Jan 272016
 
LUCA-900x411

Photo (c) 2013 congresodelron.com

Luca sounds tired. The boss of Velier has just returned from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal, where he was investigating small rum producers like in Haiti, has been caught up in the online discussions of the “Rare” issues, gave an interview to DuRhum (in French), and is now on his way to Morocco to attend some business and help shoot a documentary, before heading off to Cape Verde again. I catch him in the back of a taxi, but he’s willing to talk a little. Truthfully, when it comes to rums, the man is always ready to talk, and it’s never just a little. Maybe that’s one reason he and I get along.

We discuss his interview with Cyril, but my own interest is much more focused, and gradually we get to what I want to talk aboutDDL’s new Velier replacements, called the “Rare Collection” and I had opined that premature news of their introduction could have been handled better. Commercial considerations had prevented Luca from going on record before this, but apparently DDL have now given him their blessing, and he knows I want facts rather than speculations.

“I honestly wanted to tell you back in December, when your “Wasted Potential” article came out,” he says. “But we (DDL and myself) had agreed nothing would be said about the Rare Collection until the time for official press releases and introductions came around. So I had to be quiet.”

“It happens,” I shrug, stifling my rush of petty irritation, since, like most people, I hate being wrong. “Why don’t you step me through the sequence of events regarding the issue?

He settles into what I call his ‘presentationvoice and talks nonstop for several minutes. Much to my surprise, the conception of these three rums goes back to January 2015, a full year ago. Following the retirement of Yesu Persaud, the new CEO of DDL (Komal Samaroo) met with Luca and told him they were going to make ‘Gargano-stylerums themselves following the full-proof, single-still, limited-edition principles, and as such the ability of Velier to bottle from DDL’s stocks would cease. “But I have to be clear,” Luca said. “Aside from the Skeldon, I never ever just walked into the warehouse and sampled at random and said I wanted this barrel or that barrel – I always and only got shown a limited selection by DDL and chose from them. And the vintages were getting younger all the time – I was hardly ever seeing stuff younger than the early 2000s any more.”

He’s admitted it before, and confirmed that initially the situation made him sad – it was something like seeing your own child grow up and move out of the house – but proud as well. It showed that there was real potential by a major distiller to go in this direction, and that the full-proof concept was a viable commercial proposition. And it made sense for DDL to fold these rums into the larger el Dorado brand.

“Which would in any case always be associated with you,” I cut in. “For the foreseeable future, DDL’s full proofs will live in your shadow.”

“That’s not important,” he says earnestly. “It’s not about ego for me. It’s about rum: authentic, honest, tropical aged, full proof rum. If DDL makes them, the rumworld is just as well served, because good rums are being made and sold.”

“One could argue that DDL let you take the risk and open the market and then moved in to capitalize on your success,” I point out. I’m not on anyone’s side on this matter and I know business is business (it’s not personal, right?). DDL didn’t get to be what it was without some very sharp people at the top, and while I am surprised it took this long for them to get in on the action, they are finally doing something.

I can almost see him shaking his head. “No. Because it’s their rum. I always insisted that DDL was mentioned on our labels – because I never felt it was ‘mine’…the name of Velier was only ever in the fine print at the back. I found a few diamonds, sure, but never pretended to own the mine, you know? And I did the same for the Clairins.” I think he’s being just a bit disingenuous here, personally, because one does not become a successful businessman without at least a little talent, aggro and braggadocio, and I suspect he knows perfectly well how synonymous his name has become with full proof rums in general, and Demeraras in particular. But I let it pass, and he continues.

rare-mads-1

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten

“So by November of 2015 a lot of the work was done – the selection of the vintages, the label mockups. Some samples went out to Europe –“

“Hang on,” I interrupt. “Exactly how much were you involved in all this?

“Not at all.”

“Seriously?

“No. I did not select the barrels, I did not choose the vintages, I had nothing to do with advertising or label design. All I knew was that there would be an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles. By the time I received samples in December, it was all complete, and my only involvement was as the distributor for Italy.”

“Why are they only being sold only Europe?

He hesitates a moment and I can sense him choosing his words with some care. “DDL is a Guyanese company,” he says at last. “And I think their information gathering and knowledge relate and are geared more to the North American market than the European one. In North America it’s always been difficult to introduce new spirits into their states-segmented markets; and there has never been a really strong movement or tradition or knowledge of craft full-proofs. It was only latelywith Samaroli and a few others becoming available, with online media like Facebook, with the reviews of English language rum bloggersthat the profile of such rums has increased and the potential more fully understood. But in Europe full-proofs have always sold well and been widely appreciated – indeed that has always been my primary market. So it made sense to start there.”

“With the potential to cross the Atlantic in the future?

He shrugs. “That’s for DDL to decide. I hope so.”

“So we’re in December now. My own article on the missed opportunities of DDL came out around that time.”

“Yes, and a lot of people read it. And I wanted to contact you to advise you that there were indeed new single-still rums coming out. But my arrangement with DDL forbade that, so…”

I’m still a little miffed about the matter, but it’s water under the bridge and there’s nothing I can do except admit I got it wrong and move on.

