Jul 192020
 

Introduction

One of the rum-producing countries about which we don’t know enough is India, home of companies like Rhea, Amrut, Radico Khaitan, Krimpi, Tilaknagar, McDowell’s (part of Diageo) and the subject of today’s biography, Mohan Meakin. Originally it was to form part of the review of their Old Monk Supreme XXX Vatted Rum, but when I delved into the weeds, the “tale grew in the telling” until it was clear that it deserved a full treatment by itself.

The Founders and Early Years

The company that eventually became Mohan Meakin was founded by a Scottish businessman named Edward Abraham Dyer. He was the son of a British officer, John Dyer, who served in the East India Company’s Naval Service (and whose father in turn had served in the Royal Navy in the 18th century) and had lived in India from around the 1820s. Edward Dyer, born in Bengal (c.1830), was educated in England as an engineer but did not seem to want to pursue a military career and returned to India around 1850 (or earlier, there’s some confusion here).  With his brother John he determined to use his family money to open a brewery, as to this point beer could only come to India around the Cape of Good Hope and this made it prohibitively expensive. One attempt to brew had been made in a hamlet called Kasauli south of Shimla in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh, but it had failed in the 1840s. 

Kasauli Brewery. Photo (c) Havinder Chandigarh

Kasauli became a cantonment and hill station of the British East India Company in 1845 (India had not yet been taken over by the British Crown), and Dyer set up his initial beer brewery there, Asia’s first. He chose the site because it was the location of the previous failed attempt, was similar in climate to his Scottish homeland, had a good supply of pure springwater, and (perhaps more importantly) a ready supply of British “John Company” troops and civilians in Shimla and elsewhere in the Punjab. His intention was initially to make beer, but expanded that idea to ale and whisky as well.  He brought brewing and distilling equipment (including pot stills, some of which are still in use today) from Britain by steamer, ship and ox carts, up the Ganges and to Shimla, thence to Kasauli; once set up, he began making whisky, India Pale Ale, and Lion beer, the latter also being a first in all Asia.

As Kasauli began using most of the springwater to supply its growing population, the brewery was dismantled and moved to Solan, 10km to the east, further downhill and closer to both the railhead and better water supply, while leaving the distillery in place, and both distillery and brewery remain operational to the current time. At the inception the brewery/distillery had simply been named the Kasauli Brewery. However, after the British East India Company annexed the Punjab in 1849 (this highanded action was part of what led to the 1857 mutiny) and British law extended to it, including company law, Dyer incorporated the company as Dyer Breweries Limited in 1855 which is the date seen on MM’s logo to this day, though the exact date of the company’s true operational inception remains somewhat unclear…it’s very likely earlier (sources conflict – see other notes, below).

Original Pot stills used for making whisky (c) smacindia.com

The distillery initially made the well regarded malt whisky called “Solan No. 1” which took the name of the nearby town to which the brewery subsequently relocated, and this remained the best selling Indian whisky until the 1980s when new rivals toppled it.  The ale and beer and whisky made by Dyer’s were so popular that he was able to expand rapidly.  In the following decades, to add to the ones at Kasauli and Solan, he established breweries and distilleries at Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh),  Mandalay in Burma (now Myanmar), Murree, Rawalpindi and Quetta (in Pakistan –  where Murree Brewery remains that country’s largest and oldest manufacturer of alcoholic products and is now a public company); and interests in yet more companies in southern India and Ceylon.


As a not-entirely-irrelevant aside, the Dyers were considered second class British at best, commercial creatures, being as they were “box-wallahs” (“in the trade” – both terms were ones of condescension and contempt) and not either Government or military — and this was looked down upon in the caste-ridden British society of the day. Unsurprisingly this would have led them in turn to denigrate all Indians as their inferiors, an attitude strengthened by the fear engendered by the Rising (aka the Mutiny) of 1857. Indians were considered beneath notice, whether servants, employees or independent suppliers of sugar cane, like the ancestors of Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits, who, according to family legend, supplied the brewery when it started to make rum.  And this in turn undoubtedly influenced the mentality of General Reginald Dyer, Edward’s son, who earned for himself the sobriquet of “The Butcher of Amritsar” for having his soldiers fire into an unarmed crowd in 1919.  This was considered a fatal blow to British rule in India and led to both independence in 1947, and  the takeover of the company in 1949 by Indians, as well as the emigration of many Indians like the Singhs’ parents, to Britain.


While the Dyer name contained within the original company title has vanished (see below), the other half has proved more durable, and lasted to the present day.  Unfortunately, considerably less is recorded or known about H.G. Meakin as a person (including what the “H.G” actually stands for) than about Edward Dyer, in spite of his achievements being as great.

In origins, it is recorded that Meakin came from a successful brewing family in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, which is quite an interesting place in its own right.  It has a long history of beer making and many small breweries there going back centuries, with the Meakin name traceable as far back as 1726 when they were brewers and victuallers, in which line of business they continued until Charrington bought them out in 1872 … after which the trail gets chilly. The problem is, H.G. Meakin is not referenced anywhere, and even the Lewis Meakin genealogy from the early 1800s lists no direct relative with the initials H.G. Yet the Mohan Meakin website and other sources state that he came from Burton-on-Trent, was related to the Meakins and had brewery training as a result of these connections. 

Burton-Upon-Trent in 1905. The Charrington Abbey Brewery at right was taken over from the Meakins in 1872 (© The History Press; David Smith Collection).

When he came to India, or what precisely he did when he got there, is another annoying mystery — the earliest reference to the company is an arrangement by the Bengal Government who were dealing with Meakin’s brewery for twelve years prior to 1884 when Meakin was already in “Kusowlie” (see image clipping below).

(Click to enlarge)

So by 1872 Meakin was there, and certainly by 1887 he must have been quite successful (or had gotten money via the family), because he had the financial resources to buy the Kasauli and Solan breweries from Dyer, who was seeking to expand elsewhere. If we assume Meakin was around 30-35 at this time – hustle and bustle in the business world attend to youth more than old age, especially in colonial India –  then he was likely born in the 1840s and came to the subcontinent by the late 1860s / early 1870s. Over the next thirty years, Meakin bought or begun other spirits enterprises in Ranikhet, Dalhousie, Chakrata, Darjeeling, Kirkee and Nuwara Eliya (in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), creating an arc of production centres (mostly) in the northern highlands that spanned the entire subcontinent. Unsurprisingly, both Dyer’s and Meakin’s enterprises were established mostly in the cantonment towns where there were large numbers of British soldiers and Government officials who were in need of refreshment.

Distribution of Dyer’s and Meakin’s various distilleries and breweries prior to merging

The two businesses ostensibly went their separate ways after their commercial transaction in 1887, but the First World War was beneficial to both since their sales of beer and spirits rose significantly (aside from increased local sales in India, beer and malted barley were sent to Egypt for the armed forces and civilians there), and there is some indication of cooperation between them at this time. It is easy, therefore, to imagine the Dyers (not Edward – he had probably passed away by this time) and the Meakins getting together to discuss a combined future, and in the 1920s they established a joint venture called Dyer Meakin & Co. Ltd – clearly the darkness of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by Edward’s son Reginald, had not extended far enough to besmirch the Dyer name or cause it to be discreetly retired from the company masthead.

A consequence of this joint venture was that operations were restructured: brewing was suspended at Kasauli while upgraded, modernized and extended at Solan, and extensive malting continued at Kasauli.  As the years moved on, modernization permitted increased production with the latest machinery and apparatus, and some of the unprofitable brewing centres were shuttered, with Solan, Kasauli and Lucknow being greatly expanded. Also, in April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain, and operations there had to be separated from those of India for tax and administrative reasons. The Joint Venture at this point was retired and became a merged public company which was renamed with a complete lack of originality, to Dyer Meakin Breweries Ltd and this was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

The writing was, however, on the wall for Empire, which was now on its last legs. The Great War had drained Britain of an entire generation of young men, and nearly bankrupted it.  The next war finished the job and part of the conditions for American help during WW2 was for Britain to relinquish its empire and move the colonies towards self-government and independence, a task that was accomplished, but bloodily, and with great loss of life – especially in India and the disaster that was Partition.

Indian Ownership: Post-Independence

I am unclear what economic restrictions attended to Britons who owned property and businesses in India at Independence in 1947, but most of my reading suggests wholesale expropriation was not on the cards and British businesses were allowed to continue much as before.  Nevertheless, it could not have been easy for such companies to function in a “we got ours now” environment where thousands of British families had already returned “home,” and where a fierce nationalism and dislike of all things colonial pervaded the business and professional atmosphere.

It is likely for this reason, and perhaps also other subtle (and not so subtle) pressures brought to bear, that those family members of Meakins and Dyers remaining with the company, decided to dispose of their interest, and when a Brahmin ex-employee Narendra Nath Mohan raised appropriate funds and came to London in 1948, they made a deal to sell their shares (no further details available) and Mohan took ownership in 1949. The modern era of Mohan Meakin dates from this point, yet, interestingly, the name did not change and it remained Dyer Meakin Breweries for another seventeen years and the company did not diversify its alcoholic production into other areas for another five.

