled appellation of Drunken-Berg, to which Tipple, after some epic battles, finally agreed, more out of exhaustion than any kind of conviction.  The small family continued to eke out a living on the few tiny acres, one of which Doris converted to a vegetable garden – she sold produce in the area’s market when she could – but the mainstay of the Drunken-Berg finances remained the little still which regular as clockwork produced ten to twenty barrels a year.  In short order, “Miz Dahris” (as she was known by neighbors) squeezed out four children, the daughters Ella, Bella and Stella, who married and moved away and are (almost) lost to this story, and a son.

market-1922

A reputed picture (never confirmed) of Miz Dahris, late in life at the local market.

Chugger van Drunkenberg was born in 1940 – by now the family name had lost the hyphen, and the “zum Smirnoff” and “Heisenberg” had been forgotten except for some old stories regarding the name on the barrels under which their rum was marketed.  Chugger, also known as “Chigoes” after the foot eating worm, was never very literate, but a good businessman.  He was also not a drinker, and that meant the full output of the little still was available for sale.  Most of the time Chugger just sent his stock up the road or down the river to Enmore and it got lumped in with his great-grandfather’s own distillate.  But as the fifties gave way to the sixties in British Guiana, the British firms consolidated the estates from their original owners, and it was not always possible to sell the rum he made, just the cane itself.  Chugger van Drunkenberg’s initial good fortune didn’t vanish overnight, just dribbled away over the years as there was less and less cane for him to sell, and the Heisenberg name became less and less well known, eventually all but vanishing.

Most people, of course, were never aware of the tiny distillery, largely because they rarely bottled anything themselves, only sold whole barrels; too the rum was so pungent, so ferociously strong and increasingly bizarre in taste (with wide variations from one barrel to the next), that few had the courage to buy it.  It was variously described as “dark”, “hellish”, “industrial strength solvent,” “more rotting fruits than a near-bankrupt grocery store”, “something that gives dunder a bad name”, “fit only for cleaning rust from mothballed oil refineries,” and “redolent of Admiral Bimbo’s sweaty armpit at noon” (said Admiral sharing said characteristic with his less-ranked son, or so rumour had it).  No wonder those few who came across it avoided it like the plague.

Even Lamb’s refused after the 1950s to accept any more for their Navy rum, and the loss of the relatively consistent sales to that company meant Chugger had to fight to sell even what he could.  It never seemed to occur to him to standardize his production, or even modernize – in that, he had the laissez-faire attitude of his grandfather, whose attitude to life was summed up by the phrase “Something will turn up.”  And a trickle of Heisenberg estate rums did in fact make it out to independent bottlers from time to time: E.H. Keeling might have bought a barrel or two, it was rumoured to be a part of Russian Bear rum (sold mostly in-country), a few far sighted Italians did buy some.  But the trail mostly ends there, and Chugger never bothered to dig deeper into the matter – once the sale was made, he was happy.  He didn’t tolerate people much, and once chased a young man called Yesu Persaud off his property with a cutlass for the crime of setting half a foot and two toes on his land.

dr-surujbally

       Chugger and his son Ruminsky, 1969 (c) Lance Surujbally, The Lone Caner

It was therefore somewhat of a surprise when people heard that he got married, in late 1966.  Perhaps married is the wrong term – he got a local Amerindian lass called “Tanti” in a family way and she simply moved in, and less than half a year later, she provided him with his only son, whom he named Ruminsky.  Ruminsky’s fate in life was supposed to be to take over the small patch of land (which he was unaware had come through from a great-great grandfather).  Being a bright and precocious boy with absolutely zero interest in rum or sugar or hard work of any kind, he elected to leave Chugger and Tanti to run the tiny business while he went to school.  The Heisenberg distillery lurched on until 1973, though Black Tot Day three years earlier effectively wiped them out, and then it shuttered for good.  The final barrel ever made, stamped “Heisenberg 1973,” was bought by an Italian, who was then refused an export license by the Government of the day (by the time he submitted his final batch of papers for the application, the first ones had expired) and so after a year of futile chasing after paperwork, he simply left, selling his various barrels of acquired rum stock from Skeldon, Port Mourant and Heisenberg to Bookers, the fore-runner of the modern DDL.  Bookers just rolled them into their facility and left them there to age.  With the gradual consolidation of sugar estates under the DDL banner, all these barrels lay gathering increasing dust…and it was not until another enterprising young Italian from Genoa called Luca Gargano walked into the warehouse, that they were rediscovered.

The PM 1972 and 1974, and the Skeldon 1973 were hailed by many as masterpieces, and nowadays fetch many times their original asking price.  But Luca didn’t know what to make of that one almost-corroded barrel from distillery neither he nor DDL had ever heard of, a small patch of ground now closed and left to grow over by the encroaching jungle.  Chugger and Tanti had moved to New Amsterdam, Ruminsky stayed in school in Georgetown, the distillery apparatus had been vandalized and stolen bit by bit, and there was nobody around to speak of the all-but forgotten little outfit run by three generations of Drunkenbergs and Van-Rumski-Zum-Smirnoffs except for some rice farmers and sugar workers, a closed mouthed lot who would chase people off their land with no compunction, and Luca was never able to penetrate their country-bred clannishness.  So he took his barrel to Italy (he was better at paperwork than his predecessor) and chucked it into his office.