“Why do you think DDL never responded to my article, or contacted me?

“I have no idea.”

“Because it strikes me as strange that a major new bottling is being issued to the market, and there was no advance knowledge, no teasers or sly hints or even massive advertising to stimulate interest.”

“Well, they did send some samples to one of the Rumfests late in the year – I believe to Belgium – “

“And it received almost no publicity at all.”

“It was just for evaluation purposes, I think, not an advertising campaign to kick off the release. That was supposed to come in this year.”

Well, DDL is run by some smart people, and I suppose they have reasons for what they do and how they do it. However, I also believe they are underestimating the force-multiplying power of social media in a big way and maybe my mind just works differently since I’m a consumer as well as a writer, not a company marketing guru.

It occurs to me that with respect to communication, the premature release of information on the Rares must have caught everyone off guard. “So now we come to 2016,” I say, following that thought. “Your company somehow issued a webpage link to show these rums as becoming available, on January 13th. Then it disappeared. What happened?

His embarrassment is palpable over the long distance telephone line. “That was a mistake,” he says ruefully. “My graphics people worked so fast that the mockup and catalogue update were all done ahead of time. They didn’t bother to check with me before posting it up, because they didn’t see anything special about a new item on the cataloguewe do, after all, add stuff constantly. I was in Cape Verde then, away from communications, and as soon as I came out and realized what had happened, I pulled the link immediately. By then the news was all over the place.

rare-mads-2

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten.

“And then?

He lets out a deep breath. “The story went viral in the online rum community. You know this, you followed it.”

Indeed I had. The story flashed around the world in less than a day. Wes at the FatRumPirate pushed out an article on the three rums on the 15th; a Danish blogger, Mads Heitmann, was able to get a complete set of the three bottles and reviewed the PM 1999 ln the 19th. And on top of that, he posted prices on his site and on Facebook, which went viral as fast as the original post from Velier’s site, and changed the entire direction of the story. The news was well and truly out there and could not be called back, which demonstrates what I mean about the power of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and all the rest.

“But none of it had any more to do with me,” Luca argues. “I made my sincere apologies to DDL, explained to them that the initial, unpriced, posting was an error I tried to correct and not a leak of any kind. I was waiting for a green light from them to make a public announcement and start publicizing.”

I suppose I can accept that, since all my notes and private discussions support it. “The story now started to get bigger than just you, because aside from the annoyance of the rum community about the releases just popping out of nowhere, which is a minor matter, they now had to contend with the pricing. And that was no small thing – it was deemed exorbitant.”

“Your article didn’t help,” he says, half laughing, half accusing, referring to the essay I then wrote on January 20th, where I both complained about the introduction and expressed my hopes for their quality.

The conversation seems to have come around to the point where I’m the one answering questions instead of him; still, the point is valid. “I wasn’t trying to. At the time I was pretty put out. DDL should have read the tea leaves and done damage control immediately, gotten ahead of this story. Back then, I solicited their input without response. Okay, I’m small fry, a small blogger in a wide world of them, and it was an opinion piece, and yet I don’t think I was wrong; and this was now an issue affecting consumers all over the map – somebody should have stood up, posted online, gotten involved, calmed the waters.”

“I can’t speak to that,” he responds, with a note of finality.

The cost per bottle is of interest to us as consumers, so I persist. “What can you tell me about the price, on the record?

PM 1999 Romhatten

Picture crop (c) Romhatten.dk

“I think the Danish numbers are high,” he admits. Privately, I had thought so too, and the KR6500+ (~€870) initially quoted on January 19th for all three bottles together has in fact been reduced in some online shops in Denmark. Factor in the very high alcohol taxes in that country, and the base shop prices (before markups) to consumers are probably closer to expectations. Still high, but relatively more affordable.

“The price in Italy will likely be around the level of equivalent Veliers, plus maybe 10-15%. But I can’t say that for sure across Europe, because I sell only in Italy, to shops, not to individuals, and taxes and markups vary. But they are not as expensive as you made out to be.”

Since I’ve argued that price is a function of brand awareness and exclusivity as well as production costs, I ask the question that’s been bugging me all this time. “What’s the outturn of the range?

“About 3,000 bottles for each expression is my guess. I’m not entirely sure of the exact numbers”

“And future issues?

“I can’t say: I’m hearing that maybe an annual release of two bottlings, with about the same quantity as these.” Which gives us all hope, I think. Two is not as good as four or five, yet I don’t know that many full-proof rum lovers who would complain too much. At least they’re getting something.

The answers are getting shorter, and I sense we may be coming to the end of this conversation. I only have one more. “You’re distributing the rums in Italy, and have had a long association with DDL. You’re hardly a disinterested party. But as a simple lover of rum, putting aside any bias as much as you can, what do you think of the Rare Collection?