NN Mohan built new breweries in Lucknow, Khopoli (near Mumbai) and Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh). In the decades that followed, he created a sort of industrial hub in Ghaziabad for what would be a conglomerate, and expanded into other (sometimes self reinforcing) lines of businesses – brewery, distillery, malt house, glass factory, an ice factory and engineering works. Clearly, the man had great vision for the future and did not intend to stay with just what he had bought.

However, up to that point, the products made by the company remained what they always had been – whisky and beer.  These were popular – Lion and Golden Eagle beers remained the most widely sold in India, with Solan No.1 doing the honours for whisky – but that was it. In the early 1950s, in an effort to diversify, NN and one of his three sons, Ved Ratan Mohan (“VR”), came up with what would become one of their signature, flagship brands, the Old Monk rum. VR, 26 at the time, wanted to channel inspiration he had taken from Benedictine monks in Europe, as well as to take on the Hercules rum sold exclusively to the armed forces (he retired a Colonel himself). 

With his father, he created the blend of rums aged (oak-vats) for seven years (it is unclear where the initial stock originated, one of many such unknowns that were okay then but certainly not now) and infused with undisclosed spices (another aspect never mentioned). Initially the idea was standard barroom bottles but VR liked the crinkled squat Old Parr whisky bottles and appropriated their design, later settling a court case with Old Parr to allow them (MM) to keep the transparent variation.

The Old Monk rum was at first released in December 1954, and issued in limited quantities to the armed forces, where it shattered class barriers that heretofore had relegated rum to a jawan’s drink, not that of the officer class. By also positioning Old Monk as a more exclusive and upper class rum (especially by ensuring its availability in 5-star hotels), it became such a hit that distribution was expanded to the whole country, and it remained the best selling, most popular rum in India for the next fifty years, with other variations being added over the time.  


The question of who exactly the Old Monk was, remains a matter of some conjecture and there are three stories [1] it’s a stylized Benedictine monk such as originally inspired V.R. Mohan [2] it represents one of the founders of the old house, H.G. Meakin himself, and is an homage to his influence, and [3] it represents a British monk who used to hang around the factory where the rums were made and aged, shadowing the master blender – his advice was so good that when Old Monk was first launched the name and bottle were based on him (this of course implies that aged rum was being made and sold by the company for years before 1954, but I simply have no proof of this and so cannot state it with assurance).


The company gradually expanded its repertoire of spirits, and while years of introduction are not known, the Solan No.1 brand has been joined by whiskies like Diplomat Deluxe, Colonel’s Special, Black Knight and Summer Hall. In keeping with many diversified companies, they also developed  locally made gins like Big Ben and London Dry and Kaplanski vodka (implying a multi-column still had been put into operation) and an ever-expanding line of Old Monk series of rums. 

The company itself, however, did not remain Dyer Meakin.  The story goes that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to visit the brewery while touring Shimla in 1960 – when asked, he gave the predictable answer of it bearing the name of General Reginal Dyer with all its tragic and negative  associations.  It took another six years, but in 1966 it was renamed Moham Meakin Breweries, and in 1980, by now a conglomerate of some note, it was renamed again, to Mohan Meakin Ltd, and was subsequently listed on the Calcutta Stock Exchange, where it remains to this day. 

The Modern Era of Ved Rattan Mohan and Kapil Mohan

Col. Ved Rattan Mohan

Management also changed.  In 1969 Narendra Nath Mohan passed away, and his enterprising son Colonel Ved Rattan, took over. He was quite a character, apparently: a flamboyant bon vivant, he was an MP, mayor of Lucknow, chairman of Censor Board of Film Certification and even a favourite of Mrs Indira Gandhi — and parties held at his home were equally likely to be attended by Bollywood stars as by politicians. However, he had little time to make a mark on the company, as in 1973 he died at the young age of 45, and he had had just enough time to initiate the diversification of the companies into other food and beverage areas like cereals, fruit juices and mineral waters, which his successors would nurture and develop.

This put the management of the company in the hands of the second brother, Brigadier General Kapil Mohan, who at the time was heading up the marketing and distribution arm of the company, Trade Links. He was to lead Mohan Meakin for the next 42 years, until 2015 (he died in early 2018). He expanded the company’s liquor business, following from his brother’s innovations in other lines of F&B and led the company into the new century – albeit with mixed results.

Although a teetotaller himself, he ensured the vatted 7 YO Old Monk’s success by adding to the range, introducing a Deluxe XXX Rum, Gold Reserve, the Supreme XXX Rum, a white rum and Old Monk XXX Rum which I suppose is some low level standard that’s even cheaper than all the others. The brand of Old Monk rum went on to become a best selling rum, not just in India, but abroad.  In the Indian Diaspora it was not unknown to have visiting friends be asked to bring a bottle over, as older folks recalled their first sips in college back in the day. 

What was surprising that until very recently, the company did not advertise at all, claiming that they had no spare cash to waste and word of mouth would make it sell.  That may be true, although the innate conservatism of the country (which did not even allow kissing onscreen in its movies until very recently) and what it allows into advertising media surely played its part.  Alcohol and cigarettes are currently not allowed on TV commercials, for example.  Still,  even with those restrictions at that time, the army remained a loyal bulk purchaser and their influence on the entire society made the affordable Old Monk rums to be continual and enormous sellers.  The expanding line of alcohols and the cheap beers the company made did the rest.

The New Century – Threats, Opportunities, Declines

This could not, however, continue. India was slowly opening up to world trade after failure of the planned socialist economy of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It had flirted with Prohibition in the 1960s but it was soon lifted (alcohol remains illegal in a few places), and now other competitors were not only being allowed into the Indian market, but were springing up home grown. To this was added the increase in energy prices and export fees within India, which squeezed margins for the company.  

Old Monk was the market leader until about 2002 — not just in the rum field (which it comfortably dominated to that point) but the entire branded spirits market in the whole country, including whisky.  And that included the other large spirit combine (United Spirits) whisky named Bagpiper.  Even McDowell’s “Celebration” rum sold barely 50% of what Monk moved and in India the Monk was almost an icon of the local drinking scene, a rite of drunken passage for young college grads, the way Bacardi or the Kraken is in other places now. 

By the mid 2000s the decline in the fortunes of the company’s flagship products was getting attention, some of which commentators and insiders laid at the feet of  Kapil “Dad” and his no-advertising policy and his martial, regimented approach to innovation and development, which was ill suited to less restrictive and less traditional newcomers who played by faster and more innovative rules. Because, unlike Mohan Meakin, other domestic firms moved fast: United Spirits, Radico Khaitan, Allied Blender’s and Distillers, Tilak Nagar Industries, Khoday’s, Amrut Distilleries, John Distilleries, Simbhaoli Sugars, Empee Distilleries, Jagatjit Industries…they all added sparkle and pizzazz, new products, splashy marketing strategies, aggressive promotion, and they started to sell much better.  The combination of canny advertising and clever market moves made McDowell’s Celebration move ahead — by 2011 it sold almost four times as much as Old Monk, in 2014 seven times as many units (15 million cases to 2). 

Perhaps the Brigadier’s confidence originally had some foundation – Old Monk was not just a local seller (however much in decline) but an international favourite that actually outsold Bacardi in some places. But that didn’t matter because the finances of the company started to show losses between 2005-2015, the same period during which Old Monk’s share of the Indian rum market fell from 15% to 5%. There were brief lurches into profit as MM divested land and other assets but overall no significant moves were made to revamp the lineup or change the business strategy or allow advertising on a level other companies were doing (“We do not advertise. I will not, and as long as I am in this chair, we will not,” huffed the 84-year-old Mohan in 2012, believing then as before, that a good product is its own advertisement). 

And the hits just kept on coming:

Mohan Meakin suffered the shutdown of the Lucknow brewery and distillery almost overnight in 2009 (caused by Wave Distilleries’ Ponty Chada getting a near monopoly of the liquor business in what can only be described as an underhand political deal – clearly India has nothing to learn from Barbados when it comes to cutthroat business practices and skullduggery); Tamil Nadu’s state took over all liquor procurement and sales (which all but removed Old Monk from state shelves for years in one of the most resolutely rum-drinking markets in India); perhaps worse, Indians were drinking less rum and switching to whisky as the move towards premiumization began; and to add insult to injury, the Indian Army, long a bastion of the company’s sales, actually seemed to be buying more Contessa rum from rival Radico Khaitan, than Old Monk.

Also, unlike United Spirits who made McDowell’s (and which was taken over by Diageo in 2013-2014), Mohan Meakin adamantly refused to countenance any strategic partnership, let alone a sale, though it had been approached for its beer business by both Budweiser and Carlsberg, and even scuttled talks of a takeover by SABMiller in 2006 by insisting any lease (and not an outright sale) be for ten years, which of course was as good as saying “not interested”.  The fact that some 66% of equity was held by the family in 2012 surely made such decisions easier, but no less problematic or short-sighted in the absence of a clear plan for revitalizing the firm’s fortunes. It comes as no surprise that even loyal employees of the company sniffed disparagingly in 2016 that the management was a bunch of old farts (at the time some members of the board were well into their eighties) out of touch with a much different and fast-moving world where predators were always circling and there was no longer any insulation from foreign competition such as had permitted their initial growth.