Enter a young, ambitious and light-fingered aspiring rum-maker called Caputo, who liked to say he was the illegitimate son of D.B. Cooper, that masked bandit who jumped out of a plane in 1972 after hijacking it and collecting a ransom of $200,000.  Young Caputo  worked as an office boy for Velier in Genoa, and saw the barrel, and, sniffing an opportunity, didn’t waste his breath trying to buy it – he lacked any semblance of legal tender in his threadbare pockets anyway.  He simply waited for the maître to go on one of his trips abroad, and then calmly rolled it out of the office, into the street, and down to the seedy garage where he lived in the back of a flower-power-era 1960s VW van.  Shortly thereafter he left Genoa and took the barrel with him. There are no reliable records to confirm the matter, of course, but what seems clear from private conversations is that this was around 2010 or thereabouts.

caputo-1973-004Much to his frustration he found the barrel impossible to sell. Nobody had ever heard of Heisenberg, there was no paperwork proving the provenance of the rum in his possession, and so in 2015, at a loose end and with even less money available than usual, he decided to finally give up, and just bottle what was left in the barrel.  Unfortunately, after some 42 years of sloshing around, there was almost nothing left, but with a teaspoon and a dish-washing sponge, he managed to scrape out one single bottle, and remembering his experience with Velier, copied their label, ran it off on his printer and slapped it on.  By this time the resurgence of rum in the world, and reviewers who swore by old vintages, as well as the ubiquity of eBay, made it possible to bypass normal channels of distribution, and he put it up for sale there.

The response was instant and gratifying.  He had set a reserve of a few hundred euros on it, but to his amazement bidding began to get quite fierce, and it climbed past a thousand euros in very short order, before some jealous and malicious blogger who had been outbid called into question the existence of the rum.  Obviously, since there was only one bottle in existence, it was impossible to send samples around, so the poor Mr. Caputo, stymied, was forced to remove the listing.  It appeared that nobody had ever heard of, or was willing to take a chance on, a remarkably rare old rum from an estate that history had relegated to less than a footnote.

Except one.

Chugger and Tanti van Drunkenberg had long since gone to the great distillery up in the sky, but their son Ruminsky did survive, and after some promising beginnings in the accounting world, he exhibited many of the traits of his ne’er-do-well ancestor, having a strong and excessive fondness for the baser pleasures of mankind, namely gambling, rum and girls, even if he did so with more good cheer and a sort of charming optimism lacking in his forebears.  This was one reason why he never became rich, and was always off to some other crazy part of the world where he felt he could indulge his obscure interests. He also had something of a literary bent, and in 2010 began a small rum-review site that nobody ever cared about or ever bothered to read (a state of affairs that persists to this day). Not for him the effort of actually making rum, let alone running a distillery, or (heaven forbid) cutting cane – that might get his soft hands dirty, or, even worse, cause him to sweat.  He was a cheerfully failed artist, if not quite starving, and ambled through life with a sunny good humour that reprised his ancestor’s maxim that something would turn up.

And indeed it did.  When he heard through the miracles of modern social media that a single bottle of his forebears’ rum was still in existence, he contacted the now near-desperate Caputo, and offered him half the last bid on eBay, sight unseen.  Caputo, who would have let it go for one tenth that price , happily grasped the straw that was being given, and sold it on the spot.  Ruminsky, in October of 2016, displaying more optimism than any kind of good sense, made the mistake of letting some his fellow bloggers, all better known and more successful than he was, know that he had the bottle.

There was instant pandemonium as the news flashed around the world as quickly as you could say “Only one bottle”. Velier called from Italy to demand their bottle back, Rum Nation offered to buy it, Florent Beuchet of CDI came calling in person offering his entire Danish Collection in exchange, and museums from around the world, alerted to the bottle’s reality, also offered to take it off his hands (for free) as a precious resource.  Carl Kanto reputedly burst into tears, and Yesu Persaud, now in retirement, claimed that Ruminsky’s father Chugger had been an idiot who didn’t know the first thing about rum, before suggesting it be given to DDL’s Heritage Centre.  The stampede of European bloggers to Ruminsky’s tiny walk-up in Germany was so uncontrolled that Berlin police had to set up a cordon around the place to direct traffic.  Every one of them (the bloggers, not the police) demanded a sample to take away to write about, as well as “Just one shot for the road, friend,” and intimidated by their wild-eyed, rabid enthusiasm, Ruminsky timorously complied, at which point everyone left – running – almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Everyone wanted to be the first to put up a review of the legendary Heisenberg Rum.

The reviews that will be posted online are a result of that bottle’s “sharing.” Few recall Count Drinkel van Rumski zum Smirnoff who started it all, fewer know his name or that of Tipple and Chugger.  All but one of the family are now gone.  Ruminsky has retreated into the obscurity from which he emerged for his fifteen minutes of fame.  His site remains perennially unread. He remains stubbornly cheerful. “The rum is finished;  only words remain,” he said once in an interview with this writer. “But I’ve heard there may be another barrel hiding out in the world somewhere.  Maybe I’ll find it.”  He shrugs, smiles…and for a moment, just a moment, the Old Count looks through his eyes. “After all, sooner or later, something always turns up, right?”

Yes.  Yes, it does.

*****

Notes

Many thanks to the wicked sense of humour of Signore Caputo, whose sterling efforts resulted in this essay. If you can believe it, it was written in less than six hours, at a white heat of rum and bad jokes and batsh*t crazy inspiration. And it’s all due to him.

Copyrights and sources of photos:

  1. Enmore Plantation photo taken from Barrel-Aged-Mind
  2. Heisenberg family house, the barrel and the lady at the market (none of which are exactly what is stated in the captions) taken from the excellent FB archive page called “British Guiana / Guyana”.  Since they are old, often family pictures there, I can only attribute it to the FB site and not to individuals. Copyright should be implied, however.
  3. Chugger and Ruminsky family photograph copyright (c) Lance Surujbally, The Lone Caner
  4. Caputo 1973 label and bottle picture courtesy of Mr. Caputo, used with permission
  5. Count Drinkel cartoon based on a Pinterest photo whose originator I could not find, but if identified, is copyrighted to that individual.