There’s a smile in his voice as he notes the care of my phrasing. Or maybe he’s just thinking of these rums, his now-grown children, with fondness, and delights at an opportunity to speak of them. “I received samples in December 2015, and Daniele (Biondi) and I tried them together with five or six other Enmores, Port Mourants and Versailles rums we had from previous years. And I am telling you, these are every bit as good. They lost nothing, and preserve everything in my principles – tropically aged, no additives, single-still, cask strength. The taste is amazingly good, and I think they are great additions to the full proof Demerara lineup. It may be too early to tell, but if they continue to issue such rums in the future, these first editions may one day be worth quite a bit, the same way my first bottlings appreciated on the secondary markets.”

His tone has that evangelical fervor, the ring of utter personal conviction, that always characterizes his public presentations, and I gotta admit, the enthusiasm is infectious. He may or not be right, and others may disagree with his assessment in the months and years to come – but there’s no doubt he really believes they’re that good. I’ve heard him speak that way about his other rums and rhums as well, and we know Velier’s track record, so perhaps we should just take it at face value. Until shops actually start selling them and we start seeing reviews out there, not much more to be said. I think we’re just about done here.

I scratch my head, look at my notes and questions, and realize an hour has gone by. Luca is now buying organic apples for his pretty wife through the taxi window, waiting to see if there’s anything else, but he’s covered it all for me, filled in most of the blanks. What little information I have from DDL confirms most of this. So I give him my regards and thanks, we exchange notes on our movements around the world in 2016 and agree to see if we can meet up somewhere, have a relaxed session and maybe drink a sample or ten. And, of course, as always, to talk rums.

***

Other notes

This was not a formal interview. It was a discussion between the two of us, which is why I wrote it the way I did. From his perspective, it was to some extent also publicity, even damage control. It’s no coincidence that this and Cyril’s more formal interview came out so close together. Had I not written the two other essays about DDL already, I would not have bothered, but this wraps things up and substitutes such opinions and guesses as I have expressed, with more factual information.

The formal release of these rums for sale with all the marketing blitz, brass bands and bunting is supposed to be the end of January / early February 2016.

 

 

Jan 202016
 

Rare Collection

“I hope for them that the rums are good,” muttered Cyril darkly, as a bunch of us exchanged comments on the newest DDL offerings. We should have been happy, but we weren’t, not really. Few of us rum watchers were.

Back in December 2015, I read the tea leaves spectacularly wrong and suggested that DDL would not be issuing single-still Velier-style full proofs any time soon. A month later they did: an Enmore 1993, Versailles 2002 and PM 1999. I’m actually kinda surprised nobody ragged my tail about my utter inability to forecast what might even have been a foregone conclusion after the age of Velier’s Demeraras abruptly ended. So yeah, I munching a big crow sandwich right now.

Still: if you’re not deep into rums, perhaps the way the blogosphere erupted at the news of DDL’s full-proofRare Collectionmight have taken you aback. A link to an article on Velier’s site went viral almost immediately on the FB pages of la Confrere, Global Rum Club, Ministry of Rum; even some blogs made mention of it. People who loved Velier’s Demeraras, and who snapped up indie bottlings of Guyanese rums for ages, were happy as a Caner who fell into the vat, that DDL had finally started to “tek front.”

But as time went on, it became clear that there were several issues with the three bottlings named above, and all of them pointed to what I maintain are deficiencies in DDL’s strategic (or marketing) arm. They misread the public sentiment and displayed no real current knowledge of what drives purchases of upscale “super-premium” rums. They came at the wrong time, at the wrong price, with too little information and with the wrong fanfare.

Consider:

There was absolutely no forewarning at all (see footnote 1). The picture and a brief notation in Italian went up on the Velier website (it has now disappeared) and that was it. And not even in time to make the Christmas season, where traditionally liquor sales peak. As of this writing (January 20th) they are still not represented on El Dorado’s own website (although the deceased Mr. Robinson remains as a valued member of the team). DDL’s Facebook page has nothing, and questions I raised in private messages to them went unanswered. Wow. Who on earth is in charge of getting the message out over there?

Along with the lack of warning, there was no mention of three key points that anyone selling a rum about which there is great anticipation should reasonably consider:

    1. Where were these to be distributed/sold?
    2. What would the price be?
    3. How many bottles were issued?

So essentially, until the Danes at Romhatten got their hands on a set and started writing about them (the PM received a 96 rating), few people knew where they could be had. Most online stores still don’t carry them. It was later established they would not be sold in North America. And when it was understood that they averaged out at €290 a bottle in Denmark and Germany, whereas most independent bottlings of the same ages cost between a €100-200 on the primary market, the grumbles got louder.

Leaving out production costs and taxes, two things drive a bottle’s price way upage (to some extent, though I have paid an arm and a leg for a seven year old from 1980), and more than that, rarity. The two together create monsters like the Appleton 50 year old ($4500/bottle) for example. One of the reasons a Velier Skeldon 1978 pushes prices past the thousand euro mark on the secondary market, is because there are so few out there.