Brigadier Kapil Mohan retired in 2015 due to ill health (he kept on contributing in a consulting capacity), and the reins were passed to a new generation, the third, exemplified by Vinay and Hemant Mohan, his nephews.  They learned from the beginning of their employment with the company in the early 1990s that they had to start at the bottom and learn each part of the large and complex organization they might one day manage. 

Left to Right: Hemant Mohan, Brigadier Kapil Mohan, Vinay Mohan (c 2000s)

Hemant took over as Managing Director of the company (he has been working in MM since 1991), and tried to address the enormous problems he had inherited, with Vinay on the board as a director lending support. In 2015 MM began to issue a premium variety of Old Monk (this was either the 12 YO in the bottle shaped like a figurine, or perhaps the Legend) with some success, but in a cost cutting move that annoyed many loyal buyers who prized their personal relationships with the company’s sales representatives, they outsourced distribution to a third party who had no such feel for old and valued clients. However, that aside, there were signs of improvement: new product launches, rebranding, more aggressive marketing, a drive to premiumisation with Old Monk Gold Reserve, Old Monk Supreme and some limited edition bottlings – all these helped bolster sales to more than five million cases in 2017 after touching an all-time low of 3.5 million cases just a few years prior. 

By the mid-teens the company had settled some of the earlier issues referred to above and in a 2016 interview, Vinay Mohan said that loss making entities like the glass factory had been shut down, Tamil Nadu had been “sorted” and markets in Bengal and Maharashtra were showing good growth. He dismissed any notions of the company going under or Old Monk being discontinued or sold, and glossed over distribution problems that continued to plague the company; and in the following years the company put out many statements where they flatly said they would never discontinue Old Monk unless the entire company went belly-up. Well, okay.  Certainly some of the cost cutting had its intended effect, for while operating income grew sluggishly in the three years to 2017, net profit doubled and debt declined 40%.

The future is cautiously optimistic, and only time will tell whether they can weather the storm.  They are fighting a battle on many fronts: aggressive competition from huge multinational spirits conglomerates boasting many renowned brands of their own; first-mover advantages they squandered by the many missed opportunities foregone as the markets opened; increased drive to premiumisation and an ever-more-crowded marketplace for really good rums, in which Old Monk is not regarded as a top tier product by anyone outside India and served to a population that has been blinded by the elegance-factor of high end whiskies.

The Old Monk Line (not complete)

On the flip side, Old Monk is an international brand and does have devoted fans — one such formed a group called COMRADE (the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics); also, the widely scattered diaspora remembers it fondly, and the army continues to be a supporter – but the new generation of company management intends to expand beyond these notions of half-remembered and faded old glory. They want to recapture their lost market share by targeting different audiences (primarily young adults and the new middle class), with more limited edition releases, different blends and even tap into the ready-to-drink “instant cocktails,” flavoured editions and infused white rums – and that extends beyond rum, and to their whisky and vodka brands as well.  

If they can diversify into more export markets while retaining those markets they already have, expand into other price point products and fix their distribution problems within Asia generally and India in particular, then it’s likely they will do just fine.  And then India will continue to be represented well in the category, perhaps by a rum that won’t be just another vanilla-infused has-been from decades ago, but a true and pure rum that will take its place with all the other good ones so many people from around the world are enjoying right now.


Brief Timeline of the Company

  • 1855 Dyer’s is registered as a limited liability company
  • 1884 Dyer’s Murree Brewery of Punjab acquires Ceylon Brewery
  • 1887 Meakin Breweries bought Solan and Kasauli operations from Dyer
  • 1920s Joint Venture with Dyer and Meakin’s operations
  • 1937 Full merger of both businesses to form Dyer Meakin Breweries Ltd.
  • 1949 – Narendra Nath Mohan takes control of Mohan Meakin
  • 1954 Colonel Ved Rattan Mohan (1928-1973) creates the Old Monk brand with his father 
  • 1966 Dyer Meakin renamed Mohan Meakin
  • 1967 Mysore Fruit Products becomes a subsidiary
  • 1969 VR Mohan takes over Mohan Meakin
  • 1973 Brigadier Kapil Mohan (VR’s younger brother)takes over MM after VR dies.
  • 1975 Glass factory opened in Fiji
  • 1978 Another distillery opened in Bhutan
  • 1980 Company name changes to Mohan Meakin Ltd. Experiments with carbonated sodas
  • 1982 Expansion into the USA
  • 1983 Brewery set up in Chennai
  • 1986 Decline in profits as energy prices rise
  • 1990 Hemant Mohan joins company (son of Sukhdev Mohanr)
  • 1994 Vinay Mohan joins company (son of Sukhdev Mohan)
  • 1995 Highland Queen and Grand Reserve whisky brands launched
  • 2015 Hemant Mohan takes over as MD as Brigadier retires for health reasons
  • 2018 Brigadier Mohan dies at 88 (reported 6 Jan 2018). Hemant Mohan becomes CEO

Other Notes

  1. Some sources say Edward Dyer was in India from as far back as the 1820s but this conflicts with more formal published accounts which say he returned in 1850.  The date of the first brewing and distilling operation is similarly problematic, some saying 1850 or so, others saying earlier.  The stories can be somewhat reconciled if we accept that Dyer’s father or someone known to him was the man who set up that first brewery which failed in 1840, and then Edward Dyer, armed with that knowledge, came back with modern equipment in 1850 to begin the new distillery and brewery. This article is the only one I’ve seen suggesting such an interpretation but it in turn conflicts with other accounts which give Dyer’s date of birth as 1831.
  2. There is a story that Rocky Mohan (Ved Rattan Mohan’s son), who is retired from the company, sold the Lucknow distillery to Ponty Chada, the man who engineered the monopoly for Wave Distilleries in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, but this is not reported elsewhere.

 


Sources

 

Apr 012020
 

Introduction

If ever there was a hook, a cachet, a point of distinctiveness, something that set apart an independent bottler’s rums from the crowd of baying pretenders, surely the SMWS has nailed it. Here is a bottler of primarily whiskies, that does no advertising, issues barely any rums, and yet whose rum-cred can be said to be up there with any of the Big Names. And this is in spite of their relative obscurity and rarity, and their cost. Their rums are never available on supermarket racks, only on the shelves of its own Members’ Rooms, its partners or online — plus, you have to be a member to get one, and pay for the privilege then too.  Quality-wise, I can’t speak to their whiskies, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the rums are on a level with the mastodons of our world – but their reputation even so is nothing to sneeze at.

That reputation rests partly on the distinctiveness of the tall green bottles which embrace the various rums – in my experience only Velier has anything near to this kind of  presentation and then only with the main lines of the Habitations, the Demeraras and the Caronis. Then there is the Society’s marketing masterstroke of never saying which distillery produced the liquid inside, just a number, which drives newbs into transports of ecstatic confusion as they dive in to the lore of the Society and start to do their research.  And lastly, perhaps most tellingly, are their bottle labels, which have not only gotten more informative (within the limits of the distillery obscuration noted above) – but also more amusing. I challenge anyone to tell me what some of their evocative titles mean, and yet, who can blame them for such a method to their madness? For, once seen and laughed at – or even agreed with – who could possibly forget?

That said, for an independent bottler as renowned as the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society (hereinafter referred to as the SMWS, or the “Society”), it is peculiar how little is known about it in the rum world. Oh, whisky fans certainly know of it, and I have several friends in the rumisphere who are members, but general rumfolks?  Less. And yet, it’s not an old and proud production house dating back from the quiet halcyon days of Before, from the days of Scottish bottlers of the 1950s, or Italians in the 1960s or the rum torpor of the 1970s when Bacardi ruled all with a light-rum mailed fist. It was formed, quietly and without fuss, in 1983 and based on many of the same desires and reasons that inform the modern marketplace for indies.

Beginnings

Phillip “Pip” Hills (c) SMWS

As with many such organizations we have covered in the Makers series, the Society began as an idea in the mind of one man, Phillip “Pip” Hills, a tax consultant. Raised in Grangemouth close by Falkirk, he grew up knowing pretty much only blended whisky, which he didn’t really care for. This was in the 1970s, at which point scotch whisky was in the same doldrums as persisted in rum until the mid 2000s – blends were everything, cask strength the exception, and each brand went for long term taste stability.  Fortunately for his taste buds, two of his friends had a farm way up north, next to a gentleman who would on occasion buy quarter casks of Glenfarclas from George Grant, and passed samples (supposedly filtered through a towel, goes one – disputed – anecdote) around generously — and those tastes from the cask that Hills tried were so entrancing for him and his own friends with whom he shared it (or to whom he spoke to about it), that they pooled their resources, and had him get in touch with Grant. He was lucky enough to fill in the spot of one of their “regulars” who had had the misfortune to pass way without passing on his annual cask allocation, and managed to buy that quarter cask for £2,500.

Clearly those people who came together in Edinburgh to get their share of that first cask didn’t stay silent, because subsequently, complete strangers would stop Hills and ask him to participate in his next purchase. This was sufficient for him to go back to Grants for two more casks, and the network effect of the participants over the next years was sufficiently strong for Hills to realize he was onto something. He felt that these whiskies were way better than the bottled blends, and if this expanding group of middle-class professional folks which comprised the buying circle – the syndicate – were turning into such aficionados, then perhaps selling single cask bottles on a more formal, paying basis was a good idea.  