 

Jan 262016
 

cdi-logo

***

For a company in existence for such a short time, it’s quite impressive what a wide range of rums Compagnie des Indes (which translates as the East India Company, hereinafter referred to as CDI) has managed to put out the door.  As of the 2015 release season, fourteen separate countries are represented (2 from east of Greenwich).  Unlike the trend in the USA and Canada, where creating one’s own new distillery and brand  is more common, in Europe it’s always been more about being an independent bottler (or re-bottler, I suppose).  Such enterprises don’t want to reinvent the wheel or invest in technology – though this does in fact happen as well, of course (e.g. Severin Simon in Germany).  Their strategy is to exhaustively seek out barrels from either source or broker, maybe age them a little more somewhere, and then issue them under their own label, usually in limited quantities of less than a thousand bottles per release.

While it could be argued that this hardly makes them cradles of innovation, it’s tough to fault the results when we can so rarely find the source distillers daring to go in the full-proof direction.  Until very recently, when was the last time you saw St. Lucia Distillers, FourSquare, Appleton, Mount Gay, Angostura, Travellers, Abuelo, Bacardi, Flor de Cana or other major brands, go the cask strength route in anything but their overproof 151s?  So smaller companies, whose founders often emerge from a whisky background, tend to be more into the full proof concept which has only recently started to gain great recognition in the rum world.

Such a person is Florent Beuchet, who pursued international business studies with a specialization as an International Trade Master of wine and spirits in Dijon, France.  After working part time for his father, who himself was a winemaker and ran a small distillery making absinthe and aniseed, Florent became the brand manager for Banks in New York in 2011 (his family owned shares in the company, and Florent’s father acted as a consultant for it).  This lasted for close on to two years, after which he bought a small spirits trading company he named “Diva Spirits” in 2013. This outfit dealt with the import and export of wines and spirits between Europe and the USA, and built on a network his father had created over the previous thirty five years.

cdi logo 2

Photo (c) L’homme a la poussette

While his studies had focused primarily on wines, Florent realized after working with Banks that rum interested him rather more: partly this was its versatility (read: absence of rules) but also because he saw that the concepts of terroire, distillation, ageing and blending were readily applicable to rum just as they were to wine.  More, he sensed that while the Europeans had a rather more sophisticated view of rums than Americans did, many still labored under the impression that it was a disreputable sort of drink, cheaply made, good only for a mix, and very sweet. The potential of exactingly made rums from single casks issued at full proof was still gathering steam (online reviews of rums made to precisely those specs were just beginning to appear at this time, if you discount Serge Valentin, who’d been issuing notes on them since 2010, and modesty be damned, some of them were mine).  So he saw an opening in the field that to this point had been dominated by Samaroli, Rum Nation, Velier, Moon Imports and others, few of which had the visibility and cachet they acquired in the subsequent years.

Seeking to put his ideas into practice, he formed CDI in March of 2014, in France. He sourced the rums he wanted via brokers in Holland and the UK, chose only unadulterated rums, and eschewed Rum Nation and Velier’s practice of going directly to the original distilleries in person to root around the warehouses seeking the perfect barrel (as of 2016, he has only been to Cuba, oddly enough).  The label design, with its old fashioned seal and fancy stylistic touches at the top was a calculated decision on his part – he wanted to provide something of the atmosphere and heritage of old times, sailing ships and galleons and parchment (one wonders how the famous aphorism of rum, buggery and the lash figured in his thinking, but never mind). It’s noteworthy that he had taken a sense of the room, and understood the need for providing clarity and information – and so each label also had a Velier-style section at the bottom on age, source, strength and barrel.

He also doesn’t hide that he is a disciple of honesty in rum making. He has little patience for the solera style of rum making, which he sees as dishonest way to market what is actually a blend with a misleading age statement; and he disdains rectified column-still spirit that is added to with flavourings and sugars and fancy backstories to disguise the fact that it is a commercial low end “rum”…and is then sold to an unsuspecting public as a real rum, when its artificiality is self-evident.  In that he is a follower of Richard Seale and Luca Gargano (among others), who have long championed pure rums and label disclosure.

cdi rums

Photo (c) Whiskyleaks.fr

His initial offerings from that year into the market were modest: first a Caribbean blend, then two Belize rums (same source, different strengths), a Cuban, a Guadeloupe and an 18 year old Caroni.  From the outset he knew he was going after unadulterated, pure rums, but felt that to make any kind of initial splash he perhaps had to compromise the principle, and so has added 15g/L of organic liquid cane sugar to the Caraibes blended rum and the 2015 release of the Latino, as well as 10g/L to the “Calbar” Jamaican (but to none of the others). To his credit, this information is disclosed and he makes no secret of it. (And given the RumDiaries take on the Caraibes, Florent may have been right, though Josh of Inakena disagrees, finding the dosing too obvious; current releases of Caraibes no longer have any sugar). Age is also exactly what it purports to be — meaning the true age of the rum in barrels; and even in the blends, it is never the oldest, but always the youngest portion of the blend which is noted.

Issued to the European market, sales were positive and encouraging.  In April 2015 I tried the Cuban 15 YO in Paris, and was mightily impressed, scoring it at 88 points, and remarking that “…If this is anything to go by, CDI is going to take its place among the craft makers whose rums I want to buy. All of them.” My purse and my time are limited so I have not been able to try as many as I would have liked, but certainly the customer response was gratifying enough for CDI to expand into a larger selection in 2015, when they added rums from Martinique, Barbados, Fiji, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia and Indonesia to the mix.