However, DDL has not marketed the rums with indie-bottler-level pricing to titillate the market and grab initial market share and establish their own reputation for great full proof rums, separate from that of Velier; they gave no hint of how many bottles were issued; they advertised not at all, and to add insult to injury, are staying mum on the fora where they can engage their fans and the general public. All of this suggests that we are being asked to pay very high prices for an unproven product of uncertain commonality. If a hundred bottles had been issued that would be one thing….ten thousand would be quite another matter.

Consider this key point alsoLuca was the recipient of a decade of goodwill for his full proof lines, aided and abetted by issuing rums that were very very good. The man had an enviable track record, made almost no dogs, and had no dishonour or disrepute attached to his product (like DDL got when hydrometer tests began to show the inclusion of unreported sugar to their standard aged rums), and as a result, people were willing to buy his products blind, almost at any price, knowing they would get something that had a good chance of being an excellent drink and a worthwhile investment. And to his credit, Luca provided all the info up front, and never priced his rums to the point where this kind of essay became necessary.

DDL maybe felt that “if we issue it they will come.” Given the explosion of interest in the new line, they were certainly correct there, and they themselves have many decades of goodwill of their own to tap into, deriving from the El Dorado line of rums (if not the Single Barrel expressions). So I’m not saying DDL makes bad rums (quite the opposite in fact). And believe me, I’m not pissy because I read the future wrong. In fact, I have already bitten the bullet, put my money where my mouth is, and bought all three of these releases at those crazy prices. I look forwardkeenlyto reviewing them.

What I am is annoyed with the stumbles of a company for which I have great regard, and which should know better. You don’t issue expensive rums after the holiday season, when purses are scrawny and credit card bills are due. The pricing and the lack of information are sure to piss off more serious rum lovers (and writers) who make purchasing decisions carefully. One spends twenty bucks on a whimnot three hundred. And think about this also: when bloggers to whose opinions people attend say they will not buy these rums because they are too pricey or difficult to get (as several have already told me), their audience gets turned off too, and sales will inevitably diminish. If this happens and DDL believes there’s no market for full proofs, well, then, what do you think they will do? Cancel the entire line, maybe?

So yeah, I’m a little miffed with DDL’s new rums, much as I applaud the fact that they’re issued at all. Only time will tell whether the price they’ve set is justified. In the meantime, they’d better start providing us consumers with more information, not less. And those rums had better be damned good.


Notes

  1. Inadvertently, I’m sure, the Guyanese daily Stabroek News actually mentioned these three rumsback in November 4th, 2015. It is clearly stated in that article that they would only be sold in Europe.
  2. In January 2019, I wrote a recap of my opinions on the the Rares to that point, Releases I, II and III.
Dec 152015
 

Single_Barrels

Introduction

In 2015 it became widely known that DDL was severing its relationship with Velier, and Luca Gargano would no longer have access to their warehouses. With that simple statement, the Age of Velier’s Demerara Rums appeared to have come to an end. In October of that same year, I reviewed the three single barrel expressions DDL issued back in 2007, and the notes in that write up were so voluminous that I split them apart to form the basis of this essay.

My thinking went like this: when you think of all the advantages DDL enjoys in the international marketplacebrand visibility and recognition, market penetration, and the great stills like PM and EHP, to name just threeyou begin to realize just how curious those three rums actually are. And how much they say about the ethos and thrust of the company’s rum strategy (or lack thereof).

Velier showed that there was a real market for such full proof, limited edition rums. You’d think that with the Scots and the Italians’ decades-long love affair with issuing PMs and Enmores and what have you, that this largely untapped market would be aggressively exploited by the company supplying the actual rum, but no, DDL has let Moon Imports, Samaroli, Velier, Rum Nation, Secret Treasures, Silver Seal, Duncan Taylor, and many others, garner the accolades and the money while they concentrate on the core El Dorado range.

Background

The ICBU, EHP and PM expressions remain the only still-specific rums DDL have ever created since the el Dorado line burst on the scene in 1992. DDL, as you would recall, have a number of pot and columnar stills – some of wood, some very old, all producing interesting variations of taste; the El Dorado line blends various proportions of output from these stills. Craft bottlers who have bought barrels made from the stills have long issued limited expressions like PM, EHP, ICBU, LBI, Blairmont, Versailles, Skeldon (Velier remains the acknowledged champion in this regard), and the speed at which they sell and the high prices they command on the secondary market demonstrates the enormous cachet they have.

Yet DDL has, as of this writing (December 2015), refused to go further with developing this gaping omission in its lineup. They told me a few months ago that I should wait for great things coming out later in 2015, and then issued the “new” 15 year old rums with various finishes. An evolutionary stopgap, I thought (then and now) — not a radical departure, not a revolution, not great, and not particularly new. They still don’t have millesimes or annual releases or special stills’ rums of any consequence. The three amigos referenced above are also not marketed worth a damn to exhibit their singular nature, or to take advantage of their remarkable provenance or their accessible proof point. They are priced quite high for rums that don’t have an age statement – together, they cost me north of US$300, and not many people are going to buy such relatively pricey rums unless they are really into the subculture. So here are some initial problems DDL created for themselves: the age, the year, the outturn, none of this is on the label. Why is the year of distillation and age and bottle count not shouted from the rooftops? Age confers cachet in any spirit; single stills’, single years’ output even more so. What’s the holdup with DDL providing such elementary information? Actually, what’s the holdup in creating an entire line of such remarkable rums?