To do that he required an entry into the commercial whisky world, and as luck would have it, a fellow climbing enthusiast introduced him to Russel Sharp, also a climber, who at the time was head chemist at Chivas, responsible for quality. Sharp gave him a primer on the difference of the cask whiskies from bottled fare, and remarked that even if he (Hills) were to try doing this kind of semi-private bottling, legal issues such as trademarks would prevent him from using distilleries’ names on the labels. Though, he didn’t feel there was a market for it, as did all other contacts within the “regular” whisky world with whom Hills later got in touch. 

Photo (c) OldLeith.com – The Vaults, when JG Thompson owned it.

The syndicate — including Hills, actor Russel Hunter, contractor David Alison, playwright W Gordon Smith and architect Ben Tindall — was incorporated into the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ltd in 1983, with Gordon Smith, who wanted the position, installed as Chairman of the Board, even though Hills made it clear it was a co-operative sort of undertaking since all had equal shares. The Society had the mixed blessing of being able to buy the premises of J.G. Thomson (a wine merchant) called “The Vaults” which were to be vacated as Thomson moved to Glasgow (the top two floors were condemned).  It was acquired by contributions from these members of the syndicate, but as it required major repairs and upgrades, by the time restoration was done they had all lost their investment – however, by then the Society was doing very well via its membership dues and bottle sales, so it’s a fair bet nobody lost their shirts, and the SMWS continues to operate from that base to this day (note: for further background reading on the The Vaults, see here; and for JG Thompson’s history, here.)

Having premises, a registered society, members and a mandate, Hills now required product, and went around to the distillers of the day to source casks for the Society releases. This was a time when many distilleries – Port Ellen, Glenugie, St. Magdalene and Brora are some examples – were closing and others were in dire financial straits, so there was no shortage of excellent casks to chose from. But he also found, not entirely surprisingly, that operating distillers at that time saw themselves as only expert selectors, suppliers of quality ingredients to make trademarked blends of consistent profile, rather than individualized whiskies with their own special distinctiveness and quality — which is very similar to the way Caribbean rum makers, until very recently, rarely saw their own rums as unique, or their estates’ production as selling points, in their own right. This then allowed Hills to go around and buy casks which did not match the profiles for the blends the distilleries participated in, did not know how to market, and wanted to get rid of.  And, perhaps as important, to get them for reasonable prices based on liters of pure alcohol per year aged, not in any way related to the cask, its type or provenance, or the quality of the whisky itself (a situation which would seem utterly insane today, for any quality spirit).

Release 1.1 with handwritten details by P. Hills

Product in hand — 1.1, the first one, was a Glenfarclas 1975 8 YO sherry cask and there were also 2.1 (a Speysider) and 3.1 (an Islay) — bottling came next. Fortunately, there was a small bottling plant in Commercial Street (a few corners away) which agreed to do the necessaries. It was decided to preserve an old fashioned, antique ethos to the appearance, and so green bottles were selected (these were common in the 1950s but being phased out by the time the Society was formed, and so also available at a much more reasonable cost). All four of the initial outturns were provided, then, in March of 1983; regular expressions were planned to be released monthly thereafter, and that has been going on almost without interruption ever since.

Hills and the first members were prepared to market the enterprise, figuring the quality of what the Society was offering in exchange for membership would more than speak for itself – but as it turned out, he got help: one of his business partners knew the food and wine correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper and it was suggested that a whisky tasting be organized for him and his journalist friends (although the focus of their writing, for the most part, had been wine). Hills mentions this tasting with fondness as a seminal event, possibly the first of its kind, and certainly Mr. Wilson wrote a sterling encomium of the drams he had tried, not just after that first tasting in 1984, but again a year later. I do not doubt that the word of mouth engendered by those well-connected media personages, and Wilson’s pair of articles, must have more than paid for the cost of the tastings.

 

That first session turned out to be such a success that the format was copied for the initial get together of the Tasting Committee, held in the kitchen of Hills’s house in Edinburgh, and he rather ruefully admits that it was a “motley bunch”. On paper, there was nothing wrong about getting together a set of people who worked with words and knew whisky – the committee included a historian, a professor of Celtic Studies, a professor from LSE among others – but the vocabulary simply wasn’t there (that took time to be developed – another similarity this story shares with rums) and so the quirky characteristic of the Society, that of metaphorical descriptions, was born that evening. That said, in the years that followed, Hills often wrote his own tasting notes, and the insouciant descriptions of all their bottlings has continued down to the present time, becoming part of both the lore and the cachet of the SMWS. And when you’ve got a wordsmith of the stature of David Mamet confessing that these descriptors gave him a bigger kick than the whisky…well, then you know you have something there.

Growth

Unsurprisingly, there were problems. One of the first was alluded to before and was an issue right from the start: distilleries refused to give permission to use their names, fearing trademark infringement and the dilution of their own brand by some fly-by-night cut-rate newbie on the scene who would sell substandard whisky and make them look bad.  We see the same thing today with Rum Nation or That Boutique-y Rum Co. and the Compagnie des Indes, who occasionally chuck a “Secret Distillery” moniker on their labels (even though we all know it’s Heisenberg distillate, ha ha). That’s where the concept of numbering came into play – each distillery was assigned a number and as more casks from the same distillery were bought, a period separator provided the detail.  So, when one drinks from a bottle numbered 111.3 (assuming it’s available), then that’s a Lagavulin, and their third cask purchase. Inevitably, it was a great marketing tactic as well, and it even became something of an underground mark of erudition to know which was which, and what the numbers meant, and that too became something of a trademark of the Society, redounding to their benefit.

An early meeting of the Tasting Committee (c) SMWS

Another issue was one that afflicts many fast growing enterprises: the inability of management to keep things under control, easier in a smaller concern than the sort of large operation the SMWS was rapidly becoming. Initially, as was natural, everyone knew everyone else and there was a familial, almost clubby atmosphere to the whole thing – the “fun” that was so important to Hills. This became impossible as membership grew. A year after 1.1 was released, the society already had well over 500 members and was bottling from Distillery #10.  By the end of 1984 this was up to #16, and 1000 members – and the 10,000th member was signed up a mere four years later, by which time the distilleries number over fifty.

The Board composition changed – Smith ended up resigning after a couple of years as his management style clashed with the other members, to be replaced by Mr. John Lamotte who was no more successful: like his predecessor, he was more into social advancement and a staid, stuffy gentleman’s club style, rather than simply letting things be as a gathering of cheerfully like-minded friends and irreverent aficionados. Hills, seeing that if his own vision was to prevail, finally took over the Chairmanship in the late 1980s, and stayed there until 1995.

Aside from his ideas about the social raison-d’être of the Society, two aspects of his tenure were, for him, non-negotiable. One was that of releasing blended whiskies of their own, which he refused (at the time) to countenance. “There was an element on the Board which just wanted it to make money and provide them with a place in Scotland’s dull whisky establishment,” Hill wrote to me in 2020, with just a twinge of remembered impatience. “I opposed both blended whiskies and vatted malts on the grounds that […] it would have diluted the Society’s message – which in those days was much harder for folk to grasp, since nobody else had done what we were doing.”

Label and bottle designs remained relatively consistent from 1983-2006

Another inviolable rule of the Society which Hills refused to budge on was the advertising, which to him meant – none. He fought many battles with the Board to prevent it…but that did not preclude canny publicity-seeking and brilliant PR, such as the previously noted tasting with journalists. Another coup of this kind was cold-calling Jancis Robinson, a notoriously unimpressible wine writer for the Sunday Times Magazine who finally agreed to meet him, perhaps to just shut him up – he flew to London with five whiskies in a suitcase and she must have really liked what she drank, enough to write a full Sunday feature. In the years that followed, he took author and journalist Paul Levy on a tour of the Speyside distilleries (in a vintage 1937 diesel Lagonda no less) for a spread in the Wall Street Journal; and there was that five-page article in Playboy by David Mamet, among others. 

All these efforts raised the profile of the Society and membership not only rocketed up (10k by 1988, remember) but expanded beyond the UK – the French, Japanese and US branches were begun in 1993, followed in the subsequent decades by Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Germany and many others – clearly, the formula was a winning one and had an enormously wide geographical spread.  I am unclear as to the exact financial and operational relationships such branches have with the mothership, but as Hills remarked, when the Society expanded into other countries, it raised costs. 

Sourcing and stocking barrels, bottling and mailing — the entire logistical foodchain — became harder as the whisky world changed around them. Hills stayed on but understood his creation had perhaps outstripped him and wasn’t as interesting as it had once been, and the price demanded by RBS in 1995, for additional funds to keep the organization afloat, was more responsible financial management (meaning, it was implied, “not you”) and a concomitant loss of control…he called it quits and resigned in August of that year. Since then he’s been writing and indulging his own interests, but emerged from a sort of self-imposed obscurity to be part of the SMWS’s 35th Anniversary celebrations in 2018 (he relates an anecdote about the doorman to The Vaults asking him for his membership ID but alas, neglects to say what the reaction was when he said it was Number 001).