The Haitian rhum was intriguing, what with the recent upsurge in interest in clairins issued by Velier; Fiji has some tongues wagging…but the Indonesia rum in particular excited quite a lot of interest because it was so unusual (and because the distillery was not disclosed) – Florent wanted to recreate something of the flavor of Batavia Arrack, one of the progenitors of rum, and whether or not he succeeded, I don’t know – I just know I liked it quite a bit. Jamaica was also a good issue, because most lovers of the funky style are more familiar with Appleton’s work, not Hampden or Worthy Park, or New Yarmouth which was issued in 2017.  So certainly CDI is putting some interesting footprints into the sand of the rum world, and showing that while the trailblazers like Renegade, Samaroli, Rum Nation and Velier provided and continue to make many amazing rums for the consuming public, there remains space for new companies with a slightly different ethos to make their mark and provide greater variety of rums for us all to try.

A peculiar divergence from the norm is the rums issued only in the Danish market.  These are some of the rums certain to pique the interest of the cdigreater rum loving public – especially the aged Guyanese rums and the cask strength 60% Panamanian, which is surely quite an unusual product (I honestly can’t remember when was the last time I saw a full proof Panama rum).  Henrik of RumCorner, as helpful as always, and who had spotted me the CDI Guadeloupe from there which I have to write about soon, informed me that “…those releases were done in collaboration with the Danish distributor. Denmark is one of the fastest growing markets for premium and ultra premium rums, so they asked CDI for some limited cask strength products and voila. In my opinion the Barbados FourSquare 60% rum [for example] really shows what is possible at high strength in comparison with the standard issue 40% horde.”  Florent confirmed that, remarking “Once I started selling single cask to Denmark, my importer and his team told me that they’d like to know if I could bottle rums at cask strength. I told them that I could but due to duties, the prices in France would be too expensive and they wouldn’t sell so that they would have to buy the whole cask. [They did.] That’s why I decided to mention on the label that it was only bottled for Denmark…[Denmark] has quite an educated brown spirit clientele that are willing to pay a lot for pretty exclusive bottles. That’s mostly the story.” 

So where to now? Promotion and marketing will be a big focus.  Florent thinks traditional magazine space is too expensive, and prefers to engage with the public at festivals (which is where I met him and bored him to tears – twice), as well as using social media to interact with his customers.  That’s usually where he can be found lurking.  He will continue to have all his packaging, corking, labelling etc, done in France.  Ageing of his selected barrels is primarily in Europe, though some tropical ageing does take place.  In that he departs from Velier, who championed in-situ tropical ageing because of the accelerated maturation and richer flavour profiles they so preferred; Florent believes that wood takes on an dominance under such conditions, which replaces subtler, fruitier notes which he likes better. (Steve James’s review of the Barbados 16 YO made mention of this difference which he attributed to the ageing regime.)

CDI Florent

Florent in Berlin RumFest, 2015.

The year 2016 suggested that the Danish market full proof editions were no mere flash in the pan.  Whether more were issued for them, or the clamour to have a wider distribution of rums bottled at >50% was acted on, the fact is that the 2016 releases sported no fewer than twelve rums bottled at cask strength (most at around 60%).  Maybe some kind of “twinning” is being worked on, where a standard table strength rum is issued with its mate offered to the cognoscenti at a higher proof point – this makes for higher prices since the volume issued would be less, but it seems as though Florent has sensed a market opportunity here and is working on maximizing it.  Blends which tread the path of the Caraibes will also continue, with rhums like the Tricorne and Boulet de Cannon being issued at intervals. And there’s also a flavoured/spiced rhum called Darklice (licorice and other additions, and the name is evocative if nothing else) added to the stable, which is his first foray in that direction.

It’s likely that the current stable of countries will not be much expanded upon, though of course there will continue to be releases from each.  And just to say “Martinique” is an oversimplification, since the particular rhum from there that CDI issued was from Dillon, and that is a small percentage of the distilleries over there.  So while they are more expensive than rums from the English and Spanish Caribbean, they can’t be entirely ruled out for more releases, and of course there will always be rums from Barbados, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Guyana and Jamaica out there.

My own hope is that he won’t be seduced by the sales of the spiced and blended variations of his line, but will sleuth out little known islands and distilleries and geographical regions and do what Luca has done – bottle and promote rums we haven’t seen in a while, or ever, which we’d like to try and which exemplify the global reach of the spirit.  They may not all be the best available (Fiji did not find much favour with me, sorry), but you have to give points to the new kid on the block, who’s really doing something interesting for rum.  That’s worth ten truckloads of Don Papa right there.

***

References:

  1.       Personal conversations and emails and messages with Florent Beuchet
  2.       Interview with FB by whiskyandco.net
  3.       ReferenceRhum.com
  4.       Posts on CDI Facebook page
  5.       Tiare’s post on A Mountain of Crushed Ice
  6.       Rumporter
  7.       Rumconer.dk
  8.       4FineSpirits.de interview with FB
  9.       Online posted interview with FB by Joerg Meyer (2016)
  10.       Rumporter October 2016 article
  11.       Company site

A list of rhums issued by CDI as of September 2017 is below.  This is one of those times I really think I’ve got them all, but as always, if you know more, send me a correction with the specs.