Independent bottlers are the leaders in this field, and there’s enormous interest for these expressions. That single post of mine about the three rums clocked a reach of 400 on FB, and 20 likes on the site, in less than an hour (trust me, that’s fast and furious going for a niche audience such as we writers have). So knowing that limited release rums sell fast to the cognoscenti, knowing the power of social media, and using my experience as a sort of quasi baseline, I ask againwhat’s stopping DDL?

Problems

The very specificity of these rums may be their undoing in the wider rum world, because it is connoisseurs and avid fans and rabid collectors who are most likely to buy them, appreciate them, and understand the divergent/unusual taste profiles, which are quite different from the more commonly available (and best-selling) El Dorados like the 5, 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old. To illustrate further, how many casual rum drinkers even know there are multiple stills at Diamond, and can can name more than the PM or EHP? One could taste the three single barrel rums, and immediately realize that they certainly aren’t standard sippers or the usual cocktail fodderwhich is something of double edged sword for rum makers, who like to be different….but not too different.

Too, it’s possible that seeing the niche interest these expressions developed over the years which Velier then expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, that the boys on the Top Floor were scared dickless and shut that sucker down fast, lest it bite into profits of more dependable rums….rather than seeing it as an opportunity. I have a feeling relative margins of various products were and are involved here.

Then there’s hard consumer cash: such DDL-made single barrel expressions are by their very nature more expensive and get more so as we climb the age ladder, but there’s another reason they cost so much – DDL never made more, or issued them in great quantity (it’s unknown what the year of the batch is, and I’m not even sure how many were made, let alone whether DDL ever issued more beyond that 2007 year, or ever will again).

Another reason to scratch my head wondering what they’re thinking. Are they ignoring the signs of rums’ expanding popularity and the increasing sophistication of the drinking classes, so evident all around them? Or are they simply oblivious?

General economic musings

Now I know something about how products in a manufacturing environment are priced. There’s all the input costs of raw materials, plus labour charges, storage costs, prep costs and marketing and distribution and shipping (using various bases of allocation for overheads), to come up with a unit production cost (i.e., what it cost to make each individual bottle). Depending on the sophistication of the accounting / costing system and the methodology employed, the profit margin is fixed and the rum is released to the market. The brokers, intermediaries, governments, bulk buyers and stores will add fees and markups and taxes to the base selling price, and the result is the €80 to €100 (give or take) which the consumer pays for a middle aged, single barrel expression with 1000 bottles or so issued by an independent bottler. So perhaps this is a lot easier for an independent operation which buys rums from brokers, than it is for a vertically integrated multinational like DDL which has canefields, sugar factories, distillation apparatus, a huge labour force and a supply chain network that is large and far-flung.

Now, that means the entire revenue stream from such a specific, limited rum is likely to be €100,000 or lessdoes anyone believe that it “only” costs that amount to shepherd a rum for ten years through all its stages for a company that is as vertically integrated from cane to cork, as DDL? Not a chance. Smaller bottlers have it easier since they buy one small set of already-aged barrels at a time, low infrastructure costs, and have a skeleton staff; and this is both their advantage and disadvantage because they lose economies of scale while having a limited output in a barrel that may not succeed after ageing (and lose a lot to the angels in the process), while at the same time being able to pick exactly the barrels they want.

But DDL doesn’t have this issuethey have the infrastructure to age much more than just a few barrels at a time, and there are opportunities for a millesime approach, yearly issues, and yes, single-still aged output from multiple barrels, totalling many thousands of bottles. The economics favour DDL’s daring to go in this direction, I think, especially at higher levels of output of which they are clearly capable. (Even some limited test marketing would make sense, I thinkto the USA, I would suggest, because you wouldn’t believe the volume of wistful emails I get from that country, asking me where I got mine and how can they get some?)

Still, more subjective matters do start to come into play. For new products without a purchasing history behind them and issued in limited quantities, it’s a risk, a big one, to invest a decade or more in ageing, take the hit from the angels and losses on barrels that don’t work after all thatthen bottle perhaps 15% of the original volume, price high and hope sales will follow. Distributors and shops will also not want to give shelf space or prominence to stuff they are unsure will move in volume. Also, new products can cut into the sales of the old dependables upon which all cash flow is based (and which may subsidize loss leaders like the single barrels, which can be uneconomical at first).

But it is my contention that DDL doesn’t need to do this: the path has already been blazed by the independent bottlers; and DDL / El Dorado (and the famed stills) is one of the more recognized, widely sold brands in the rum universe. Velier has shown the model can succeed. We know for a fact that a ten year old Demerara rum from a single still (at any strength between 45-65%) can reasonably sell for €100 / US$120 and maybe even more. And the prices escalate with both age and exclusivity, using existing distribution channels and marketing strategies already in place. DDL has spent decades building up its brand and distribution, so these are sunk costs that work to the advantage of selling more, rather than less, of the single-still expressions, even if issued 40% and not cask strength.

el_dorado_bottlerange

Photo copyright lovedrinks.com

What’s on DDL’s strategic mind?