Maturity

Even without him, however, the SMWS continued and went from strength to strength. They purchased two more venues in London (2000) and Edinburgh (2004), funded by a share scheme from members; Japanese whiskies were introduced for the first time in 2002 and, without Hills there to block it, the first vatted malt was released the following year. The biggest thing to hit the Society came in 2004: in a move that surprised many, the SMWS was acquired by (or sold to) Glenmorangie. The exact rationale was never stated outright, but it is likely that as it grew perhaps money became a more overriding concern and “fun” conclusively retreated. Glenmorangie allowed a larger selection of whiskies to be released, for one, and with LVMH (the parent company) having rather deeper pockets, some of the financial issues the company evidently continued to have, could be addressed.

What was the cause of these issues that might have precipitated the sale? Having to some extent created – or at least participated in – the modern renaissance of individualized single-cask Scotch whiskies released at full proof, they may have been overtaken by other independents, or distilleries themselves, who didn’t require membership to sell such products and priced them more cheaply. The expansion overseas was another factor, and the logistical difficulties of buying more whiskies to satisfy this demand was surely a third. 

What this pointed to was that the Society had become less a membership club than a true independent bottler of international scope. However, this required being nimble and agile in an increasingly competitive marketplace for single cask whiskies if one wanted to retain relevance. It is therefore probably no coincidence that the earlier “standard” green bottles were replaced by the first generation of uniquely-shaped now-iconic tall green ones in 2008, possibly in an effort to lend more pizzazz and originality to their outturns and distinguish them from others made by all the competitors (I can assure you, that succeeded). That same year “Unfiltered” magazine debuted.

New Bottles & Label Design in 2017 (c) SMWS

But by 2015 Glenmorangie had other things on its mind, and their own dedicated whisky brands they wanted to concentrate on, and so the SMWS was sold on again to a group of private investors, thirty in all, some of whom were Society members themselves. The return of members to the management had a number of immediate impacts: reassurance of the rank and file membership that corporate interests were not affecting the brand, and that members themselves were at the helm; a web presence; and, perhaps more importantly, a professional warehousing scheme – the society had become a stockist of some note and instead of simply buying already-aged casks they liked, partnered up with many of the distilleries and were able to buy new make spirit, put them in their own casks, practice rigorous wood management and in all ways expand their potential outturn (as an ancillary note, it would also require a very long term outlook for their maturing stocks). In 2017 they also did another redesign of the bottles – they kept the shape and colour but tinkered with the label, making them, again, a bit more bold and energetic.

Today’s Society

These changes did not come without a price.  Older members groused that the “brand” had become less than what it had been and recalled, as most will (and as Hills had) the good old days, that it was no longer fun, no longer that private, small, chummy and collegial atmosphere which had so characterized its first years. 

An older version of the logo

Also, many new and more sophisticated drinkers of whisky — who, like rummies, are now able to revel in a selection of product that a generation ago was both unthinkable and unavailable — complained about a drop in quality and an increase in prices, forgetting or ignoring how far whisky as a commercial drink had come in that generation. Some even grumbled (or at least remarked on) that the expansion of the Society into other spirits like armagnac, cognac, gin and (heaven forbid!!) rum has been emblematic of its loss of focus. 

By 2020, the SMWS was and remains the largest membership club for whiskies – or any spirits, for that matter – in the world. They boast some 28,000 members in 24 countries, release whisky bottlings from over 140 distilleries — and if the speed at which their current outturns sell out is any indication, then no matter how many people resign in protest or bitterly denounce their pricing and marketing strategies, there is no question in my mind that in their own way, they have changed the whisky world irrevocably with their green bottles, and have a legion of purchasers for just about every one of them. 

I should know – because while my own belief is that they spent years mucking about with that obscure Scottish tipple before coming to the True Faith of rum (did I say I was a wee bit biased? I might have), I’m a member also, and have not regretted it, if only because it allows me to lay hands on at least some of those fifty or so rums they’ve put out the door, and to write long historical essays like this one, as well as the reviews for the ones I’ve had.  And I have to admit, had a lot of fun doing it.

The Rums

Possibly the most significant change to their whisky-only ethos Phillip Hills had so long championed and defended, came just before, and during Glenmorangie’s tenure as the owners, and that was the expansion of the lineup to include not only rum, but cognac, rye, bourbon, gin and armagnac and (in a decision that probably caused him a sleepless night or two) blended malt whisky as of 2017. 

The first rums I can find any trace of were released as far back as 2001, and the strange thing is that nobody at the SMWS seems to be able to recall anything about them (other than that they existed). The Society has no online master list of everything they’ve ever issued (“I think your record keeping is much better than the Society’s!” noted Richard Goslan rather wryly, when looking at my own rum list) and photos and anecdotes are all I have.

The first rums – I believe these to be R1.1, R2.1 and R3.1

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised but they were from three Big Guns of rum: Jamaica (Monymusk), Barbados (WIRD) and Guyana (Port Mourant) – I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they were Releases R1.1 for the Monymusk, R2.1 for the Port Mourant and R3.1 for the WIRD, largely because, even though the bottles don’t look to be numbered, what else could they be?  (Note: Troyk890 on Reddit’s /r/rum comment to this post, suggested not, and gave reasons – he felt they may have been special editions) Nothing else preceded them and for many years nothing came after, until a Trinidadian bottling from Providence Estate (which is not Caroni) releases in 2006. Who pioneered the move within the Society, to deal with rum, is a mystery. The source of the casks is unknown. Rum Nation might have found a rum barrel or two mouldering in Scottish distilleries years ago and bought them, but that was an exceptional case, and those days are over – so most likely Scheer or some European broker was involved, which squares with the process most others independents go through.

In any event, the initial issues of rums in 2001 appear to be nothing more than essays in the craft, and excited probably zero interest, much as Velier’s initial offerings from the Age of their Demeraras did.  People just weren’t ready for them, and whisky lovers didn’t take rum seriously – it pains me to admit, but they had a point (back then, anyway).  Even Serge Valentin, that doyen of the crisply miniscule tasting note, only took note of rum in 2010 himself. So three rums from 2001, a couple from around 2006 and then dead silence until 2012 when eight rums were offered for sale.  I have no evidence that diversification and the desire for potential additional revenue streams were behind that decision – that was the year people started to pay rather more attention to rums, you might recall – but to me it seems reasonable, even if the effort died for another four years while Glenmorangie negotiated the sale and the boys in Scotland scratched their sporrans wondering what to do with that annoyingly non-specific but very tasty drink from the Caribbean.

All funning aside, 2016 was the year we can see rums really become a part of the SMWS pantheon. The amount of distilleries got expanded to ten, from all the traditional locales like Guyana, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Barbados.  One wonders why St. Lucia is not part of the lineup, or, for that matter anything from Antigua, Mauritius, Reunion, Japan, Asia or Australia, but we must accept that rum is a vanishingly small part of the SMWS’s knowledge base and they are, remember, primarily a whisky bottler.  I’m not saying we should be pulingly grateful, but maybe a shade understanding. They don’t have anyone like us working for them (yet).

A few of The Caner’s Collection of SMWS rums….

Anyway, as of 2020, there are some 51 rums in the master list (see below for my best effort), with more to come. There is no schedule for the Society, and remember, one has to be a member to buy them when they do come out. That membership fee might have only been £23 a year back in 1983 but it’s more now, plus the cost of the bottle itself – few new entrants into the rumworld are likely to spend that much money for something so erratically released, from a company whose specialty is not even rums. 

My own opinion is that there is great potential here for the Society if people ever get bored with its whiskies; and even the rarity of the rums gives them a certain reputation and elicits grumbles of thwarted desire. We need more, not less, and affordably priced, easily available.  If the SMWS ever went big time into this corner of the spirits worlds, I think there’s no telling how large that market for its rums would become or where it could end up. Although I have to admit, like with Mr. Hills, I started off by treating them as enormously enjoyable fun drinks, and wrote each of my initial reviews in that vein: if they were to become just like every other indie out there, some of that might conceivably be lost…and that’s even with the insouciant and enjoyable naming of their bottles, and those amusing tasting notes.


Sources


Other Notes

  • An article this long will invariably have some errors of omission, or inadvertent (hopefully minimal) factual inaccuracies – those are entirely my responsibility, and where pointed out, I’ll make corrections. 
  • I have focused most of this bio on the activities of Mr. Hills as a lynchpin, but that should not diminish the contributions of the many others who were involved in the Society — directly, indirectly, peripherally or in-between — over the years: the original Syndicate of founders, the farmer named “Stan,” John Lamotte, Anna Dana, Denise Nielson, Adrian Darke, Richard Gordon, Ritchie Calder and many others.