  • Barbados 12 YO 2003-2015 45% #BD91 (FourSquare)(323 bottles)
  • Barbados 12 YO 2003-2015 45% #BD92 (FourSquare)(302 bottles)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1998-2015 45% #BD24 (FourSquare)(354 bottles)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1998-2015 45% #BD36 (FourSquare)(363 bottles)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1998-2015 45% #BD47 (FourSquare)(351 bottles)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1998-2015 45% #MRS236 (FourSquare)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1998-2015 60% #MRS xxx (FourSquare)(Denmark only)
  • Barbados 20YO 1998-2016 45% #BYR5 (Multiple distilleries)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1999-2016 62% #FS8 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1999-2016 62% #FS9 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 16 YO 1999-2016 62% #FS20 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 9 YO 2006-2016 62.1% #MB45 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 9 YO 2006-2016 62.1% #MB46 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 9 YO 2006-2016 62.1% #MB47 (Foursquare)
  • Barbados 10 YO 2007-2018 62.9% #BFD019 (Foursquare)
  • Belize 8 YO 2005-2014 44% #B86 (Travellers) (400 bottles)
  • Belize 8 YO 2005-2014 44% #SF17 (Travellers) (415 bottles)
  • Belize 8 YO 2005-2014 64% #SF48 (Travellers) (277 bottles)
  • Belize 11 YO 2005-2016 66.2% BL11 (Travellers)(Cask Strength)
  • Belize 10 YO 2006-2016 TBA% #TBA (Travellers)
  • Belize 10 YO 2006-2016 TBA% #TBA (Travellers) (Cask Strength)
  • Brazil 16 YO 2000-2016 43% #BR10 (Epris)
  • Boulet de Canon No. 1 2015 46% (blend Guy/Bar/T&T)
  • Boulet de Canon No. 2 2016 50% (blend Guy/Bar/T&T)
  • Boulet de Canon No. 3 2016 50% (blend Guy/Bar/T&T)
  • Boulet de Canon No. 4 2017 46% (blend Guy/Bar/T&T)
  • Boulet de Canon No. 5 2017 46% (blend Florida rums)
  • Cuba 15 YO 1998-2014 45% #C67 (Sancti Spiritus) (280 bottles)
  • Cuba 16 YO 1998-2014 45% #CM5 (Sancti Spiritus) (232 bottles)
  • Cuba 16 YO 1998-2014 45% #CM8 (Sancti Spiritus) (280 bottles)
  • Cuba 16 YO 1998-2015 45% #CM34 (Sancti Spiritus)
  • Cuba 18 YO 1999-2017 45% #CSS11 (Sancti Spiritus)
  • Cuba 18 YO 1999-2017 59% #CSS7 (Sancti Spiritus) (Denmark only)
  • Dominidad 16 YO 2000-2016 43% #SB1 (Small Batch)(33% 15YO DR / 67% 16YO T&T)
  • Dominican Republic 15 YO 2000-2016 64.9% #RDV 3 (Various)
  • Dominican Republic 13 YO 2003-2017 46% #RDM 1 (Various)
  • Dominican Republic 16 YO 2001-2017 62% #RDV 2 (Various)(Denmark only)
  • Guyana 10 YO 2005-2015 58% #WPM 75 (PM Still, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 13 YO 2002-2015 59% #WPM 36 (PM Still, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 13 YO 2002-2015 58% #MPM 35 (PM Still)
  • Guyana 13 YO 2002-2015 43% #MPM 63 (PM Still)
  • Guyana 21 YO 1993-2015 51% #GU 4 (Uitvlugt Still, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 24 YO 1990-2015 58.1% #MEY 04 (EHP Still, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 12 YO 2003-2016 45% #MSG6 (Diamond)
  • Guyana 12 YO 2003-2016 45% #MSG15 (Diamond)
  • Guyana 12 YO 2003-2016 45% #MSG16 (Diamond)
  • Guyana 12 YO 2003-2016 45% #MSG17 (Diamond)
  • Guyana 10 YO 2005-2016 57.5% #MPM18 (Port Mourant, Romhatten only)
  • Guyana 18 YO 1997-2016 45% #MGA4 (Uitvlugt)
  • Guyana 18 YO 1997-2016 57.9% #MGA5 (Uitvlugt, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 27 YO 1988-2016 52.7% #MEC7 (Enmore, Denmark only)
  • Guyana 14 YO 2003-2017 43% #GDD40 (Diamond)
  • Guyana 9 YO 2008-2017 59% #GYD71 (Diamond, Mahlers Vinhandel DK only)
  • Haiti 11 YO 2004-2015 43% #BMH 18 (Barbancourt)
  • Haiti 11 YO 2004-2015 59.4% #BMH 32 (Barbancourt)
  • Latino 5 YO 2010-2015 40% (15 g/L sugar)
  • Martinique 13 YO 2002-2015 44% #MA 67 (Dillon)
  • Martinique 13 YO 2002-2015 44% #MA 56 (Dillon)
  • Nicaragua 11 YO 2004-2016 69.1% #SN18 (Distillery unknown)
  • Nicaragua 17 YO 1997-2015 64.9% #NCR30 (Distillery unknown)
  • Nicaragua 12 YO 2005-2017 66% #NS10 (Distillery unknown)(Denmark only)
  • Oktoberum (2016)
  • Panama 11 YO 2004-2015 60% #MRS 255 (Distillery unknown)(Denmark only)
  • Panama 11 YO 2004-2015 44% #MRS 263 (Distillery unknown)
  • Panama 11 YO 2004-2015 44% #MRS 322 (Distillery unknown)
  • Panama 11 YO 2004-2016 61.5% #PMD 43 (Distillery unknown)
  • Panama 9 YO 2008-2017 43% #PSC 77 (Distillery Unknown)
  • Panama 13 YO 2004-2017 56.9% #PS 99 (Distillery Unknown)
  • St. Lucia 13 YO 2002-2015 43% #SLD 84 (St. Lucia Distillers)
  • St. Lucia 13 YO 2002-2015 56.3% #SLD 46 (St. Lucia Distillers)(Denmark only)
  • Trinidad 25* YO 1991-2016 56.2% #TP8 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 22 YO 1993-2016 48% #TC4 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 16 YO 2000-2016 63% #TT 96 (TDL)
  • Trinidad 24 YO 1991-2015 56.3% #SC 2 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 21 YO 1994-2015 57.8% #SC 707 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 19 YO 1996-2015 53.2% #SC 1 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 18 YO 1996-2015 61% #SCT 9 (Caroni)
  • Trinidad 18 YO 1996-2014 43% #SC 3 (Caroni) (456 bottles)
  • Trinidad 18 YO 1996-2014 43% #SC 2 (Caroni) (456 bottles)
  • Tricorne Unaged White Rum 2016 43% (Blend cane juice/molasses/arrack)