What this leaves us with is a number (depressing) conjectures about DDL’s short and medium term strategy.

  1. The cash cows of the aged rums which blend the stills’ outputs will continue
  2. Experiments with different cask finishes will gather some steam, concentrating, in my opinion, on the El Dorados 12, 15 and 21 years old (I doubt the 25 year old will be tampered with unless it is to make it stronger).
  3. Yes, spiced rums will continue, maybe even be expanded. They sell briskly, much to the annoyance of many purists.
  4. The single barrel, still-specific rums may be re-started, but most of the wooden-still outputs will continue to be favoured for producing the 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old blends, and not for anything more specialized.
  5. DDL will make no sudden moves into new (rum) product lines. The company simply does not seem to be structured to allow experimental development. That’s why agile little companies like Compagnie des Indies can survive and even make money….using DDL’s rums.

In other words, we can expect the status quo to continue for quite some time. They shut Velier out, but gave us nothing to replace it.

Of course, this is all me being pissy. I know some of the guys over there, spent many years in Guyana, love the place, like their rums. It annoys me no end that they almost never respond to emails, provide little beyond marketing materials when they do, have on their website a man gone to the rumshop in the sky many moons ago, and just continue doing the same old thing year after year: as I said, the new finishes on the 15 year old do not really impress me, though I do want to try them (I’m a reviewer after all).

I think this indifference to smaller market segments is a mistake, however. Because three major trends are gathering a serious head of steam in our world:

  1. Aged scotch is rising in price faster than people can keep up; and as the industry frantically tries to sell NAS whisky to make up for the shortfall of suitably aged reserves, malt-lovers will move more and more to craft rums, especially where profiles are similar. Increasing sales of craft rums and the emergence of more and more small rum-producing companies suggests this trend is well underway, so where is DDL’s response? (Observe the farsightedness of Richard Seale partnering up with Velier in the 2015 release season, a position DDL could have had for the asking given their past association with Luca Gargano)
  2. In about five years, as rum penetrates a critical mass of drinkers who demand unadulterated, cask strength, limited edition, well made products, DDL will likely have revisit the decision to divert its stock to more craft-based offerings and reduce the blends (either that or increase output across the board, and with sugar’s woes in Guyana, that might be problematicor another opportunity) . Whether they have sufficient aged rums available at that point to both satisfy the blended-aged market, and something more exclusive, only they can know. But sooner or later, they will have to start.
  3. The USA cannot keep on subsidizing Bacardi and their ilk forever. Too many US citizens are already squawking all over social media about how the best rums are never to be found in their location and when they are, the price differential is too great between those and the subsidized rums. Once they start agitating for reform of subsidies and tax breaks, other countries take the matter to the WTO, and fairer tax regimens and tariffs are passedand sooner or later this will happenthen craft rums will become more competitive, and the US market will explode. DDL had better be ready to increase its market share there when this happens. If all they have is the same old menu and live off past glories, then they will fall behind other, nimbler, smarter companies with a more diversified (or focussed) portfolio.

Summing up.

The three single barrel expressions of DDL’s impressive stable point to more serious structural deficiencies of their medium term planning with respect to rums. They are too weak, too few, and marketed too poorly in a time of an increasingly educated, knowledgeable drinking class. I’m not saying independent bottlers’ craft expressions are the wave of the futurebut I do contend that they will get a larger and larger slice of the market in the years to come, and it seems that DDL is poorly positioned to take advantage of this. If I was on their team, the first thing I’d do is stop selling bulk rum from the wooden stills to anyone, hoard it all, and start issuing high proof, low volume, carefully selected, suitably aged rums in very limited, exclusive markets.

But nothing I’ve read and heard and seen suggests this is on DDL’s planning horizon. There is a subtle sense of complacency involved here, along the lines of “We have the stills, we have the sugar cane, we have the storage space, and tons of old rums. We can adapt whenever we chose.”

Maybe. It will probably be neither so easy or quite so quick. A small outfit dealing in a few barrels at a time, sure. A monolith like DDL? One can only wonder. And, in the case of me and my rum-chum friends, hope a little.

Update January 2016

This article was overtaken by events, of course. In January 2016, DDL announced that they would indeed issue three cask-strength expressions, an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles. No word on issue volumes. The youngest would be about ten years old and for the moment sold only in Europe. So the timing of my essay, as well as my conclusions, really suckedtoo bad. Still, I’d rather be wrong and get some good rums to buy, rather and be right and get none. I hope this is a forerunner of many aged rums to come from DDL, and that they live up to the high standard Luca set.

Nov 082015
 

UF30E 1985 cropRumaniacs Review 011 | 0411

Time to address the brontosaurii of Velier for a few Rumaniacs write ups, since the samples are there. UF30E is a bityoungfor inclusion into the Rumaniacs pantheon, but it is out of production, so let’s have it. The code stands for Uitvlugt Field #30 East, or some such, which would puzzle even someone from Mudland (like, ummwell, me). Never mind. With an outturn of 814 bottles from three barrels, it remains one of the best rums from Velier I’ve ever sampled. And while I thought had overpraised it back in 2013, it turns out I may have sold it short, given othersresponses to it in the years between then and now.

Colourdarkish amber

Strength – 60.7%

NoseNothing changed between then and nowit’s still amazing. Heated, dark, viscous, heavy on the nose, molasses, prunes, dark chopped fruit, blackcurrants, dates, and black cake. After opening somewhat, these opening salvoes were followed by lighter tones of flowers, chocolate, some anise. Rich and powerful and not at all astringent or bitchy.

PalateThe balance of the various components competing for your olfactory and labial attention is extraordinary. The Velier PM 1974 is fantastic too, but for different reasons, and something of a one-trick pony in comparison to the sheer variety that was going on here: sweet and salt, teriyaki chicken (minus the bird but with all the veg), molasses, more fruits, green apples, a little smoke and leather and aromatic cigarillos, and those aromatic hints of what, rosewater? orange juice? Whatever it was, it was great. Even 60.7%, which would normally scare the trees into shedding their autumn leaves, was remarkably well handled. You got hit with the power, sureyou didn’t mind it, is all.

Finishsums up everything that has come before. Long, lasting and pungent, not dry. Nuts, flowers, some sweet soya, molasses, a shade of caramel. The thing doesn’t want to leave, honestly.

ThoughtsBrilliant all-round rum which pushes all the right buttons for me. Still makes me regret I didn’t buy more when I had the chance. Since it was issued back in 2011 with a reasonable outturn, it’s probably more than likely it’s still available somewhere.

(92/100)

Jun 062015
 

IMG_6970_2Rumaniacs Review 004 | 0404

First rum I drank back in the day. Was working in the interior of Guyana for gold exploration companies at the time; every Saturday evening, a couple of bottles of this stuff were trotted out for us to get hammered on. We drank it swiftly, continuously, copiously and without a care for quality. This one is supposedly fruit curednot that I noticed much of that.

Nose: Thin, sharp. Coconut shavings, swiftly disappearing. Faint caramel and vanilla. Nuts. Anise, but not much. Raisins, red guavas and grapes waved at me, but kept way back.

Palate: Light bodied, hay coloured 40%, almost not a Demerara at all. Thin and sharp. White flowers, more coconut, a few fruity notes, peaches and cream with a dusting of cinnamon. Some mangos, raisins and black currants at the backend. A bit sweet, hardly noticeable. There’s not enough going on here to care, really. It’s all very underwhelming

Finish: Short, sharp and dismissive. Almost nothing to discern here at all beyond scraping heat and dark sugar and licorice.

Thoughts: A throwaway rum, for mixing, I suppose. I remember it being a lot more raw and pestilential. No notes on ageing provided, but methinks it’s a really young ‘unat best a five year old. In between grumbling that nobody ever thought to keep any of these rums for heritage purposes (people were to busy drinking the stuff) Carl Kanto remarked to me that there were aged variations of the King of Diamonds, and they evolved into the El Dorado line in the 1990s. For my money (speaking metaphorically), this wasn’t one of themif one could ever be found, I suppose you could buy it for historical value.

(75/100)

  • 90 + : exceptional
  • 85-89: excellent, special rums
  • 80-84: quite good
  • 75-79: better than average
  • 70-74: below average
  • < 70 : Avoid
Jun 012010
 

This review was written in 2010 for the online rum magazine Rum Connection, and I add it here for completeness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted that the rich are different from you and me. The same could possibly be said of premium rums at the top of the scale. They are so different, represent such an investment of time and effort, and are usually in such short supply that they come to represent something of the pinnacle of achievement in rum blending and production. Something rarefied, something out of the ordinary box in which most aged rums are placed. Something really, really special.

Such a rum is the El Dorado 25 year old, first seen in 1999 when the Millennium Edition came out. Just think of what that means. A full three years before the first stocks of the groundbreaking El Dorado 15 year old were put away (it came out in 1992 and so was set in motion in 1978), some farsighted visionary selected the barrels that held the rums which would eventually make their way into the first bottles of ED25. When the original blends were first casked, there were no personal computers, no cinema multiplexes, no ipods, cds, dvds or cell phones, and the premium rums that so dominate today’s high end market were barely a glimmer in someone’s eye. Five American presidents passed into and out of the White House while the casks slumbered and aged in DDL’s warehouses.

The ED 25 I reviewed here wasn’t the millenium edition but a more recent vintage (1980), and, perhaps as befits the pricey top end of the range, doesn’t skimp too much on the presentation (though I believe it could do better, and it seems to adhere to DDL’s philosophy of presentational minimalism). It arrives in a glass decanter quite unlike any other bottle in the El Dorado range, and fits tightly into a black cylindrical tin. The bottle is sealed with a glass-topped cork, firmly seated. Nice, very nice. Full brownie points for this, though it doesn’t equate to the bottle-lying-on-a-bed-of-satin in a blue box such as the Johnnie Walker Blue Label arrives with (and for a hundred bucks less for that one, you kinda wonder about that, but never mind).