Rum Master List (as of March 2020)

Distillery R1 – Jamaica / Monymusk

  • R 1.1  1976-2001  25 YO 73.1% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 1.2  <Unknown>
  • R 1.3  1991-2012  21 YO 67.4% “Take Your Time Not Being Lazy”
  • R 1.4  1991-2012  21 YO 66.2% “Gets your juices flowing”
  • R 1.5  2007-2019  12 YO 62.8% “A Little Extravagant

Distillery R2 – Guyana / DDL (Various Stills)

  • R 2.1  1989-2001  12 YO 66.7% <Unnamed> *assumed*
  • R 2.2   1991-2012  21 YO 71.4% “Too Much of a Good Thing”
  • R 2.3   1991-2012  21 YO 69.5% “Visiting a Gothic Art Gallery” (PM)
  • R 2.4   Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Sweeney Todd in a Victorian Kitchen”
  • R 2.5   Xxxx-Xxxx  22 YO 67.8% “Parfait Amour”
  • R 2.6   2003-2017 14 YO 51.3% “Banana Flambee”
  • R 2.7   2004-2017 13 YO 63.4% “Pleasing and Teasing
  • R 2.8   2003-2018 15 YO 58.3% “Out of Our Comfort Zone”
  • R 2.9   2008-2019 11 YO 62.0% “Demerara Deliciousness”
  • R 2.10 2004-2020 16 YO 59.2% “Explore, Experience, Enjoy!”

Distillery R3 – Barbados / WIRD

Distillery R4 – Trinidad / Providence Estate

  • R 4.1  1990-2006  16 YO 50.9% <Unnamed> *assumed*

Distillery R5 – Jamaica / Longpond

Distillery R6 – Barbados / Foursquare

  • R 6.1  2002-2016  14 YO 57.3% “Caribbean Spice At The Races”
  • R 6.2  2002-2016  14 YO 56.8% My Thai Spice in Bimshire”

Distillery R7 – Jamaica / Hampden Estate

  • R 7.1  2000-2016  16 YO 54.0% “Welcome to Jamrock”
  • R 7.2  2000-2016  16 YO 52.8% “Jamaica Me Crazy”

Distillery R8 – Nicaragua / Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua (Flor de Caña)

  • R 8.1  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “Sneaking a Tot into Woodworking Class”
  • R 8.2  1998-2016  18 YO 57.5% “The Hunt Master Before Lunch”
  • R 8.3  2014-2016  12 YO 55.0% “Everyone’s a Fruit and a Nutcase”
  • R 8.4  2014-2019  12 YO 57.5% “Campfire in Nicaragua”
  • R 8.5  2014-2017  13 YO 68.4% “Sheer Opulence”
  • R 8.6  1998-2017  19 YO 68.9% “Nicaragua WD40 Dunderfunk”
  • R 8.7  2014-2020  14 YO 67.5% “The Volcanic Spirit”

Distillery R9 – Panama / Varelas Hermanos

  • R 9.1  2004-2017  13 YO 61.8% “Music for the Rockers of Rum”
  • R 9.2  2004-2017  13 YO 62.0% “Paddington Bear’s First Sip”
  • R 9.3  2006-2017  11 YO 60.8% “Caramel Custard Doughnut”
  • R 9.4  2004-2017  13 YO 62.1% “Chocolate Chili Combo”
  • R 9.5  2008-2017    9 YO 64.4% “Stem Ginger and Treacle Tart”
  • R 9.6  2004-2019  15 YO 61.6% “Sugar Sweet Sunshine”
  • R 9.7  2004-2019  15 YO 62.0% “Patacones with Pikliz”

Distillery R10 – Trinidad / Trinidad Distillers (Angostura)

  • R 10.1  1991-2016  25 YO 63.4% “Carnival Concerto”
  • R 10.2  1991-2017 26 YO 61.3% “Three Spice Creme Brulee”

Distillery R11 – Jamaica / Worthy Park

Distillery R12 – Belize / Travellers

  • R 12.1  2007-2017  10 YO 66.2% “Morello Cherry Delight” 
  • R 12.2  2007-2018  11 YO 65.7% “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of”

Distillery R13 – Trinidad / Caroni

  • R 13.1  1998-2018  20 YO 62.3% “Deep dark and Brooding”

 

Mar 252019
 

Quick, name five Guadeloupe rum brands.  Yeah, not that easy, is it? You could probably reel off Longueteau, Damoiseau, Bielle, Bellevue, Capovilla, Labatt, Reimonenq, Karukera, and then with some head scratching remember Gardel and Courcelles (which is closed).  And then there’s this little guy in the mid-north of the left “wing” of the butterfly-shaped island called La Domaine de Séverin.

If you have not heard of it before, that’s little surprise, as it is possibly among the least known French Island distilleries around (Bologne, Monte Bello, Simmonet and Mon Repos are others, and there are a plethora of small ops or brands known only to the hard core or residents, like Fajou, Ducarbet, Litee, Dormoy, La Pirate, Beauport — many are either closed or only make small local production volumes).

But let’s not go down that rabbit hole, and stay with Séverin for now.  The distillery traces its antecedents back to 1800 when it was established as Domaine de Séverin (named after the founder), and became a pineapple cannery.  It changed hands (but not names) several times over the next century, and its modern history begins around 1920 when Madame Beauvarlet, bought it from Viscount Novion de Tourcoing and started to revive agricole rhum production (which apparently was in place before that but about which records are slim. She in turn inveigled her nephew Henri Marsolle, who was working at the Lise distillery in Bouillante at the time, to come work for her.  He did so, and proved successful and enthusiastic enough that in 1928 he in turn bought Domaine de Séverin from his aunt.

The Marsolles have been involved with Séverin ever since, with Henri’s sons Joseph and Edouard taking over in 1952.  However, Edouard was unfortunately killed in a boiler explosion in 1964 and this made Joseph, who took over, work to modernize the distillery; among other things he replaced the original still with a Creole column with 19 trays (15 of stainless steel and 4 of copper), which produced a distillate of around 70% ABV. The rums produced were considered quite flavourful and sold well, and in the 1970s were joined by a range of punches to diversify the spirits range.

It’s unclear how closely Séverin is associated with Montebello, but the Marsolles certainly are, so a brief side trip is in order: there is a family interest in the Carrère Distillery — so named for the area near Petit Bourg where it was located — which had been purchased in 1930 by the Dolomite family.  As with many distilleries over the next decades, the drop in price for sugar and the relatively small production facilities led to declining fortuned. After a failed idea to turn the place into a cinema (!?), it was sold off to Jean Marsolle and his son Alain. They upgraded the grinding facilities and installed a bottling line, and in 1974 Alain took over as full time owner (he bought the distillery from his father with the help of his brother Emmanuel, which leads one to wonder how familial financial relationships work over there).  In 1975 Alain in turn sold the distillery to his sons and it was renamed “Montebello”, continuing its process of modernization. The distillery is still in operation, producing around 250,000 liters of rum a year, and remains under family control.

Back to Séverin. In the 1980s Joseph Marsolle’s sons Thierry and Pascal joined the company and they continued the development of rums and the distillery, because by the early 1990s they replaced the still with a fully steel model, as well as beginning the regular release of aged rums.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of rums marketed under the Marsolle brand name were issued — these were blends of rums from both Severin and Montebello, and I’ve seen references to Karukera rhums which note that they were bottled by “Claude Marsolle” of Point a Pietre’s industrial zone, but what little I was able to unearth suggest it was a bottling operation, not a separate distillery run by another member of the family. Surprisingly, the family owned distilleries were never consolidated into a larger entity, which in a time of rising prices and falling revenues would have seemed a logical step.

Whatever their reasons, financial pressures continued to mount in spite of the movement of the company into other operations (the 2008 financial statements show that Séverin was barely breaking even), and in 2013, in order to find capital, the distillery portion of the estate  was sold to Jose Pirbakas, a businessman running a diversified group of companies on Guadeloupe (he is a minority shareholder and Managing Director of Poisson which makes the Pere Labatt rhums, and has some sugar cane estates as part of the portfolio of companies). The sale took place in two tranches, 30% in 2013, and a further 35% the following year.  Essentially, while maintaining control of the land, estate and buildings, for which they charged Mr. Pirbakas a rental fee, the Marsolles lost overall ownership and operating control of the rum making portion of their business.

Things began to unravel from there for a while. The Marsolle family and Mr. Pirbakas clashed over (among other things) the latter’s decision to raise prices of all rums by 45% immediately, which he in turn claimed was necessary to bring the sale prices in line with production costs and general rates for rums of these kinds. According to the Marsolles, Mr. Pibakas kept demanding that he be sold the rest of the estate, the remaining distillery portion and the family house (a tourist destination for the Domaine), which they refused. The ongoing battle led to work stoppages, potential closure of the distillery, non-payment of property rent, and finally both parties appointed a mediator to settle their differences.  For some years up to 2017, Severin produced almost no rums at all, though it would appear that barrels continued to age in their warehouse. Since then production (or at least bottling) must have resumed or been redirected elsewhere (to another bottler or distiller or estate), for there are various aged and other expressions bearing the Severin moniker available in France, in sleek new bottles with redesigned labels (I was informed that these were designed by the old team, and launched just before the takeover, though this is unattributed elsewhere). The older label (see above) therefore reflects pre-takeover rums which are now discontinued.

In January 2019, a post and photo went up on FB where it noted that the distillery was being dismantled. Subsequent calls and investigations by interested commentators dispelled this notion. What has happened is that poisonous relationships notwithstanding, ownership is legal and cannot be changed – Mr. Pirbakas is 65% majority shareholder of the distillery. However, he does not own the property upon which it rests (or, apparently, pay rent).  Various comments by both parties on Facebook seem to make it clear that (a) rum will continue to be made and (b the equipment (grinders and the still) are being upgraded. However, most people think that the plant is moving operations to elsewhere on Guadeloupe (one might infer Poisson), and the question of who owns the name of Séverin is unanswered.