*Miscalculated as 26 YO on label

Jul 022015
 

Oceans 0

Ocean’s is a relatively new rum making outfit based in Zaragoza, Spain, beginning its life in 2012. Essentially they are an independent bottler, but with ambition: they have ageing warehouses the Ayala Valley (Basque Country, Spain) and La Palma Island  in the Canaries. They have various seven year old rums, the limited editions, and some craft stocks from Jamaica, Trinidad and other places.  So you can tell these boys mean business and want to be around for the long haul.

Small rum companies – from independent bottlers who take favoured casks and put them out the door to actual producers who go the whole hogshead from cane to carafe – tend to have one dedicated, enthusiastic entrepreneur at the helm, in the early years.  All three of the companies I have written about so far conform to that idea: Velier, Rum Nation and Nine Leaves.  Even the larger operations like DDL, Bacardi, Appleton, Flor de Cana etc, can be traced back to a single dedicated rumster whose drive, determination and dedication created and defined the future organization.

So it is with Ocean’s, a rum making concern still making its baby steps, an independent bottler beginning its official life in 2012 when Santiago Bronchales founded the company.

Oceans 4

The company is run by four business partners, three being investors, and Mr. Bronchales making the operational decisions:  he is 36 years old (as of 2015), and a native of Zaragoza (in Aragon, Spain), splitting his time between Villajoyosa (Alicante, Spain, where he lives) and working in La Palma Island in the Canaries.   Something like the sharp dog-leg left turn taken by the maestro ronero for Cuba’s Havana Club brand Don Jose Navarro in the 1970s, Mr. Bronchales studied Computer Science initially, but for reasons known only to himself, decided to change to study Oenology, which had become a passion of his. After having been working for some years as a winemaker, he began doing some experiments on the different process of distillation and inevitably, as he put it to me, got closer and closer to the world of rum.

Mr. Bronchales has been involved with the rum world since 2007. In that year, while working as a spirits consultant (and before that as a winemaker and brewmaster), he was approached and offered a position to lead a new project: to create a brand of rum meant to compete with the mastodon in the room, Zacapa. He didn’t think they were serious at first but they were. So he went to work in the Dominican Republic with the rum producer Oliver & Oliver, and after two year of market research decided to develop a range of rums with the aim of offering different rum ages and tastes. In this way he was able to have a hand in creating the Opthimus line (the 15, 18, 21 and 25 años solera rums), and remained there until April of 2012.

Like with most people who have a personal vision, he decided to branch out and follow his own path.  He had been buying fresh sugar cane distillates since 2009, with the sole intention of experimenting with his own maturation philosophy and process, and to see whether it was possible to make a 100% natural rum, with no additives or preservatives or anything else.  “Just playing with rum, wood and time,” he remarked to me. And thus was born the Ocean’s Rum of the “Singular Blend” concept, in pursuance of which he set up his own company.

Oceans 3

The basic idea was simple: rather than single-island or single-estate rums such as most craft bottlers were making and selling, he drew on his expertise in blending, and sourced different sugar cane distillates from many different producers from all over the world, trying to create taste in a natural way.  If you recall, I had some reservations about the concept – the Atlantic edition had seven different rums in it, and I didn’t think it quite clicked, but Mr. Bronchales explained it to me this way:

“Why so many different origins? Easy! If you want to cook a very good, tasty and pleasant meal, you need to use many different ingredients and make a selection of the highest quality among them, right? It is the same for me. If I want to create taste, I have to use different ingredients of the highest quality. In this way, we have our three rums of seven years old (fully cask matured), into only new barrels. All of them, blends from Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Spain, in diverse percentages. Thus, creating three different tastes of rum: Mellow, Tasty and Deep.”

Oceans 1

This kind of blending approach to making rum is also behind the three aged top-of-his-line rums named after three great oceans: “In the case of the Oceans (Atlantic, Pacific and Indian), what I make is a selection of special barrels, with some peculiarities that make me feel strange and new sensations. Unique impressions that make me feel alive. Atlantic 1997 (the 1997 is the date of distillation of the youngest rum in that blend) is a blend of 16 selected barrels from Barbados, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica and Martinique, and even some drops of Dominican Republic. Each is a matured rum from one producer (and usually a solera) and selected, matured a second time by Ocean’s, blended and then finished by myself.” In the case of the Atlantic, he used barrels of red wine from D.O. Somontano in the north of Spain, to do the finishing for a couple of years.

Rums are sourced without prejudice and can consist of either molasses or cane-juice distillates, from pot still or column still … the man plays no favourites. No additives or preservatives or colour agents are included, and it’s all natural. Mr. Bronchales has his own personal technique to give some natural kind of sweetness to the rums he makes: it consists on putting about 25 litres of pure unfermented sugar cane juice into a barrel, letting it sit for a short time, then emptying it and lighting a fire inside just to warm the wood and caramelize what remains soaked in the barrel, but not enough to char the staves themselves.

There’s no question that the technique of blending and barreling is somewhat different from that practiced by other craft bottlers, most of who are much more interested in rums reflecting specific styles or countries.  But Ocean’s is committed to the path it has set for itself: to continue focusing its efforts on the development and the detailed study of alternative maturation techniques that allow them to improve the traditional methods for the rum-ageing process. They are really aware of the effects that climate, wood and time generate in rum, and this in turn leads to them deeply studying cooperage and woods, in an effort to understand the connection that occurs between wood and rum.