The ED25 poured into the glass in a dark-brown cascade of liquid expense. At $300/bottle in Alberta (more in Toronto, I guarantee it, assuming it ever gets there), it was a pretty expensive shot no matter how little I decanted. On the other hand, it was worth it. Take the nose: Demerara rums are noted for thick, dark, molasses-based structure, and El Dorados pretty much pioneered the profile, but here, it was almost delicate. Somehow, DDL’s master blender managed to mute the inevitable alcohol sting of a 40% rum, dampened the sometimes excessive molasses scent, and created a complex nose that was a mixture of fresh brown sugar, caramel, orange, banana and assorted fruits. And I’m not talking about a mango, or apple or guava, but that mixture of fruits that gets into the best West Indian black cake served at Christmas time and weddings. Damn it was sexy. While I’d had the ED25 before, I had been in a hurry that day and trying it along with five other rums – so sampling it again under more controlled conditions permitted a more analytical tasting (if a less enjoyable one, given the absence of good friends), where notes I had missed the first time came through more clearly.

No discussion of El Dorado rums can be complete without mentioning their famous wooden stills, and the care DDL took to ensure the survival of the various stills from plantations that once produced their famous marques. Port Mourant, Uitvlugt (pronounced eye-flugt), Enmore, Versailles, LBI, Albion, Skeldon…the names are like a roll call of honour for marques now almost gone. These days only a few are in continuous commercial production (ICBU, PM and EHP are the most commonly found), none on the original estates. As the individual plantation distilleries closed down and were consolidated at Diamond Estate factory complex over the decades, DDL moved the entire still from the closed estate factory to Diamond. DDL operates eight different stills each with its own profile: six columnar stills, of which four are Savalle, and one is the last wooden Coffey still in existence; and two wooden pot stills, also the last in the world. From these still come rums with clear and definable characteristics that still reflect the tastes and characters of their original plantations, where they were once made.

The El Dorado 25 year old is a blend of rums from many of these stills: the Enmore wooden Coffey columnar still; the LBI and Albion Savalle stills; and the double wooden pot still from Port Mourant. Each brings its own distinct flavour to the table. And on the palate, they emerge like flowers in the desert after a rain. The rum emerging out of the blending of product from all these different stills was full-bodied, oily and coated the tongue from front to back. It was smoother than just about any other rum I had ever tried. I’m unfortunately not able to separate which taste emanates from the rum coming from which still, but I’ll tell you what I did taste: liquorice, caramel, molasses, brown sugar, burning canefields at harvest time, and baking spices, faint citrus together with the scent of freshly grated coconut. The tastes ran together in a dark, rich mélange that were enhanced with a sweet that may be the only negative I have to remark on this superb rum. I love the Demerara style – dark, full bodied and sweet – but the ED 25 is loaded with just a shade too much of the sugary stuff, and looking at my original tasting notes from six months ago, I see that I made exactly the same observation then. Beyond that, the thing is phenomenal.

The fade is similarly excellent. Long, smooth and with a gentle deep burn that releases the final fumes and tastes to the back of the throat in a voluptuous sigh of completion. This is without doubt one of the best goodbye kisses I’ve ever experienced from a rum, and I still think of it as a sort of baseline to which I compare many others. The loveliness of the complex nose, of taste reeking of class and sundowners, of a finish redolent of warm tropical nights on a moonlit shore, makes one want to laugh out loud with sheer delight.

At the top of the scale in any endeavour, ranking the best becomes problematic. When trying to assess the ED25, the relative comparisons are inevitable. There are certainly richer or more varied noses on other premium rums (English Harbour 25 is better, and I do have a soft spot for the Appleton 30); there are rums with more complexity (Mount Gay 1703); better body and taste (Flor de Cana 18, perhaps Clemente Tres Vieux for some), and for a finish, can anything beat the Gordon & MacPhail Jamaica 1941 58 yr old? But if you hold the “best” hostage to any one criterion, then you’re shortchanging the rankings, and will get nothing but vagueness. For a rum to ascend to greatness, it must be well-rounded, with near-excellence (if not actual brilliance) in all categories. Appearance, colour, body, taste, nose, balance, grace, emotional appeal, personal attraction and a certain timelessness…that’s the mitochondrial DNA of such a rum, and what comprises its core amino acids.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present the El Dorado 25 year old. In the opinion of this Demerara-style-loving reviewer, it is, quite simply, one of the best rums of its kind ever made.

Update, May 2020: Clearly, in the years that passed between the time this exuberant review was written in 2010, and the time I tried another one in 2018, my opinion on its excellence changed (downwards). But as a signpost in how preferences and an appreciations of a rum can change with time, this serves as both a useful signpost ofbeforeand a cautionary tale of starting with high end rums too early in one’s career before proper groundwork and wider experience is gained.