The Marsolles on the other hand, have no further involvement with Séverin as a distillery except as a minority shareholder, though they retain the land and the gift shop and the Grande Maison, so as a tourist destination it will continue.  They are investigating opportunities to make or blend rums and punches of their own going forward, and the old Marsolles brand name will be resurrected.

Change of management and ownership, consolidation, buy-outs and takeovers are the norm in this industry as in any other of course, and the name of Séverin as well as rhums slapped with their label, will continue under the new owners. But Séverin the quaint, small, family-owned and family-run business, the way it was known for nearly a century, is now gone.  


I’m indebted to the generous assistance of Christian Achatz, Alan Van Hal, Seb As Tieng and Valentin Cognito the FB Group La Communauté du Rhum Agricole, whose comments and remarks informed the most recent portion of this biography.


Current Rums in Production, Post-2014

  • Severin White Rhum 50% ABV
  • Severin White Rhum 55% ABV
  • Severin White Rhum 59% ABV
  • Rhum Ambre Severin 50% ABV (18 months, oak barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Severin 4 YO 44% (oak barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Severin 6 YO 45% (oak barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Severin VO 3 YO 40% ABV (cognac barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Severin VSOP 4 YO 42% ABV (Bordeaux barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Severin XO 6 YO 45% ABV(cognac barrels)
  • Rhum Vieux Agricole brut de fut 2010 Edition Limitee
  • Domaine de Séverin Cuvée Henri Marsolle (Blanc) 59% ABV (released 2008)
  • Domaine de Séverin Cuvée Henri Marsolle (Rhum Vieux) 45% ABV (released 2008)

Original Distillery Rums, Pre-2014, now discontinued.

  • Domaine de Séverin Rhum Agricole de la Guadeloupe 50% ABV (1994)
  • Domaine de Séverin Rhum Agricole de la Guadeloupe 55% ABV (1995)
  • Domaine de Séverin Pur Vesou 50% ABV*
  • Domaine de Séverin Rhum Vieux 45% ABV*
  • Domaine de Séverin Vieux 50% ABV*
  • Grand Rhum du Domaine de Séverin 50% ABV*
  • Grand Rhum du Domaine de Séverin Pur Vesou 50% ABV*
  • Grand Rhum du Domaine de Séverin Vieux 50% ABV*
  • Severin “Commemorhum” Bicentennaire 1789-1989 Rhum Agricole Pur Vesou 50% ABV
  • Domaine de Séverin Rhum Agricole Cuvée Spéciale du Jumelage 55% ABV*
  • Domaine de Séverin Rhum Agricole de la Guadeloupe 1998 50% ABV
  • Rhum Séverin Commémoration 150e Anniversaire Abolition de L’Esclavage 1848-1998 50% ABV
  • Domaine de Severin Vieux 1996 45% ABV (New bottle design)
  • Domaine de Séverin Raw Cask 2004-2010 Rhum Vieux Agricole 54.4% ABV (New bottle)
  • Domaine de Séverin Fût de Bordeaux 2004-2010 Rhum Vieux Agricole 45% ABV(New bottle)
  • Domaine de Séverin Fût de Cognac 2005-2010 Rhum Vieux Agricole 45% ABV (New bottle)
  • Domaine de Séverin Cuvée Pirla Fût de Bordeaux Rhum Vieux 10 Year Old 42% (New Bottle)*

*Dates of distillation or release are unknown


Sources

 

Mar 172019
 

Réunion is an island to the east of Madagascar, and has had a long history with European colonizers, which resulted in a bewildering plethora of names. The Portuguese who were the first on the scene named it Santa Apolónia in the very early 1500s; then a century later the French took over in the 1630s, calling it Île Bourbon in 1649 after the French royal House of Bourbon. Colonisation started in 1665, when the French East India Company sent the first settlers, after which the island was retitled “Île de la Réunion” in 1793 with the fall of the House of Bourbon — but evidently unable to make up their minds, the island was renamed “Île Bonaparte” in 1801. It reverted to Île Bourbon when the British held it during the Napoleonic Wars, and stayed that way until the fall of the restored Bourbons during the French Revolution of 1848, when the island was once again given the name “Île de la Réunion”…and there it stayed ever since.

There are currently three distilleries of note on Réunion – Rivière du Mât, Savanna and Isautier.  They were all formed in the 1800s 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 — but although small 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, records suggest primitive versions were in existence there for at least a hundred years before that (using a primitive fangourin crushing apparatus), and humans being humans, some form of creole rum was made almost continuously, though never exported.

Rum production began to take on greater importance as a diversification measure after 1865, when the sugar crisis precipitated by the development of the beetroot sugar-making process in Europe 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 (they briefly expanded to service rum demand during the Great War), and now there are only the three noted above.

The Isautier family had been on the island since 1832 when Louis Isautier arrived, followed by his brother Charles in 1834; over a period of years they gathered capital, married well, bought land, and were sufficiently in coin by 1845 to open the first large distillery on the island in that year, which was to some extent made possible by the 1843 earthquake in the eastern Caribbean which interrupted supplies from there. It was the first major, professionally run distillery in existence on the island. It is unclear which product took priority, sugar or rum – probably sugar, with rum being primarily for local consumption and unlike the French west Indian islands, used primarily molasses, not juice, to make their rums.

The distillery which Antoinette Isautier built. (c) www.isautier.com from the family archives.

The first international showing of Isautier’s rums came in 1878 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.  By that time, the brothers – who had married cousins from the wealthy landowning family of Orré in the south of the island – had died.  Charles’s widow Antoinette had taken over the management of the factory and commissioned the construction of a new distillery, assisted by her sons and changed the company name to “Veuve Ch.Isautier et Fils”, packaging the rum they made in handsome sandstone bottles. These bottles were well received at the exhibition (they won a medal), starting a tradition of participation in various Expos (the rum fests of their day, one might suggest), ranging from France, to the Netherlands to Russia and it was said that they rums became a reference rum for Reunion as a whole (although no doubt Savanna or Riviere would dispute the claim).

Ceramic Sandstone bottles (c) www.isautier.com

As seems to be common with family companies, there is a hard-charging founder, some slackening in business a generation or two down the road, and then a dynamic resurgence under another fiercely focussed individual (like Richard Seale from Foursquare, JB Fernandes of Fernandes in Trinidad or Peter D’Aguiar of Banks DIH in Guyana, just off the top of my head).  In Isautier’s case that person was Alfred Isautier, Charles and Antoinette’s grandson, born in 1881. He was the person who took a relatively sedate, modestly sized company and modernized it, expanding Isautier’s operations after buying out the other family members’ shares. He upgraded the distillery to utilize more efficient column stills, introduced a distinctive rounded-triangular bottle, and began using bagasse as a power source, as well as increasing the stable of rums the distillery made and worked tirelessly to increase export sales.

Charles Isautier (c) www.isautier.com

His son, Paul-Alfred (known as “Ti’Fred”) began experiments and eventual production of cane juice rhums, but his career with the company ceased when he was appointed a senator.  With the death of Alfred Isautier in 1955, control passed to an equally able successor, Charles Isautier, who between 1960 and 1970 embarked on an enormous diversification of Isautier’s business operations in an industry-poor island – to the point where some sixty or more subsidiaries were making and selling downstream agricultural products as varied as confectionary, perfumes, candles, cattle feed and even mattresses. The company was essentially a conglomerate (like, for example, DDL in Guyana), moving quite a ways from its sugar and rum roots, though rums remained a major revenue earner, even if it was mostly for local consumption, or exported to Europe generally, and France in particular. As an aside, arrangés and aged rums made their appearance in the early 1970s as part of this expansion, though the company was (and probably remains) rather less well known internationally, and reviews of their wares remain sparse, in spite of their long lived antecedents.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as competition from mainland France affected the company, a more balanced view of the business was taken and additional variations rum and rum punches were released, utilizing that famous bottle designed by Alfred Isautier nearly a hundred years before.  This culminated in the 2010s with the introduction of various new rhum arrangés, more punches and the development of the rum stable to include more agricole-style cane juice rhum, as well as aged varietals of both molasses and juice origin – though I have seen no reference that suggests they’re taking on the high-ester world of Savanna rums with anything near to the kind of zeal that company brings to the table.  That said, Isaitier remains a family-held company, and continues to be diversified, being involved in real estate, tourism and agriculture as well as the rhums that made the family their fortune. Hopefully they expand their distribution to bring more of their rhums to the attention of the general public. Reunion has a long history of interesting and remarkable rums, and while there aren’t a whole lot of them, it would be a shame if we missed out just because we weren’t able to lay our hands on any.


Company Rums (as of 2019)*

*excludes arranges and punches

  • Isautier 3 YO Rhum Vieux 40% ABV (from cane juice)
  • Isautier 5 YO Rhum Vieux 40% ABV
  • Isautier 7 YO Rhum Vieux 40% ABV
  • Isautier Rhum Maturé Barrick 40% ABV (3 months ageing, from molasses)
  • Isautier 10 YO Rhum Vieux 40% ABV (from cane juice, column still)
  • Isautier 10 YO Rhum Vieux 40% ABV (ceramic bottle, specal edition)
  • Isautier Rhum Blanc Traditionel 49% ABV (unaged, from molasses)
  • Isautier Rhum Blanc Agricole 55% ABV (unaged, from cane juice)
  • Isautier “Louis & Charles Isautier” Cuvée 70 45% ABV (blend of agricole and molasses rum)
  • Isautier Rhum Vieux 50% ABV (out of production, age unknown)
  • Isautier Cuvee Speciale du Millénaire 20 YO (details unknown)
  • Isautier Rhum Maloya Blanc Traditionnel 45% ABV (from molasses)

Sources

NB: There’s remarkably little available online about Isautier, my books speak little to the matter and the “contact” portion of the website has not led to a response – hence the brevity of the biography. That said, if anyone can provide me with additional points of historical detail, I’d be happy to include them.

Feb 162019
 

The only rum I’ve ever tried from the Seychelles was one that was discontinued, the Takamaka Bay Overproof white, but the depth of research I did on that short article was not inconsiderable, and it formed the basis of this short biography.  That doesn’t mean that I’ve tried much of their rum, but fortunately that’s not a prerequisite for inclusion in the Makers series of essays.

Given how much press the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion gets these days, what with New Grove, St Aubin, Savanna, Isautier and Rivière du Mat distilleries putting cool rums out the door, Seychelles remains somewhat overlooked.  Yet they too have a long history of local rum production, though as of this writing, there is only one distillery on the island, and that’s the Trois Frères Distillery (who make the Takamaka brand of rums), on the main island of Mahé. This distillery is of relatively recent vintage, being formed in 2002 by the d’Offay brothers, Richard and Bernard (although there are three of them, hence the name), together with their father Robert d’Offay.

Seychelles is considered to be part of Africa; the earliest recorded sighting by Europeans took place in 1502 by the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama, with the earliest recorded landing in 1609 by the crew of the “Ascension” under Captain Alexander Sharpeigh during a voyage for the British East India Company. The islands became a transit point for trade between Africa and Asia and even a haven for pirates.  In 1756 the French staked their claim, and named them after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. By the 1790s the British took over during the Napoleonic Wars, with full control ceded to them by France upon the surrender of Mauritius in 1810, formalised in 1814 at the Treaty of Paris. The Seychelles became a crown colony separate from Mauritius in 1903 and gained independence from Britain in 1976.

Rum was first introduced to the Seychelles in the mid 16th century by the British Navy, with actual cultivation only becoming common in the late 1800s, primarily to supplement the sugar brought in by (infrequent) ships. Unsurprisingly, a local market in fermented cane juice called baka developed out of this, which were the beginnings of grass roots rum production on primitive backyard stills.  Mostly this tended to be rhum arrangé – a mixture of local rum and a blend of herbs and spices (cinnamon, dried fruit skins, vanilla etc), with each family having its own variation.

The Trois Frères Distillery was founded in 2002 and was originally located in Providence, an industrial area in the north east of Mahé.  Richard and Bernard d’Offay are both native Seychellois who spent their childhood in South Africa before returning to Mahé in their mid-twenties with the intention of making rums.  Initially they were a tiny two-man company, tinkering with the process and brands and marketing, but very much a niche operation. Their associations with rum were older than that, though: their grandfather had endlessly experimented with his small still and various spices (caramel, vanilla), and it could be said that all the two brothers did was formalize the enterprise by incorporating it.  

The company remained small, producing no more than 2000-3000 cases a year, almost all of it being sold locally; exports, such as they were, grew slowly. As many small countries with a colonial past have found, locals saw imported stuff as good and locally made as somehow less, an attitude that persists to this day. But after eight years of incremental progress, they were successful enough and reputable enough to put in a bid to operate La Plaine St. Andre (a national heritage site; it was once a spice plantation dating back to the 1700s but had fallen into disrepair and almost completely destroyed by fire in 1990). The d’Offay family was granted a 50-year lease for the property in the south east of Mahé, and they restored it over a period of two and half years in order to set up the distillery there (the restored La Grande Maison is open to the public).

Photo (c) GotRum magazine

Oddly for a distillery, they don’t grow their own sugar cane – the lack of flat land on Mahé precluded the development of large plantations; instead, they source it from a farmer’s cooperative representing several dozen cane famers on Mahé, and anywhere between one to three tonnes of cane is delivered twice a week.  The crushing provides the cane juice which is poured into fermentation tanks, where it stays for a maximum of five days — they use their own yeast for this, not “wild”. Then it gets run through either their pot or column stills – the first pass gives a distillate between 50-60%, it’s run through a second time, and then a third, resulting in a 94% final distillate, which is then transferred to a steel tank for twelve weeks, before being poured into various American oak barrels for ageing.  Some of course is drawn off and diluted to 69% ABV for the blanc, to which is added some high ester pot still distillate for kick.

By 2013 the company was successful enough to begin targeting the export market more seriously, as the feedback from tourists to the island (and that of the minimal exports they had made to that point) was quite positive.  They retained a London based branding agency to revamp the Takamaka Bay rums’ labels and bottle designs (previously done in-house by Richard’s brother-in-law), because they knew that presentation sells, and the international rum market was rife with brands possessing centuries old street cred which represented formidable competition for a young company such as theirs. By 2015 they were sending their rums to Europe (mostly to the UK and Germany – the latter distributes to the German, Swiss, Austrian and Dutch markets), but also to the UAE, China, Mauritius, Madagascar, the Maldives, South Africa and Djibouti.

Photo (c) Seychelles News Agency

While by 2015 the company had ramped up production to 40,000 cases of rum annually, they continued to face challenges, many imposed by the Seychelles’ relatively remote location.  All raw materials – bottles, caps, labels, boxes – are imported and scheduled carefully. David Boullé, the head distiller of Takamaka Bay (he’s a cousin, and joined them in 2005), remarked in a 2016 interview with GotRum magazine that “The limited amount of sugarcane available is probably our greatest constraint to rum production. There is a law in Seychelles that no sugarcane can be grown on land that can be used for food crops, thus there is a limit to the amount of cane land available.” However they do carry out an outreach program to provide a free consultation process for anyone wanting information on sugarcane cultivation, and slowly there are more local farmers who are planting small plots of cane as way of earning some extra cash.  

The company had also considered using molasses instead of juice to produce its rums, but costs were prohibitive and supply sporadic; there is some supplement to regular production with molasses based distillate, however, which makes the rums that do have such hybridization rather similar to Guadeloupe’s non-AOC rums. They are careful not to call their rums agricoles both for this reason, and because the word is restricted to rum production from the French Caribbean islands; also, TB’s fermentation, distillation and aging methods are different, so they opted not to use the term at all.

Takamaka, then, even after nearly two decades of gradually increased production, continues to be a relatively unknown company in the larger rum consciousness (outside the few countries where it’s sold).  It’s rarely, if ever mentioned on social media. Their stable of branded bottlings remains small. Yet, those few who have tried their work tend to be positive about it, so there’s definitely potential there.  The local market is still a major source of revenue, and one hopes that one day they will make a larger splash on the festival circuit around Europe or North America, so as to boost their exports.

However, as noted above, they do labour under the restriction of resource scarcity so there is an upper limit to how much rum they can produce at a margin that allows coverage of operating costs and continual re-investment, development and increased output, while retaining the unique profile and characteristics of terroire that the Seychelles can capitalize on.  I think that sooner or later they may chose to make a virtue out of the problem, not so much by increasing production as changing it, and going for the upscale boutique and high-end market where the unicorns of cask strength and/or ultra-aged rums reside.  Were they to do that, I have a feeling they would become known a lot further, a lot faster and a lot more, than they are now.  I wish them the best of luck.


Current Rums in Production

  • Takamaka Bay White Rum (43%)
  • Takamaka Bay Dark Spiced Rum (43%) Based on the d’Offay family’s original formula
  • Takamaka Bay Extra Noir (43%) Blend of 3YO aged sugarcane juice distillate and molasses distillate, plus caramel for colour.
  • Takamaka Bay St. André Rhum Vesou (40%) White rum, a blend of cane juice and molasses distillate.
  • Takamaka Bay St. André 8 year old (40%)
  • Takamaka Bay 69 Rhum Blanc (69%) Replaced the 72% Overproof

Sources

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…and the French Savalle still they used was dissassembled once distilling operations were merged. All rums made by either company were then 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 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)

Murray McDavid bottlings of which I’m aware


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, and is good as of 2017).

  • 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 1998 Cuvee Maison Blanche 1998-2008 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Millesime 2002 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2002-2012 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Millesime 2005 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2005-2015 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Millesime 2006 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2006-2016 10 YO 43%
  • Savanna Millesime 2008 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2008-2018 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%

Wild Island Edition 2020

  • Savanna Traditionnel  2003-2019 16 YO Armagnac Finish 52.7%
  • Savanna Grand Agricole 2012-2018 6 YO Calvados Finish 57.6%
  • Savanna Grand Arome 2005-1018 13 YO 56.4%
  • Savanna Grand Arome 2003-2018 15 YO 66.5%
www.sexxxotoy.com