Future plans are to continue issuing the seven year old rums (Mellow, Tasty and Deep), release the Pacific and Indian limited editions, and to keep an eye on some single cask, country specific rums which were considered quite special, but with no planned issue date.

You can tell Mr. Bronchales, very much like Mr. Takeuchi of Nine Leaves, is one of these guys who goes beyond merely ageing and tasting and then bottling a rum.  He likes to examine the history and philosophy of his favoured libation. He wants to reinvigorate the rum making traditions of the Canary Islands with his own  style, and he wants to take craft rums in a direction not many others have, blending research about the intricate minutiae of ageing with rock solid rum-making fundamentals, all while adding just a pinch of crazy to the mix.

And I mean that in a good way, because I’m agog with admiration for anyone who can dare mix a bunch of rums from as far afield as the Java, Swaziland and Fiji, and hope to make that work. It may not come together, and it may all crash and burn, but not for the want of trying.  You really have to respect that kind of commitment in a rum maker, from any country, at any time. And maybe raise a glass to their success.

 

***

A list of rum which Ocean have produced is below

  • Mellow & Singular 7 Year Old Rum
  • Tasty & Singular 7 Year Old Rum
  • Deep & Singular 7 Year Old Rum
  • Triple S Special Edition – Barbados (single cask – December 2016)
  • Triple S Special Edition – Trinidad (single cask – December 2016)
  • Triple S Special Edition – Jamaica (single cask – December 2016)
  • Triple S Special Edition – Dominica (single cask – December 2016)
Jan 202015
 

Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs

 

There’s a aspect of Japanese culture which appeals to me a lot – the concept of kaizen, or slow, patient, incremental improvement of a thing or a task, by constant repetition and miniscule refinement, that over time can lead to spectacular results and quality.  Consider Toyota’s manufacturing processes as an example. Or the master chef Jiro Ono, who has been making sushi for decades, constantly making his work simpler, more elegant…and better, much better, Michelin-3-star better.  Or the filmmaker Ozu, who always seemed to make exactly the same film, until his repeated, specific observations on Japanese life became universal generalities (look no further than 1955’s “Tokyo Story” if you are interested).

Given the length of time Japanese stay in their professions, or the years lavished by them on their artistic endeavours before even pretending to any kind of expertise, it may be too early to include Nine Leaves distillery in this august company – yet there’s something in the stated long term philosophy of its founder and sole employee (for now), who began the operation in 2013, which reminded me of this idea and how it is a part of Japanese thinking. And I enjoyed all three of the micro-distillery’s products when I tried them in October 2014, and wanted to know more about the company.

There have, of course, been other Japanese rum producers and brands: Ryoma (Kikusui), Yokosuka, Ogasawara, Midorinishima, Cor-cor come to mind, and most of these are in the south, or in Okinawa, where climate favours the production of sugar.  However, none of them have ever made a real splash on the world scene. And all are relatively modest affairs, much like Nine Leaves is, though one could argue Nine Leaves markets itself somewhat better.

Nine Leaves Distillery is located in the Shiga Prefecture on Honshu island, at the south end along the river Seta.  It sits at the foot of a privately owned, nameless mountain, which is mined for anorthite (feldspar), the glaze used in high-end porcelain. When the bottom fell out of the market as a result of cheaper glaze from China, the owners started bottling the water from a spring under the ground level, which was unusually soft, and it was the prescence of this water which convinced the man behind Nine Leaves to ground his new operation there.

Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs

Much like all startups, the short history of this outfit cannot be separated from that of its owner: Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi.  As I remarked in my review of the French Oak Cask Angel’s Half, nothing in his background or that of his family would suggest that this was a passion of his. The family business was one of those small sub-contracting firms that manufactured precision car parts for the big car companies, and located in Nagoya;  it was started by Mr. Takeuchi’s grandfather. Mr. Takeuchi himself was dissatisfied with the life, and casting around for some creative endeavour of his own — something he could make and control from start to finish, which showcased a long tradition of Japanese craftsmanship – and was drawn to the possibilities of distilling whiskey.  However he was soon diverted more towards rum, because unlike the highly regulated Scottish drink, rum was (and remains) remarkably free of any kind of global standards…which he saw as an opportunity to put his own stamp on the process and end-product. And also unlike the craft makers — like Cadenhead, G&M, Velier, Rum Nation, etc —  Nine Leaves never intended to rebottle from pre-purchased casks sourced in the West Indies or wherever, but is a one stop shop from almost-beginning to end.

There was not a whole lot of rum distilling expertise in Japan, yet Mr. Takeuchi did manage to spend a whole three days (!!) soaking up the advice of another small distillery owner, Mr. Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu (he was the grandson of the founder of the now-defunct Hanyu Distillery), which had been operating since 2008, and used small copper stills from Forsythe’s to make a range of whiskies. On the advice of Mr. Akuto, he ordered a wash and spirit still from Forsythe’s as well, and when they arrived in Japan, assembled them himself; he dispensed with wooden washbacks and went with stainless steel instead, figuring that if it was good enough for Glenfarclas, it was good enough for him. Having found his water supply, established his site close by, and having assembled his equipment (personally), he next sourced his brown sugar from Tarama-jima (a small island in the Okinawa archipelago) …one can only wonder what would have happened had he found the perfect water next to a sugar plantation in the south of Japan.  Most likely he would have gotten into cane cultivation, and made his own sugar as well.

Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs

All preparations complete, Mr. Takeuchi was ready to commence operations in 2013, two years after having made his initial decision, without hiring any staff…and without quitting his day job.

The source of the fermented wash is neither molasses nor cane juice, but brown sugar (muscavado) and water, which may explain something of the rums’ interesting profiles, seeming to be somewhat of a hybrid of both agricoles and molasses-based rum, without exactly being either. Mr. Takeuchi has noted on his website that this was a deliberate choice: “[I aimed]… to discard the variable of bitterness or off-flavor from sugar cane juice and molasses, and to enhance the clear, refined sweetness and… [lingering tastes] that I had in mind.” After the first distillation of the wash – fermentation takes about four days — Mr. Takeuchi’s process for making rum relies heavily on the second distillation, where careful monitoring of the spirit quality and the cut phases to reduce the amount of undesirable feints (he sometimes tastes every few minutes).  Usually in the three standard cuts (‘heads’, ‘hearts’ and ‘tails’), it’s the ‘heart’ you want to keep – the skill comes in knowing when to start taking out the distillate from that middle phase, before which you throw away the ‘head’ and after which you dispense with the ‘tails’ (unless in the latter case you’re after some interesting effects, or wish to use them both to redistill later).  It would appear that Mr. Takeuchi has a flair for making his cuts just right, which he rather drily attributes to an appreciation for his wife and other’s home cooking in developing his sense of taste and smell. However, one can also assume that something more personal is at work here, as evinced in a remark Mr. Takeuchi made, oddly similar to one Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation also expounded: it comes down to “trusting your nose and your instinct…we all know what’s good and what isn’t.”

Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs

Because bottle shape in Japan is highly standardized – depending on the bottle one can tell immediately whether it contains local tipples like nihonshu (sake) or shochu – Nine Leaves sourced its glassware from France, and bottles the non-chill-filtered by hand, as well as manually affixing the labels (sometimes the family chips in to help).  At the time when the company began in 2013, it issued an unaged ‘Clear’ rum, bottled at 50% (it’s the same as a ‘white’ – the name was chosen to reference the glaze mined in the mountain).  In that same year Mr. Takeuchi, thinking beyond making just a localized white lightning, sourced 225 liter virgin oak casks, of American and French oak, one of each.  His intention was to set aside perhaps 60% of his production, create two gold variations aged for perhaps six months, and move on to ageing 20% more into a dark set of rums aged for more than two years (the remainder will be white rum). And there are already plans to use ex-sherry, ex-bourbon and ex-wine barrels (this last from California) as well, so certainly we can expect to see the range of Nine Leaves expand in the years to come.

x3_a.jpg

Photograph © Nine Leaves

The question is how much, and how soon.  Nine Leaves lacks warehousing space, though plans are afoot to build some.  In speaking to Mr. Takeuchi last year he told me he’ll keep his output minimal for a while, enough to retain his distilling license from the Japanese Government, and to allow him to progressively age his rums, tweak with the taste profiles, perhaps even build some inventory.  A regular release of the six-month-aged gold rums would occur – another batch was set to be bottled around the same time we met (of course, since he was talking to me, he couldn’t be bottling anything…). A lot would depend on the reaction of the rum drinkers in the world to the products he had already issued in early 2014 – the French and American oak Gold “Angel’s Half” rums and the “Clear”, and he was certainly doing his best to attend the various rum and whisky expos in order to build awareness and find potential distributors.

Mr. Takeuchi also sees that the process of building a brand name is one that will take years, if not decades, and intends to make this a family operation spanning the generations. It’s not something to be hurried, and since ageing of spirits is intimately involved, having a timeline of years is perhaps not so unusual.

You kind of have to admire that kind of persistence and determination in a man who not too long ago was making machine parts for cars.

***

So here’s an opinion (as opposed to the more straightforward facts above).

I thought his rums were atypical.  They were clearly young, but quite well made for all that. There was a certain clarity and cleanliness to the taste reminiscent of the agricoles, yet some of the slightly darker notes coming from the residual molasses notes in the brown sugar. I considered the French Oak rum slightly better than the American oak version, and the Clear reminded me somewhat of Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still rum…not quite as good, but not too far behind it either (they are both recognizably pot still products, for example).  My opinion aside, it bears mention that the “Clear” won an award for “Innovation de l’année” in Paris in 2014 for the silver category and the American Oak won “Best Newcomer” at the 2014 Berlin Rumfest. The difference in Nine Leaves’ products to this point seems to be that western/Caribbean rums, aside from being aged longer, have many things going on all at the same time, often in a kind of zen harmony, while  Nine Leaves’s philosophy is more to accentuate individual notes, a sort of central core dominant, supported by lighter, subtler tastes that don’t detract or distract from the central note of character.  Of course as these rums age for longer periods, I fully expect to see the profile evolve: but there was no denying that at the time I was quite impressed with the first batch (and said so, in my review of the French Oak, even if I had my qualifiers).

Also…

The Nine Leaves logo (also source of the company title) is a modified samurai crest (“kamon”) of the Takeuchi family…nine bamboo leaves.  It is no coincidence that “Take” in Japanese means ‘bamboo’. As a student of history, I’d love to know how that all came about. In an interview with AboutDrinks website in 2014, Mr. Takeuchi noted his family was once involved in the timber/wood industry.  If this was bamboo, the question is answered.

And…

I am indebted to Stefan van Eycken of nonjatta.com, whose five part series on Nine Leaves I drew on for many of the points regarding distillation technique.  Hat tip and acknowledgement to Niko Neefs for permission to use some of his photographs.

Arigato to Mr. Takeuchi himself, who patiently endured my pestering questions for half an hour straight even as my wife was trying to drag me away.  And then responded to more questions by email.

Below is a current list of products issued by Nine Leaves.

 

 

Sources: