Jul 152021
 

Distillerie Poisson-Père Labat on Guadeloupe’s southern island of Marie Galante is named after the 17th century Dominican friar who modernized sugar making technology in the French islands (he was the proprietor of the Domaine de Fonds-Saint-Jacques on Martinique and owned slaves there, which leads to a complex and problematic legacy). Poisson is a small distillery on the extreme west of Marie Galante, balancing off Bellevue in the east and Bielle and Capovilla in the centre 1, and it has a history dating back at least two centuries.

Sugar cane cultivation on Guadeloupe and Marie Galante has in fact been around for much longer than that, however. Sugar cane was cultivated on the islands with a view to its exploitation and export after 1654 (the French had led a rather dismal and failed colonization drive in 1648 but returned six years later), thanks to settlers from Brazil who prompted the creation of the first small sugar refineries, using small ox-powered mills (known as “merry-go-rounds”) to crush the cane.

The crop and its cultivation and processing had an up and down existence: the tiny island was continually being sacked and plundered multiple times by various warring European nations and bouncing between English and French ownership until things settled down in the early 1800s. By then sugar was the dominant economic force on the island and there were over a hundred small mills, most characterized and powered by the windmills that still dot the landscapethese were introduced in 1780 to replace the ox-powered mills, and then were themselves replaced by steam powered mills in the 1880s.

Pere Labat factory building (c) domloisirsetculture.fr/

What eventually became Poisson-Père Labat was initially part of a larger sugar estate, an adjunct to the Marechal plantation and sugar factory. It was split off and became a standalone estate in 1822 when a wealthy woman named Catherine Poisson bought it, though the exact relationship between Poisson and Marechal’s owners is unknown. A sugar refinery was built on the property in 1863. Throughout the 19th century it also provided most of the sugar cane used by the Grande-Anse sugar factory, a few kilometers away, which implies that Marechal was having issues that forced its own mill to close down at some point (though sources for this inference are lacking and the question of why bother supplying yet another sugar mill when you have one on your own land is unanswered).

It would appear that there were some changes of ownership during the 1800sAtlas du Rhum notes a person by the name of Gaspard Casse and his heirs running the estate during that timebut the modern history of Poisson can truly said to have begun in 1916, when Edouard Rameau, part of a family that had been in Marie Galante since the late 1700s, bought Poisson, keeping the name. He made the decision to turn the sugar factory into a distilleryby then the Grand-Anse was the largest refinery on the island, obviating the need for one on Poissonand proceeded to install a steam engine and a copper still (now defunct but still on the premises). Edouard also owned the nearby Saint Christophe distillery which produced molasses rum, so perhaps in an effort to diversify he switched Poisson to cane juice rhums.

Boilers. Photo (c) domloisirsetculture.fr

The effort was clearly successful as production of rhum agricole rose from around 22,000 liters in 1923 to nearly double that a mere four years later, and continued apace, requiring the importation of another copper alembicit was bought in Barbados in 1934 — to augment the original still. Moreover, during the second world war, Rameau hit upon the idea of exploiting the name of Père Labat as a brand name for Poisson’s rhums, registered the name with a casual disregard for appropriation or appropriateness, and started distributing such rhums with that name after 1945. The distillery continued to be successful, and by the 1950s it was clear that another still was needed as the Barbados alembic was showing its age: it was replaced by a creole column still in 1955, and another one was added in the late 1970s. Both of these remain operational in 2021.

The sugar crisis of the 1960s and 1970s reduced the number of active distilleries on the island to five (Le Salut, Saint-Louis, Poisson-Labat, Bielle and Bellevue), and then even further with the closure of Le Salut and Saint-Louis. The Rameau family held on and in 1976 operations devolved to Ernest Renault, a grandson of Edouard Rameau (he’s also the uncle of Dominique Thierry, the owner of the Bielle distillery). He was a petroleum engineer, and made the decision, after a few years away from the island, to return and devote himself to the management and reconstruction of the distillery which had seen little renewal or capital investment to that time.

(c) PM Spirits

However, with rising production and transport costs, the relative isolation of the small island, the competition with vodka as a premium spirit at that time, as well as more popular molasses based rums outselling agricoles, it was a losing game. In the 1990s, Père Labat and Bielle together set up a company, the Vieux Rums de Marie Galante, and built a cellar near the distillery for the aging of their rums but none of this helped, and the distillery saw its profitability continually decrease.

Finally, in 2007 Poisson-Père Labat was bought out by an island group led by businessman Jean-Cedric Brot; this investment group included Jose Peribakis who we last met when discussing Domaine de Severinhe is a minority shareholder and Managing Director of Poisson-Père Labat now, while Mr. Brot is CEO.

Fermentation vats. Photo (c) domloisirsetculture.fr

The distillery has stayed under that control ever since. They have done some work to modernize and upgrade the facilities, made the old facilities of the distillery a tourist destination, and increased the output and range of the distillery. Père Labat currently offers white agricole rhums (Labat 59º, 55º, 50º and 40º and a monster of 70.7º) as well as “Ambre” and “Boise” lightly aged from 6-18 months, and older versions aged 2, 3 and 8 years, and the top end millesimes and special editions aged more than ten. They have, unsurprisingly, not forgotten their roots with the unaged blancs since they are selling increasingly well locally and abroad, but are clearly aiming to colonize the luxury top-end market as well. Only time will tell how successful that strategy will be.


The Rhums

Père Labat has been around for so long that to list all their historical bottlings is an impossibility. I have started with their current lineup (as of 2021) and looked around into what references as exist, to add a few extras from the past below that. I’ve identified any independent bottlings where I could find them.

  • Père Labat Rhum Extra Vieux 3 Ans 42º
  • Père Labat Rhum Extra Vieux 8 Ans 42º
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Hors D’Age Millesime 1985 54.5º
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Hors D’Age Millesime 2010 8YO Single Cask 45º
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Hors D’Age Millesime 2004 13 YO Single Cask 45º
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole XO 1995 & 1997 (18 & 20 YO)
  • Père Labat Rhum Brun Agricole 55
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Eleve Sous BoisCuvee Special
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Eleve Sous Bois – 59º Soleil
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole Eleve Sous Bois – 55º Soleil
  • Père Labat Rhum Agricole AmbreDore 50º
  • Père Labat Rhum Blanc Agricole 70.7º
  • Père Labat Rhum Blanc Agricole 59º
  • Père Labat Rhum Blanc Agricole 50º
  • Père Labat Rhum Blanc Agricole 40º
  • Père Labat Black Opus Millesime 2009 42º
  • Velier Père Labat 2010 6 YO 57.5%
  • Compagnie des Indes Guadeloupe (Père Labat) 1998-2018 20 YO 43.1%

 


Sources:

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 unclearit’s very likely earlier (sources conflictsee 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 Pakistanwhere 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 militaryand 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 forone comment [below] says it stood forHerery George”) 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. (the comment below states he was the grandson of Lewis Meakin). 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 mysterythe 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 inKusowlie” (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 timehustle and bustle in the business world attend to youth more than old age, especially in colonial Indiathen 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 Edwardhe 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. Ltdclearly 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 lifeespecially 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 businessesbrewery, 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 beenwhisky and beer. These were popularLion and Golden Eagle beers remained the most widely sold in India, with Solan No.1 doing the honours for whiskybut 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 Gandhiand 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 centuryalbeit 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 CenturyThreats, 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 Industriesthey 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 aheadby 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 foundationOld 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 dealclearly 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 bottlingsall 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%. Whether theReady to drinkflavoured range of underproof cocktail rums released in 2018 (and other such marketing strategies) was successful and can arrest the long term issues the company faces is yet to be seen.

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 fansone 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 supporterbut 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 rumsand 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
  • 2018 “Ready to drinkrange debuts on the market, released to arrest the slide of sales

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 232020
 

Introduction

Brutta ma buoni is an Italian phrase meaning “ugly but good”, and as I wrote in the SMWS 3.5 “Marmite” review, describes the oversized codpieces of the “151” types of rums very nicely indeed. These glute-flexing ABV beefcakes have been identifiably knocking people into stupors for at least since the 1930s and possibly even before thatand while they were never entirely good, when it came to serving up a real fast drunk with a hot-snot shot of whup-ass, they really couldn’t be beat. Flavours were often secondary, proof-power everything.

Everyone involved with rumswhether bartender, barfly or boozehoundknows what a “151” is, and they lend themselves to adverbial flights of fancy, humorous metaphors and some funny reviews. They were and are often conflated with “overproof” rumsindeed, for a long time they were the only overproofs known to homo rummicus, the common rum drinkerand their claim to fame is not just a matter of their alcohol content of 75.5% ABV, but their inclusion in classic cocktails which have survived the test of time from when they were first invented.

But ask anyone to go tell you more about the 151s, and there’s a curious dearth of hard information about them, which such anecdotes and urban witticisms as I have mentioned only obscure. Why, for example, that strength? Which one was the first? Why were there so many? Why now so few? A few enterprising denizens of the subculture would mention various cocktail recipes and their origin in the 1930s and the rise of tiki in the post war years. But beyond that, there isn’t really very much, and what there is, is covered over with a fog suppositions and educated guesses.

Mythic Origins – 1800s to 1933

Most background material regarding high-proof rums such as the 151s positions their emergence in the USA during the Great Depressioncocktail recipes from that period called for certain 151 proof rums, and America became the spiritual home of the rum-type. What is often overlooked is that if a recipe at that time called for such a specific rum, by name, then it had to already existand so we have to look further back in time to trace its origins.

1873 Australian newspaper ad for Lemon Hart (Rum History FB page)

That line of thinking brings us to Lemon Hart, probably the key company behind the early and near-undocumented history of the 151s. It had to have been involved since, in spite of their flirting with bankruptcy (in 1875) and changes in ownership over the years, they were as far as I am aware, among the only ones producing anything like a widely-sold commercial overproof in the late 1800s and very early 1900s (quite separate from bulk suppliers like Scheer and ED&F Man who dealt less with branded bottles of their own, but supplied others in their turn). Given LH’s involvement with the rum industry, they had a hand in sourcing rums from the West Indies or from ED&F Man directly, and this made them a good fit for supplying other British companies. Their stronger rums and others’, so far as I can tell, tended to just be called overproofs (meaning greater than 57% for reasons tangential to this essay but related to how the word proof originated to begin with¹)…but not “151”.

Victoria Daily British Colonist, March 11, 1914. Ad for a 32 Overproof rum, which is what 151s were once called

Navy rums were considered the beefcake proofed rums of their day, and certainly stronger ones did existthe 69% Harewood House Barbados rum bottled in 1780 is an examplebut those that did were very rarely commercially bottled, and probably just for estate or plantation consumption, which is why records are so scant. The real question about rums bottled north of 57% was why bother to make them at all? And what’s that story that keeps cropping up, about a British / Canadian mercantile concern having something to do with it?

Earliest record of a 151 rum. the Canadian HBC – 1934, Montana, USA

Here’s the tale: the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670, and was not only the first great trading concern in North Americait had its origins in the fur trade and trading posts of the British-run northern part of the continentbut for some time was almost a quasi-Government of large parts of the vast territories that became Canada. Their chain of trading posts morphed into sales shops which also sold alcoholbut as Steve Remsberg remarked in relating this possibility, the story (without proof, ha ha) goes that rums with proof strengths or lower were insufficient for the business of the HBC in the 1800s: it froze in the deep cold above the Arctic Circle, and so something with more oomph was required (mind you, at that time they sold mostly brandy and gin, not rum so much, but I have no doubt that rum was also part of their overall alcoholic portfolio given their Canada’s long history with rum, and HBC’s identification with it later).

Lemon Hart had a strong presence in the colonies (it was big in Canada and huge in Australia through the late 1800s to early 1900s, for example), possessing connections to the main importer of rum and the Caribbean rum industry, and can reasonably be construed to have been involved in bootstrapping these efforts into an even stronger version of their regular rums to address HBC’s requirements, a theory I put forward because there really wasn’t any other company which was so firmly identified and tied to the rum-type in years to come, or so suitably positioned to do so for another major British mercantile concern². There is, unfortunately, no direct evidence here, I just advance it as a reasoned conjecture that fits tolerably well with such slim facts as are known. It is equally possible that HBC approached major rum suppliers like Man independently….but somehow I doubt it.

1935 Fairbanks Daily News (Alaska, USA) ad

Whatever the truth of the matter, by the early 1900s some kind of overproof “style”no matter who made itis very likely to have become established across North America, and known about, even if a consistent standard strength over 57% had not been settled on, and the term “151” might not have yet existed. Certainly by 1914 the strength had been usedit just wasn’t called “151,” but “32 Overproof”. (If we assume that proof was defined as 100º (57.14% ABV) then 32 Overproof worked out to 132º proof and the maths makes this 75.43%close enough for Government work for sure). Unsurprisingly, this was also the Hudson’s Bay Company, which marketed such a 32 Overproof in British Columbia as far back as 1914 (see above).

The Daily Colonist, Victoria, Vancouver Island B.C, 01 May 1914

However, I suggest that such high-powered rums would have remained something of a niche spirit given their lack of branding and advertising, and they might have stayed in the shadows, were it not for the enactment of the Volstead Act in the USA and similar legislation in Canada after the restrictions of the First World War.

That drove the category undergroundwhile simultaneously and paradoxically making it more popular. Certainly the strength of such a rum made it useful to have aroundfrom a logistical standpoint at least. Because quite aside from its ability to get people drunker, faster (and even with its propensity to remain liquid at very low temperatures of the North), from a shipping perspective its attraction was simply that one could ship twice as much for the same cost and then dilute it elsewhere, and make a tidy profit.

Although direct evidence is lacking, I am suggesting that sometime between 1920 and 1933 (the dates of American Prohibition) a consistent strength was settled on and the title “151” was attached to rums bottled at 75.5%, and it was an established fact of drinking life, though maddeningly elusive to date with precision. Cocktail recipes now called for them by name, the public was aware, and the title has never disappeared.

The Strength

So why 151? Why that odd strength of 75.5%, and not a straight 70%, 75% or 80%? We can certainly build a reasonable chain of supposition regarding why overproofed spirits were made at all, why Lemon Hart and HBC made something seriously torqued-up and therefore why subsequent cocktails called for itbut nailing down that particular number is no longer, I believe, possible. It’s just been too long and the suppositions too varied, and records too lacking.

1938 Ron Rico advertisement

One theory goes that some US state laws (California and Florida specifically) required that proofage (or a degree higher) as the maximum strength at which a commercial consumable drink could be madethis strikes me as untenable given its obvious limitations, and in any case, it’s a factoid, not an explanation of why it was selected. Ed Hamilton of the Ministry of Rum suggested that the strength was roughly the output strength of a historic pot stilldistillate would have come off after a second pass or a retort at about 75% abvbut since Puerto Rico was making rums at that strength without any pot stills quite early on (Ron Rico advertised them for being useful for cooking, which is an intriguing rabbit hole to investigate) this also is problematic. Alternatively, it might have been the least dangerous yet still cost-effective way of shipping bulk rum around prior to local dilution, as noted above. Or because of the flash point of a 75% ethanol / 25% water mix is about the ratio where you can set it on fire without an additional propellant or heating the liquid (also technically unlikely since there are a range of temperatures or concentrations where this can happen). And of course there’s Steve Remsburg’s unproven but really cool idea, which is that it was a strength gradually settled on as rums were developed for HBC that would not freeze in the Arctic regions.

All these notions have adherents and detractors, and none of them can really be proven (though I’d love to be shown up as wrong in this instance). The key point is that by 1934, the 151s existed, were named, released at 75.5%, and already considered a normand interestingly, they had become a class of drinks that were for the most part an American phenomenon, not one that grew serious legs in either Asia or Europe. How they surged in popularity and became a common part of every bar’s repertoire in the post-war years is what we’ll discuss next.

Tiki, the Beachcomber, Lemon Hart et al – 1934-1963

In spite of the 151s’ modern bad-boy reputationsas macho-street-cred testing grounds, beach party staples, a poor man’s hooch, where one got two shots for the price of one and a massive ethanol delivery system thrown in for freethat was a relatively recent Boomer and Gen X development. In point of fact, 151s were, for most of the last ninety years, utilized as cocktail ingredients, dating back to the dawn of the tiki era started in the 1930s and which exploded in the subsequent decades. And more than any other rum of its kind, the rep of being the first 151 belonged to the famed Lemon Hart 151, which was specifically referenced in the literature of the time and is the earliest identifiable 151 ancestor.

So if there was ever a clear starting point to the 151s’ rise to prominence, then it had to have been with the repeal of American Prohibition in 1933 (Canada’s Prohibition was more piecemeal in execution and timing of implementation varied widely among provinces, but in almost all cases lasted less than a decade, during the ‘teens and 1920s). Within a year of the US repeal, both Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company liquor division and the UK rum supplier Lemon Hart had made 151-proof rums, explicitly naming them as such (and not as some generic “overproof”), and positioning them for sale in the advertisements of the time.

This came about because of the opening of Don’s Beachcomber, a Polynesian themed restaurant and bar in Hollywood, run by an enterprising young man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gant, who subsequently changed his name to Donn Beach to jive with the renamed “Don the Beachcomber” establishment. His blend of Chinese cuisine, tropical-themed rum cocktails and punches and interior decor to channel Polynesian cultural motifs proved to be enormously influential and spawned a host of imitators, the most famous of whom was Victor Bergeron, who created a similar line of Tiki bars named Trader Vic’s in the post war years, to cater to renewed interest in Pacific islands’ culture.

The key takeaway from this rising interest in matters tropical and tiki, was the creation of ever more sophisticated cocktails using eight, nine, even ten ingredients or more. Previous 19th and early 20th century recipes stressed three or four ingredients, used lots of add-ins like vermouth and bitters and liqueurs, and at best referred to the required rums as “Jamaica” or “Barbados” or what have you. Then as now, there were no shortage of mixesthe 1932 Green Cocktail book lists 251 of them and a New York bartender’s guide from 1888 has nearly two hundred.

Extract from Don the Beachcomber 1941 drinks menu

What distinguished Beach and Bergeron and others who followed, was their innovative and consistent use of rums, which were identified in some cases by name (like the Lemon Hart 151 or the Wray & Nephew 17 year old), with several now-classic cocktails being invented during this period: the Zombie, the Mai Tai, the Three Dots and a Dash, the Blue Hawaii and the 151 Swizzle, among others. Not all these required high proof rums, but twothe Zombie and the Swizzleabsolutely did, and by 1941, the Beachcomber’s rum list had several 151 variants including branded ones like Lemon Hart, Lownde’s, and Trower’s….and yes, HBC.

Initially the Lemon Hart 151 was the big gun in the house and was explicitly referenced in the recipes of the time, like for the Zombie, which Beachbum Berry spent so much time tracking down. But if one were to peruse the periodicals of the day one would note that they were not the only ones advertising their strong rums: in the mid to late 1930s: the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company liquor arm, and a Puerto Rican brand called Ron Rico (made just as the Serralles’ firm launched the Don Q brand with a newly acquired columnar stillthey acquired Ron Rico in 1985) were also there, showing the fad was not just for one producer’s rum, and that a market existed for several variations.

The fortieswar years were quiet for 151s, but by the 1950swith post-war boom times in the USA, and the rise of the middle class (and their spending power) — their popularity began to increase, paralleling the increase in awareness of rums as a whole. Tens of thousands of soldiers returned from duty in the Pacific, movies extolled the tropical lifestyle of Hawaii, and members of the jet set, singers and Hollywood stars all did their bit to fuel the Polynesian cultural explosion. And right alongside that, the drinks and cocktails were taking off, spearheaded by the light and easy Spanish style blends such as exemplified by Bacardi. This took time to get going, but by the early 1960s there was no shortage of 151 rumsfrom Puerto Rico in particular, but also from Jamaica and British Guianato rank alongside the old mainstays like Lemon Hart.

The Era of Bacardi – 1963-2000

It may be overstating things to call these years an era of any kind: here, I simply use it as a general shorthand for a period in which 151s were no longer exotic but an established rum category in their own right, with all their attendant ills.

As with most ideas that make money, sooner or later big guns and small come calling to join the party. Bacardi had its problems by being ousted from Cuba in 1960, yet had had the foresight to diversify their company even before that, and operated in Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the USA. After the dust settled, they made their own 151 in the lighter Cuban styleat the time it was made in Brazil before production shifted to Puerto Rico, and its low and subsidized price made it a perennially popular rum popskull. It was widely available and affordable, and therefore soon became the bestselling rum of its type, overtaking and outselling all other 151 brands such as the Appleton 151 white, or the Don Q 151 made by the Serralles boys in Puerto Rico and those that had existed even earlier.

The official basis of the popularity of 151s remained the cocktails one could make with them. Without searching too hard, I found dozens of recipes, some calling for the use of Bacardi 151 alone, with names as evocative as “the Flatliner”, “Four Horsemen”, “Backfire on the Freeway”, “Superman’s Kryptonite” and “Orange F*cker”. Obviously there were many more, and if Bacardi seemed ubiquitous after a while, it was because it was low-cost and not entirely piss-poor (though many who tried it neat over the years might disagree).

One other demographic event which propelled 151s to some extent was the rise of the western post-war Baby Boomer generation and its successors like Gen-Xers who had known little privation or want or war in their lifetimes. These young people raised on Brando-esque machismo and moody Dean-style rebellion, had disposable income and faced the enormous impact of American popular culturefor them, 151s served another purpose altogether, that of getting hammered fast, and seeing if one could survive itsome sort of proof-of-manhood kind of thing. Stupidity, hormones, youth, party lifestyle, the filmic romance of California beaches, ignorance, take your pick. For yearsdecades, eventhis was the brush that tarred 151s and changed their popular perceptions.

In all that happy-go-lucky frat-boy party reputation combined with the allure of easily-made, inexpensive home-made concoctions, lay the seeds of its destruction (to Bacardi, at any rate). People got hurt while under the highly intoxicating influence of killer mixes, got into accidents, did stupid and dangerous things. 151s were highly flammable, and property damage was not unheard of, either by careless handling or by inexpert utilization of the overproofs in flambees or floats. Unsurprisingly in a litigious culture like the USA, lawsuits were common. Bacardi tried to counter this by printing clear warnings and advisories on its labels, to no avail, and finally they decided to pull the plug in 2016 in order to focus on more premium rum brands that did less harm to their reputation.

That singularly unspectacular happening (or non-happening) was accompanied in the subsequent months and years by retrospectives and newsbytes, and a peculiar outpouring of feelings by now-grown-up man-children who, from their home bars and man-caves, whimsically and poetically opined on its effect on their lives, andmore commonlythe tearful reminiscences of where they first got wasted on it, and the hijinks they got up to while plastered. It did not present the nobility of the human race in its best light, perhaps, but it did show the cultural impact that the 151s, especially Bacardi’s, had had.

151s in the New Centurya decline, but not a fall

The discontinuation of Bacardi’s big bad boy obscured a larger issue, which was that these rums had probably hit their high point in the 1980s or 1990s, when it seemed like there was a veritable treasure trove of now-vanished 151 brands to choose from: Carioca, Castillo, Palo Viejo, Ron Diaz, Don Lorenzo, Tortuga and Trader Vic’s (to name a few). It was entirely possible that this plethora of 151s was merely a matter ofme tooandlet’s round out the portfolio”. After all, at this time blends were still everything, light rum cocktails that competed with vodka were still the rage, neat drinking was not a thing and the sort of exacting, distillery-led, estate-specific rum making as now exists was practically unheard of (we had to wait until the Age of Velier’s Demeraras to understand how different the world was before and after that point).

But by the close of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s, blendswhether high proof or notalready showed a decline in popular consciousness. And in the 2010s as independents began to release more and better high-proofed single-barrel rums, they were followed by DDL, Foursquare, St. Lucia Distillers, Hampden, Worthy Park and other makers from countries of origin, who started to reclaim their place as rum makers of the first instance. Smaller niche brands of these 151s simply disappeared from the rumscape.

The fact was, in the new century, 151s were and remained tricky to market and to promote. They exceeded the flight safety regulations for carrying on some airlines (many of whom cap this at 70% ABV, though there are variations) and the flammability and strength made many retailers unwilling to sell them to the general public. There was an ageing crop of people who grew up on these ferocious drinks and would buy them, sure, but the new generation of more rum-savvy drinkers was less enamoured of the style.

Which was not surprising, given the ever-increasing panoply of selections they had. The growing indifference of the larger drinking public to 151s as a whole was aided by the explosion of rums which were also overproofs, but not quite as strong, andmore importantlywhich tasted absolutely great. These were initially IB single barrel offerings like those of the SMWS or L’Esprit or Velier, and also juice from the Seychelles (Takamaka Bay), Haiti (the clairins), Martinique (Neisson L’Esprit 70º), and the highly popular and well-received Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, Wray & Nephew 63% White, Plantation OFTD, and on and on. These served the same purpose of providing a delicious alcoholic jolt to a mix (or an easy drunk to the rest), and were also affordableand often received reviews in the internet-enabled blogosphere that the original makers of the 151s could only have dreamed about.

Photo montage courtesy of and (c) Eric Witz from FB, Instagram @aphonik

Many such producers of 151s have proved unable or unwilling to meet this challenge, and so, gradually, they started to fade from producers’ concerns, supermarket shelves, consumers’ mindsand became less common. Even before the turn of the century, mention of the original 151s like Hudson’s Bay, Lownde’s and Trowers had vanished; Bacardi, as stated, discontinued theirs in 2016, Appleton possibly as late as 2018 (the Three Dagger 10YO 151 pictured above was gone by the 1960s), and many others whose names are long forgotten, fell by the roadside way before then. Nowadays, you hardly see them advertised much, any more. Producers who make themand that isn’t manyare almost shamefacedly relegating them to obscure parts of their websites, same as retailers tucking them away in the back-end bottom shelf. Few trumpet them front and centre any longer. And on the consumer side, with drinkers and bartenders being spoiled for choice, you just don’t see anyone jumping up on social media crowing how they scored oneexcept perhaps to say they drank one .

But the story doesn’t end here, because some producers have indeed moved with the times and gone the taste-specific route, gambling on bartenders and cocktail books’ recommending their 151s from an ever-shrinking selection.

Lemon Hart was, of course, the poster child for this kind of taste-specific Hulkamaniac of tastethey consistently used Demerara rum, probably Port Mourant distillate, for their 151, and even had a Jamaican 73% rum that boasted some serious flavour chops. Internal problems caused them to falter and cease selling their 151 around 2014, and Ed Hamilton (founder of both the website and the Facebook page “the Ministry of Rum”) jumped into the breach with his own Hamilton 151, the first new one of its kind in years, which he released in 2015 to great popular acclaim. The reception was unsurprising, because this thing tasted great, was an all-Guyana product and was aimed at a more discriminating audience that was already more in tune to rums bottled between 50%-75%. And that was quite aside from the bartenders, who still needed 151s for their mixes (as an aside, a rebranded Lemon Hart 151 was released in 2012 or thereabouts with a wine red label and was again subsequently discontinued a few years later). Even Velier acknowledged the uses of a 151 when they released a Worthy Park 151 on their own as part of the Habitation Velier line of pot still rums (and it’s great, btw). And in an interesting if ultimately stalled move that hints a the peculiar longevity of 151s, Lost Spirits used their Reactor to produce their own take on a Cuban Inspired 151so irrespective of other developments, the confluence of strength, flexibility of use and enormity of taste has allowed some 151s to get a real lease on life.

Others are less interesting, or less specific and may just exist, as many had before, to round out the portfolioDon Q from Puerto Rico makes a 151 to this day, and Tilambic from Mauritius does as well; El Dorado is re-introducing a new one soon (the Diamond 151, I believe), and Cruzan (Virgin Islands), Cavalier (Antigua), Bermudez (Dominican Republic), and Ron Carlos (USA) have their 151s of varying quality. Even Mhoba from South Africa joined the party in late 2020 with its own high ester version. The point is, even at such indifferent levels of quality, they’re not going anywhere, and if their heyday has passed us by, we should not think they have disappeared completely and can only be found, now, in out of the way shops, auctions or estate sales.

Because, somehow, they continue. They are still made. Young people with slim wallets continue to get wasted on this stuff, as they likely will until the Rapture. People post less and review 151s almost not at all, but they do post sometimesalmost always with wistful inquiries about where to get one, now that their last stock has run out and their favourite brand is no longer available. 151s might have run out of steam in the larger world of tiki, bartending and cocktails as new favourites emerge, but I don’t think they’ll ever be entirely extinct, and maybe that’s all that we can hope for, in a rum world as fast moving and fast changing as the one we have now.


Notes

  1. See my essay on proof
  2. Two other possibilities who could have developed a strong rum for HBC were Scheer and ED&F Man.
    1. Scheer was unlikely because they dealt in bulk, not their own brands, and mercantile shipping laws of the time would have made it difficult for them to ship rum to Britain or its colonies.
    2. ED&F Mann also did not consider itself a maker of branded rum, though it did hold the contract to supply the British Navy (Lemon Hart was their client, not a competitor). But by the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, they already had diversified and became more of a major commodities supplier, so the likelihood of them bothering with developing a rum for HBC is minimal (assuming that line of thinking is correct
  3. I have a reference from the Parramatta Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate dated May 11, 1901 (Parramatta, NSW, Australia) that refers to a 33% Overproof LowndesRum, which, if using metric proofs, works out to 76% ABV exactly and also sheds light on how far back the Lownde’s brand name goes.
  • I am indebted to the personal assistance of Martin Cate, Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, Matt Pietrek, and the writings of Wayne Curtis, for some of the historical and conjectural detail of the early days of the 151s. Needless to say, any mistakes in this text or errors in the theories are mine, not theirs.

1970s Cruzan 151, used with kind permission of Jason Cammarata Sr.

The List

There is almost no rum company in existence which really cares much about its own history and when its various rums were first released, changed, reblended, remade, re-labelled, re-issued, nothing. Nor, since the demise of ReferenceRhum website, is there a centralized database of rums, to our detriment. So one has to sniff around to find things, but at least google makes it easier.

There is a huge swathe of time between the 1930s and the 1990s, when rum was a seen as a commodity (referred to as merely “Jamaican” rum or “Barbados rum,” for example, in a generalized and dismissive context), and practically ignored as a quality product. Unsurprisingly records of the brands and rums were not often kept, so the list below is not as good as I’d like it to be. That said, here are those 151s I have managed to track down, and a few notes where applicable. I make no claim that it’s exhaustive, just the best I could do for now. I’d be grateful for any additions (with sources).

  • Admiral’s Old J 151 Overproof Spiced Rum Tiki Fire
  • Aristocrat 151
  • AH Riise Old St Croix 151 (1960s; and from reddit page. A “St Croix Rum” was referred to in 1888 Bartender’s Guide without elaboration
  • Appleton 151 (Jamaica)
  • Bacardi 151 Black (various production centres)
  • Bacardi 151 (standard, discontinued 2016)
  • Barbarossa 151 (USA)
  • Bermudez 151 (Blanco and “standard”)(Dominican Republic)
  • Barcelo 151 Proof (Dominican Republic)
  • Bocoy 151 Superior Puerto Rican Rum
  • Black Beard’s Overproof 151
  • Bocador 151
  • Brugal 151 Blanco Overproof (Dominican Republic)
  • Cane Rum 151 (Trinidad & Tobago)
  • Carioca 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Caribaya 151
  • Castillo Ron Superior 151 Proof
  • Cavalier 151 (Antigua)
  • Cockspur 5-Star 151 Rum (Barbados, WIRD, Herschell Innis, made 1971-1974)
  • Cohiba 151 (USA)
  • Comandante 151 Proof Small Batch Overproof Rum (with orange peel)(Panama)
  • Conch Republic Rum Co. 151 Proof (USA, Florida Distillers Co.)
  • Coruba 151 (Jamaica)(74%)
  • Cruzan 151 (2YO)(White and gold varieties) (US Virgin Islands)
  • Cut to the Overproof (Spiced) Rum 75.5%
  • Diamond Reserve Puncheon Demerara Rum 75.5% (Guyana)
  • Don Q 151 (3YO blend)(at least since the 1960s)(Puerto RicoSerralles)
  • Don Lorenzo 151 (Todhunter-Mitchell Distilleries, Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • El Dorado 151 (Guyana)(Re-issue 2020s)
  • El Dorado Superior High Strength Rum (DDL USA Inc, 1980s)
  • Explorer Fire Water Fine Island Rum 150 proof (St. Maarten, made by Caroni)
  • Goslings Black Seal 151 (Bermuda)
  • Hamilton 151 (Guyana/USA)(2014)
  • Hamilton 151 “False Idol” (Guyana/USA)(2019)(85% Guyana 15% Jamaica pot still)
  • Hana Bay Special 151 Proof Rum (Hawaii USA, post 1980s)
  • Havana Club 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Habitation Velier Forsythe 151 (Jamaica, WP)(2015 and 2017)
  • Inner Circle Black Dot 33 Overproof Rum (Australia 1968-1986, pre-Beenleigh)
  • James’s Harbor Caribbean Rum 151
  • Lamb’s Navy Rum 151 (UK, blend of several islands)
  • Largo Bay 151
  • Lemon Hart 151 (possibly since late 1880s, early 1890s) (Guyana/UK)
  • Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired 151 (USA)(2010s)(Limited)
  • Mhoba Strand 151º (South Africa)(High Ester, Glass-Cask blend)
  • Monarch Rum 151 Proof (Monarch Import Co, OR, USAHood River Distillers)
  • Mount Gay 151 (Barbados)
  • Old Nassau 151 Rum (Bahamas)
  • Palo Viejo 151 Ron de Puerto Rico (Barcelo Marques & Co, Puerto RicoSerralles)
  • Paramount “El Caribe” 151 Rum (US Virgins Islands )
  • Portobelo 151º Superior Rum (Panama)
  • Puerto Martain Imported West Indies Rum (75.5%)(Montebello Brands, MD USA)
  • Pusser’s 151 (British Virgin Islands)
  • Ron Antigua Special 151 Proof (US Virgin Islands, LeVecke Corporation)
  • Ron Diaz 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Ron Carlos 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)(Aged min of 1 yr)
  • Ron Corina 151 (USA, KY)
  • Ron Cortez Dry Rum 151 (Panama)
  • Ron Matusalem 151 Proof “Red Flame” (Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • Ron Rey 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Ron Palmera 151 (Aruba)
  • Ron Rico 151 (Puerto Rico)(post-1968 a Seagrams brand, marketed in 1970s in Canada; bought by Serralles in 1985)
  • Ron Ricardo 151 (Bahamas) from before 2008
  • Ron Roberto 151 Superior Premium Rum (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Three Dagger 10YO Jamaica Rum (J. Wray & Nephew), 151 proof (1950s)
  • Tilambic 151 (Mauritius)
  • Tortuga 151 Proof Cayman Rum (1980s-1990s)
  • Trader Vic’s 151 Proof Rum (World Spirits, USA)

Sources

Some rum list resources

Bacardi’s discontinuing the 151

Don the Beachcomber, recipes, the rise of Tiki and post-Prohibition times

Cocktails

Other bit and pieces

 

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 pack 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 MembersRooms, its partners or onlineplus, 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 worldbut 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 rumsin 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 ator even agreed withwho 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

PhillipPipHills (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 2000sblends 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 onedisputedanecdote) around generouslyand 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 circlethe syndicatewere 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.comThe Vaults, when JG Thompson owned it.

The syndicateincluding Hills, actor Russel Hunter, contractor David Alison, playwright W Gordon Smith and architect Ben Tindallwas 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 investmenthowever, 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 distilleriesPort Ellen, Glenugie, St. Magdalene and Brora are some exampleswere 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 qualitywhich 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 itselfbut 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 whiskythe committee included a historian, a professor of Celtic Studies, a professor from LSE among othersbut the vocabulary simply wasn’t there (that took time to be developedanother 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 whiskywell, 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 playeach 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 thingthe “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 membersand the 10,000th member was signed up a mere four years later, by which time the distilleries number over fifty.

The Board composition changedSmith 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 messagewhich 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 meantnone. He fought many battles with the Board to prevent itbut 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 uphe 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 UKthe French, Japanese and US branches were begun in 1993, followed in the subsequent decades by Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Germany and many othersclearly, 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 mailingthe entire logistical foodchainbecame 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 controlhe 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 createdor at least participated inthe 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 schemethe 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 bottlesthey 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 collegialyoung turksatmosphere which had so characterized its first years.

An older version of the logo

Also, many new and more sophisticated drinkers of whiskywho, like rummies, are now able to revel in a selection of product that a generation ago was both unthinkable and unavailablecomplained 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 whiskiesor any spirits, for that matterin the world. They boast some 28,000 members in 24 countries, release whisky bottlings from over 140 distilleriesand 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 knowbecause 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 rumsI believe these to be R1.1, R2.1 and R3.1 (but this remains unconfirmed)

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 reasonshe 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) was released 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 overso most likely Main Rum / 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 seriouslyit 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 decisionthat was the year people started to pay rather more attention to rums, you might recallbut 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 February 2021, there are some 63 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 itselffew 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 that, like 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 lostand 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 inaccuraciesthose 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 Societydirectly, indirectly, peripherally or in-betweenover 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.
  • In August 2021 I wrote a small piece in SMWS’sUnfilteredin house magazine, on why their members should be trying rums.

Rum Master List (as of September 2021)

Distillery R1Jamaica / Monymusk

  • Cask 1 1976-2001 25 YO 73.1% <Unnamed>
  • R 1.2 1990-2011 20 YO 70.6% “Rhubarb and Goose-gogs
  • 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 R2Guyana / DDL (Various Stills)

  • Cask 2 1989-2001 12 YO 66.7% <Unnamed>
  • 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 1991-2013 22 YO 67.8% “Sweeney Todd in a Victorian Kitchen”
  • R 2.5 1991-2013 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!”
  • R 2.11 2003-2020 16 YO 59.1% “Goat Farm, Esters & Vinyl Funk
  • R 2.12 2004-2020 15 YO 57.2% “A Precious Treasure Trove
  • R 2.13 2006-2020 14 YO 50.8% “Funky Rum Flavours
  • R 2.14 2003-2020 17 YO 59.4% “Caribbean Crab Cakes
  • R 2.15 2003-2021 17 YO 58.8% “Charismatic Funk
  • R 2.16 2003-2021 17 YO 58.9% “Glue, Glorious Glue!”

Distillery R3Barbados / WIRD

Distillery R4Trinidad / Providence Estate

  • Cask 4 1990-2006 16 YO 50.9% “Cherry, Chocolate…”

Distillery R5Jamaica / Longpond

Distillery R6Barbados / Foursquare

Distillery R7Jamaica / 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”
  • R 7.3 2000-2020 19 YO 55.8% “Shiver Me Esters

Distillery R8Nicaragua / 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% “Fruit and Nut Case”
  • 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
  • R 8.8 1999-2020 21 YO 57.2% “Limbo Dancing In A Kilt
  • R 8.9 2004-2020 15 YO 67.4% “Beef Twerky

Distillery R9Panama / 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”
  • R 9.8 2006-2020 14 YO 59.1% “Treacle Thyme
  • R 9.9 2008-2021 13 YO 63.0^Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Distillery R10Trinidad / Trinidad Distillers (Angostura)

Distillery R11Jamaica / Worthy Park

Distillery R12Belize / 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 R13Trinidad / Caroni

  • R 13.1 1998-2018 20 YO 62.3% “Deep dark and Brooding”
  • R 13.2 1998-2020 20 YO 62.1% “Ready Made Marmalade
  • R 13.3 1998-2020 20 YO 62.5% “Havana, Madagascar & Tahiti
  • R 13.4 1998-2021 23 YO 61.8% “Bizarre, Bonkers & Brilliant

Distillery R14Guyana / DDLPort Mourant

  • R 14.1 1991-2021 29 YO 58.6% “Papaya The Sailor

 

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, Beauportmany 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 Distilleryso named for the area near Petit Bourg where it was locatedwhich 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 issuedthese 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 changedMr. 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*
  • SeverinCommemorhumBicentennaire 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 retitledÎle de la Réunionin 1793 with the fall of the House of Bourbonbut evidently unable to make up their minds, the island was renamedÎle Bonapartein 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 nameÎle de la Réunion”…and there it stayed ever since.

There are currently three distilleries of note on RéunionRivière 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 1800sbut 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 rumprobably 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 brotherswho had married cousins from the wealthy landowning family of Orré in the south of the islandhad 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 toVeuve 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 islandto 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 originthough 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)
  • IsautierLouis & Charles IsautierCuvée 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 thecontactportion of the website has not led to a responsehence 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 theAscensionunder 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 (and not just in the Seychelles). 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 canethe 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 Mahésome with as few as 200m² of landand 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 daysthey use their own yeast for this, not “wild”. Then it gets run through either their pot or column stillsthe 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. Takamaka has a cask management program using some 23 or so different cask styles (port, sherry, bourbon, 1st fill, 2nd fill, toasted etc) except for their cane juice rhums which use almost 100% French oak.

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 Germanythe 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 materialsbottles, caps, labels, boxesare 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 in the EU, a major market, the word is restricted to rum production from the French Caribbean islands, Madeira and Reunion; also, TB’s fermentation, distillation and aging methods are different, so they opted not to use the term at all.

The global downturn in 2020-2021 caused by COVID was a boon to many distillers, who saw their sales skyrocket. Emboldened by their larger sales and global recognition, Takamaka invested in a new state-of-the-art 200,000-liter capacity distillation apparatus (it is meant to process mostly molasses) as well as two new pot stills, which are all slated to go on-line and operational in late 2021. The company’s stated goal is to increase exports to fifty countries in the next five years

The new 2021 distillery setup (c) Takamaka Bay, taken from FB page

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 the expanded distillation facilities will make a large splash on the festival circuit around Europe or North America, and their exports around the world do in fact increase commensurately.

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 (excludes spiced and flavoured variations)

  • 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 monikerFernandesremains 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 toFernandes Vat 19when 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 distillationso in the late 1940s he acquired land in Morvant (a neighborhood just to the east 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 companyand 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 Parkthe 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. (SeeSourcesbelow 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 questionableit’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:

 

Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released. In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd? And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable; when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn. It summed up, codified and expanded principles of the rum world the way Citizen Kane did for film.

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industrythat it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awarenessI contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillersnew and more powerful expressions. They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs. It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world. While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world. And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABVany difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test. Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around, it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking. Many producersexcepting those prohibited by law from messing arounddenied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage. Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly.

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew offit quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proofclear, testable, incontrovertible proofthat something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpirits, Cyril of DuRhum, Phil Kellow, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blog owners mentioned above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage (that’s where the links direct you).

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling. Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created a third great divide in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movementJamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out therejust that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage. It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL never commented on the matter of dosage until an interview with Shaun Caleb in 2020, and for the record the practice is being phased out) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product. Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base. Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums. When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK. Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any (and I’m not sure that I qualify, ha ha). There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs are the sites of enormously spirited discussionsthese clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum.

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractorsit can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been addedbut it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world. One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention. The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world. (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic). The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level, like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane did for movies in 1915 and 1941. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed. In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did existand the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive. It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jun 272018
 

Part IIThe Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

In Part 1 I gave a rather lengthy rundown of the events and trends leading up to the unofficially named Age. There was a reason for thatbecause I wanted to make it clear how the rum landscape was altered after those rums were issued. And to do that we needed to get a sense of what it was like before.

To briefly recap, the pieces were in place, at the intersection of culture and history and personality:

  • the world was becoming more interconnected and knowledgeable as a result of the proliferation of internet enabled websites and blogs, books being written and the Ministry of Rum website; in short, communications had undergone a sea change.
  • rums had moved from being primarily blends and cocktail fodder to sharing space on shelves with generously aged expressions;
  • people were starting to know more and had more choice; independent bottlers helped move that along, as did the emergent rum festival scene started by the Miami Rum Renaissance
  • and Luca Gargano, having bought a small Genoese spirits-distribution concern, started issuing a relatively large number of Guyanese rums, which were relatively unsucessful but which crystallized his thinking on what he felt the characteristics of good rums were.

Now, we could argue that since the world was ripe for an expansion of cask strength single editions from all points of the compass (the concept was not, after all, particularly new), that Luca Gargano just did it with more verve and panache, and that everyone else was going to do it anyway. The development was inevitable. History is replete with stories of groundbreaking ideas being developed simultaneously in multiple places (Newton and Leibnitz with calculus; Darwin and Wallace with evolution; Einstein and Hilbert with relativityand so on).

Maybe so. But I argue that nobody ever did it better, or in such volume and he was there at the right time with the right rums, just as interest was catching on. The rumworld was ready for something new and interesting and dynamic, and Luca filled the niche both in what he produced and who he was.

The Rums, by date of issue

As noted in Part 1, after a few years of developing the company and broadening its portfolio, Velier began its move to craft spirits in 1992 (which may not be a coincidence), by beginning its selection of barrels of rum for its brand. This led, in 1996, to the issuance of three Guyanese rums – all issued at 40% (see next paragraph) and using a third partly bottler (Thompson & Co.). All were continentally aged.

Note the two editions of the Diamond 1975 at different strengths. I double checked the labels and the images, and yes they clearly note the separate ABV. This then was the first demonstration of something Velier would become famous for: issuing the same rum at varying power (though likely from different casks), which culminated in the multitudinous variations of the Caronis that so amuse, enthrall and irritate the accountants.

  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 1996), 40%
  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 1996), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1985 21YO (1985 1996) 40%
  • Versailles 1991 5 YO (1991 1996), 40%

Luca was dissatisfied with this, and four years later tried again, with three more rums from Guyana. These were bottled by a Holland-based subsidiary of DDL themselves (called Breitenstein), because by this time Velier’s association with DDL had become much firmer and it was felt to be more cost effectivethough they remained continentally aged. Of particular note was Luca’s find of the LBI marque, quite rare, though which still produced it remains an open question. The Enmore also comes in for mention because of its strength – it was the first attempt to issue at full proof…why he did not follow on from this concept here is unknown, but considering that the Damoiuseau 1980 only got released two years later, perhaps it was nerves, or caution, or simply a lack of confidence (though that would seem doubtful to anyone who’s ever met the man).


By the time the third batch of rums was issued in 2002, now all at 46%, Luca knew something had to change. While he was happy with the ages of the rumson three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 yearsthey were continentally aged and simply not exciting enough, unique enough, in a field where other independents were issuing similar versions, if not in such quantity. But they were all sipping at one well, that of the European brokers, and he felt he had to get his rums from the source. It was this 2002 series that began to do exactly that: all three rums were fully tropical-aged and selected directly from DDL’s Guyana warehouse, which was a first for any independent bottling to that time. Luca himself dates the Age from this release season, though he admits he lacked the courage to go completely full-proof for it, and told me that Yesu Persaud would probably not have countenanced it either at the time.

As an aside, attention should be drawn to the label designeach release season (1996, 2000 and 2002) is clearly distinct from the others. The wild and joyously near-abstract paintings echoed local artists, and we would not see their like again until Simeon Michel was contracted to provide the artwork for the clairins many years later.

  • Albion 1984 18 YO (1984 2002), 46%
  • Diamond 1982 20 YO (1982 2002), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1982 20YO (1982 2002), 46%

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

My feeling is that the classic portion of the Age started in 2005. The now famous black bottles and simplified labels were introduced in that year and remained constant for nearly a decade. The level of detail on those labels was unprecedented, by any maker, at any time, for any rum. For the first time consumers got the year of distillation and bottling; the casks, the outturn, the strength, the still and the marque, even (sometimes) the angel’s share. And serious strength was on display for once, real full proof, from-the-barrel power.

In the years leading up to 2005, Luca forged a firm personal alliance with DDL (and its chairman, Yesu Persaud). They showed him select barrels from their ageing warehouse and he chose some to bottle. 2005’s Diamond and Uitvlugt releases are considered good rums but they were relatively young and lacked an element of gravitas. But one day as he was walking with Mr. Persaud through the ageing warehouse, he spotted five or six barrels mouldering quietly in a corner. They were from a long defunct distillery of the Skeldon estate (the easternmost estate in Guyanathe distillery is long closed though it still makes sugar), and their age took his breath away. He tried the 1973 and it was such an impressive dram that he almost begged to be allowed to bottle it as it was. For the only time in this partnership, permission was granted and he was allowed bottle all the barrels himself, and the 1973 proved to be one of the most amazing rums ever issued (myth has it that he also got the single barrel of the Caputo 1973 at this time, but that’s another story entirely).

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

The three barrels of the Skeldon 1978 were a different matter. There was insufficient volume to make a decent outturn (whatever that might mean, given that the 1973 only produced 544 bottles from four barrels), and so it was mixed in with some 1973 — and therefore this is a blend, not a rum conforming to Velier’s usual standards. Still, all of these rums were tropically aged and released at cask strength, and this was what he wanted. (I have heard another story that DDL themselves blended the 1973 and 1978 and didn’t tell him, admitting it only when pressed because he recognized a difference in the profile after the fact).


2005 and 2006 together saw the issuance of not only eight different Guyanese rums but nine and eight Caronis respectively. None of these received especially wide acclaim or attention, though my feeling is that the 1991 Blairmont was definitely one of the better rums I’ve tried from the stable and the one occasion I tried (without notes) the PM 1993, it was equally impressive, though relatively young compared to its siblings issued in those two years.


2007 was an odd year, when everything issued was under ten years old, which may just have been a function of what was put in front of Luca to inspect and select. The first Versailles rum since 1996 was issued in 2007, and somehow another LBI rum was foundit would prove to be the last.

In this year some of the first reviewing websites began to go live: however, these were primarily American, with oneRefined Vicesfrom Australia, and showed the slowly building interest in quality rums (perhaps also aided by the Miami Rum Renaissance which started around this time). But while rums commonly available in North America formed the bulk of the writing on such sites at this stage, the European bottlings Velier was making received little or no attention, and remained on sale primarily in Italy.


When it came to releases, 2008 was a banner year for the company, when eight Demerara rums were issued at once. Yet widespread acceptance remained elusive: costing out at over a hundred euros per bottle, most consumers in Europe, where distribution was primarily limited, felt this was still to expensive (bar the Italians, who I was told were snapping them up). One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been to Luca, who knew how good they were. The standouts from this year’s collection were undoubtedly those amazing 1970s Port Mourants, which are now probably close to priceless, if they can even be found. (And even the others are becoming grail questsI saw an online listing in June 2018 for the Albion 1983, at close to two thousand euros).


Something interesting happened in 2010, overlooked by many, ignored by the rest. For the first time reviews of the Velier Demeraras start to appear in the blogosphere, and they were all from Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun. He had begun in 2009 with a raft of generally available rums, and in 2010 issued his first review of Velier rumsEnmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. Andnobody noticed; those who did hardly cared. He was a whisky guy daring to dabble in rums? Shame on him. The reviews sank out of sight; nobody else would write about these spectacular rums for nearly three years and modesty be damned, when the next round of reviews were published, they were mine.

That same year Velier only issued two rums, though I have not been able to establish why such a small release. (The Blairmont was offered for sale in June 2018 on FB for €2300, for those who’re interested in pricing their collection).


2011 was another skinny year, with only three rums being released, two of which were from Albion. Why DDL would sell off barrels of defunct distilleries like LBI, Blairmont or Albion is a curious window into their commercial mindset at the timeit’s possible that they simply didn’t see any margins in such niche products which might cost more to bring to market than they would sell for, though Velier clearly showed this was not so. Since Velier maintained a low profile outside Italy, they probably didn’t see such rums adding value to the DDL brand, and were okay letting them go. The Albion 1994 is particularly fine piece of work and I’ve heard it bruited about that 2018/2019 Release 3 of the DDL Rares will have one.


The Diamond and Port Mourant releases from the 2012 season were rums Luca liked a lot…but when he saw three barrels from Uitvlugt marked UF30E (for East Field #30 – perhaps the first incidence of parcellaire (a specific parcel of land within a terroire) ever found) he immediately snapped them up and produced 814 bottles. It remains, in the opinion of this writer, one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, perhaps even better than the Skeldon 1973. The PM 1997 was also a very very good piece of work, but could not eclipse the UF30E and it’s just a shame that I never managed to try the 30+ year old Diamond.


Nothing was issued in 2013 (the reasons remain obscure), and by the time the 2014 came around, things were slowing down: although we did not know it, the end was drawing nigh. While still being shown barrels to choose from, Luca felt the quality and age was no longer as spectacular as the early rums he had found just a few years before (that might be because he cleared out all the best juice already, I humorously remarked to him some years later). This led to some experimentation of various blends (Diamond-Versailles, PM-Diamond and PM-Enmore) which were positively received, but whose interesting development was never followed up on. That said, these have become as pricey and hard to find as any other of the classic Demerarasand, reputedly, every bit as good.

Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 2014), 53.1%
Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 2014), 64.1%
Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO (1996 2014) (Modified GS), 57.2%
Uitvlugt 1997 17 YO (1997 2014), 59,7%
Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 2014), 62.2%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 2014), 62.1%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 2014), 52.3.%
Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 2014), 57.9%

(Note that in 2014 and 2015, when the Velier Demeraras were beginning to become more well known, both Cyril of DuRhum and Henrik of RumCorner were starting to write about themboth described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 seasonand it was from that point that the Europeans started to sit up and take notice and prices began their climb as Velier’s reputation gained momentum.)

In late 2014 DDL’s chairman, with whom Luca had had such a sterling relationship, retired, and within months the new chairman informed him (Luca) that they themselves would be releasing “Gargano-style” rums, and the arrangement Velier had with DDL would come to an end. The rums listed above are therefore among the last ever issued by the collaboration (until the 70th Anniversary bottling in 2017, which falls outside the scope of this essay).

Nothing was released in 2015, and in 2016 Demerara Distillers came out with the Rare Collection. This led to a lot of grumbling and online vituperationsome thought it a cheap shot by DDLbut in the main, such annoyance as was expressed focused mostly around the pricing, which was felt to be exorbitant (and continues this day, with the 2018 El Dorado 12 year old wine finished editions which are also considered to be overpriced). But what the Rares did was seal the fate of the Velier Demeraras. Once those came out the door, we knew that there would never be any more.

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

In Part III I’ll wrap up this short series by assessing the trends and impact which the Age had (at least in my opinion), and provide an epilogue.

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

Take a look at the rum world in 2018, and several aspects jump out immediately. The top-end rums getting most of the press and user approbation are almost all rums issued at cask strength; many, if not most, are made by an ever-increasing stable of independent bottlers, with Foursquare being one of the few primary producers making such strong rums as part of their core lineup, and others hastening to catch up. Rums are often being made “pure,” which is to say without additives, labels are much more informative than ever before, and unaged whites are becoming more and more popular (and appreciated). The major large-company rum brands of ten years ago – many of which were and are aged blendsremain enormously popular but have almost all been relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of knowledgeable aficionados. And the dissemination of information regarding rums – whether via news stories, magazine click-bait, blogs, review sites, Reddit forums or Facebook rum clubs – has enabled the trend in this direction exponentially.

When one considers the state of the rum world prior to 2005, this ninety-degree turn in the drinking habits of the tippling class seems well nigh unprecedented. It is my considered opinion that the Demerara (and to a lesser extent the Caroni) rums issued by Velier in the years 2005 to 2014 were instrumental in altering the rum landscape in a way few rums before ever had, or ever will again. To this day, many consider them among the best rums from Guyana ever issued, and that includes the independents (of which Velier was surely one in spite of being primarily an importer). Many of the concepts we take for granted when choosing top-shelf rums from Guyana – indeed, from anywherewere encapsulated and brought to a wider audience by the Demerara series. We live in the world they helped make, and it is our loss that they ceased being issued almost before we even properly acknowledged their existence.

In this first portion of a rather long three-part essay I’m going to look at the trends, influences and developments that I believe laid the foundations for what is unofficially called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras. I argue that these were the release of the El Dorado 15 year old in 1992, the rise of the internet, three books, a website, proliferating independent bottlers in Europeall of which led to a more informed and rum-educated drinking cadre, some of whom went on to form the first websites devoted to rums and reviews. Also, oh yes….there was a small Italian importer….

As it was then

The rum world in the 1980s was a rather staid one, moving along very much as it had for years before. Major rum companies from around the Caribbean were issuing more or less the same rums they had been for decades – then as now, 40% ABV was practically a standard, age almost uniformly under ten years (if mentioned at all), and the market was full of familiar brands, similar recipes, incremental development, and with column still blends being the majority of sales.

As with all such general conditions, there were exceptions at the margins. Many small companiesmaderum for sale around the worldbut they were really rebottlers and independents, not primary producers with sugar estates and/or distilleries of their own. Too, although 40% was a common sort of strength (especially in the United States), it was not an absolute. The French Caribbean islands made more than their fair share of rums around 50% ABV and rums made for export to European countries often boosted the strength to 43-48%

When it came to market domination, Bacardi was the undisputed leader, and lighter Spanish-style rums seemed to be everywhereI even found them and not much else in Central Asian bazaars in the early 1990s. The great Asian houses like McDowell’s and Tanduay were unknown except in their region. Most rums in production at the time were considered mixing drinks at best, which was a state of mind deriving from the misconception that it was a pirate’s booze, a sailor’s hooch, a drink to have fun with…not something to be taken seriously. Not to be had by itself, or to be savoured on its own. Unlike, for instance, whisky.

Although some independent bottlers issued more seriously aged rums in limited quantities, they didn’t expand production or really take it furtherthe market was a small one, and such bottlings were mostly bought by whisky aficionados and some hard core rum enthusiasts-cum-collectors, who were intrigued by the variationspeople like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs. Rum culture in the general publicboth in perception and consumptionwas primarily about cocktails, the mythmaking of Hemmingway-esque muscularity…today’s social-media-enabled rum clubs, where reviews of the latest bottling of a favoured company go up in days, hours or even minutes after formal release, where minute variations of favourite styles or individual rums are endlessly bickered over, and where discussions about additives erupt every other post, were not even a cloud on the horizon.

This is not to say a wide variety of rums was not being made – quite the opposite. South and Central America had a long and proud history of rum production. Companies like Varelas Hermanos, Vollmer, Zacapa, Zaya, Dictador, Travellers, Flor de Cana, Juan Santos, and Cartavio were issuing softly blended and solera-style rums since the early 1900s and some even predated the turn of the century. Cachacas had been made for hundreds of years in Brazil. In the East there were almost unknown rums from India and Thailand and Indonesia. Cuba had its national production arm sending rums to Scheer and began working hand in hand with Pernod Ricard to produce the Havana Club line in the 1990s; and while booted out of Cuba itself, Bacardi was selling rums by the tankerload globally (largely due to subsidies provided by the US government). The French islands, with their plethora of small and fiercely individualistic distilleries sold primarily to the European market (France in particular), and even with the slow demise of sugar and rum production, distilleries in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados (to list but some) struggled gamely on.

Aged rums made by primary producers from the pre-1990s eras were on the market, sure, and there was no shortage of them….but one had to look carefully for the specific trees in the forest (nowadays even more so when most exist in private collections or in memory alone). Fernandes Distillery in Trinidad made the Ferdi 10 Year Old from as far back as the 1930s and was still making it in the 1960s and 1970s; Appleton produced a 12 year old and a 20 year old from way back in the 1960s, issued a limited 25 year old in 1987, and old gaffers will remember the Dagger 8 Year Old and Three Dagger Jamaican 10 Year Old from J. Wray, also hailing to the 1930s; and going back even further in time, Jamaica at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886 by Sir Augustus J. Adderley lists 10, 15, 25 and 31 year old rums from merchant bottlers like D. Finzi & Co. and Wray and Nephew (before they acquired Appleton). I know there was an 18 year oldOld New England Rumfrom the USA in 1934; Beenleigh in Australia made a five year old rum (and supposedly supplied the Royal Navy); Banks DIH in Guyana made a five year old as far back as the 1950s (though I don’t know when the 10 year old first appeared). La Favorite on Martinique had a ten year old back in the 1950s and 1960s, but like most agricole makers, were much more into millesime rhums, and while I’m sure the agricoles had more than my research uncovered, their naming convention of vieux, tres vieux and XO makes it difficult to see what is aged beyond, say, six to ten years. Most aged rums around the world seemed to be ten years old or less. A twenty year old was unheard of, thirty the stuff of dreams. (We had to wait until 1999 for the G&M 58 year old, another ten years for the Courcelles 37 year old).

Anyway, much of the primary producersrum production went to Europe in bulk (a lot went to E&A Scheer, which was and remains one of the largest brokers buying rum stock in the world) and was then blended into European producers’ rums, of which there were many, none of which achieved any sort of lasting fame (unless it was the navy style of rum made by UK companies like Watsons for the local market). There were many small merchant bottlers, shops and back-street independents who released extremely limited and now-often-forgotten bottlings of aged expressions into the marketplace. And so the West Indian distilleries consolidated, shuttered, closed, changed focus, modernized, diversified, found new markets…and somehow the rum continued to flow.

But underneath this relatively placid existence of blends and unquestioning rum-is-fun-no-questions-need-be-asked, several seemingly unrelated events occurred which were to lay the foundations of whole new directions for the rum world.

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

In 1992, what proved to be an enormously influential rum came on the scene – the El Dorado 15 Year Old and its brothers up and down the line, the 5, 12 and 21 and (later) the 25s. It may not seem so now, when so many aged brands are sold around the world, and where every distillery has a few in its portfolio. But it sure was then.

Bearing in mind the (very) abridged list of older rums mentioned above, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that whatever the age, few or none seemed to ever make a huge worldwide splash. The market wasn’t there, the connoisseurship was lacking, and information interchange was by magazines and snail mail, not the internet (see below). People just didn’t know enough and had few avenues open to self-education that characterizes today’s fanboys. Remember also, most of the aged rums were issued by small rebottlers in Europe or their agents in the producing countries/islands on behalf of the originating distilleries, and that kept outturn relatively small. Independents like Samaroli and Veronelli had been making such rums since the 1970s, and Scottish whisky makers and re-bottlers certainly issued their fair share, though they were rare in the pre-1992 era.

And a downside to the independents was that they didn’t always made it clear where they originated – bought directly from the distillery of origin, or through a European broker like Scheer. Only occasionally was it unambiguously stated where the ageing had taken place. They varied from expression to expression, and long term consistency was rare. They were not always specific, and commonly labelled as “aged” or “country” rums – Superior Rum, Extra Old Rum, Barbados Aged Rum, Guyanese Rum, Jamaican Rum, and so on. The concept of making the estate the selling point was almost ignored. Many were, in fact, blends of uncertain age, mixing several estates’ marques into a single product. The consumer was certainly not helped to make an informed choice in the matter because exclusivity was the key selling point – you took what you got, trusted the skill of the producing company, and were grateful.

What made the El Dorado 15 (and its brothers) so seminal is that for the first time and over an extended period, a rum was made the same way every time, with an outturn not of a few hundred bottles, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands, year in and year out. Consumers were getting a true fifteen year old rum of distinctive taste and consistent profile, not some supposedly exclusive and high-priced limited edition of a “Manager’s Reserve” or “Private Family Stock” or “My Dog Bowser’s Anniversary Blend.” Now anyone could buy this rum, which was a cut above the ordinary, had really cool antecedents, and was an absolute riot to drink neat. Best of all, the El Dorado 15 was approachable – it retailed at an affordable price, had a taste the average consumer would like (toffee, caramel, licorice, citrus and raisins remain in the core profile), could be mixed, swilled or sipped, had great marketing and was issued an unthreatening 40%. The greater rum drinking audience went ape for it.

Within a few years, just about every primary rum producer with a well known brand caught the wave, and the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of older rums. Companies all over the western hemisphere rushed to bring out aged expressions, and such rums soon became staples of many companies’ lines (and Appleton finally got the respect for its 12 YO it deserved, as well as beginning the regular issuing of older variations). The South and Central American and Spanish Caribbean islands’ rum makers took their time with it: they were blenders for the most part, a few solera-style makers, and they saw no reason to go full bore in this direction (many still don’t). The French islands with their millesime approach and their own ideas on what constituted a good aged rum dabbled their toes, but with a few exceptions (I saw a 12 YO dating back to the 1970s once, so they certainly existed) they rarely ventured over ten years old – and bearing in mind the quality of what they achieved and the recognition their brands already had and have always maintained in their primary markets, it was and remains hard to fault them for this choice.

So the aged rum market almost by default landed, and has remained, with some exceptions, in the British West Indies, led by Appleton and also DDL, the company whose work would produce the next great wave of rums ten years down the road….but not under its own banner.

Books

One development that also raised the profile of rum was the publishing of three bookstwo in the early 1990s, the other nearly ten years later. To some extent they have been overtaken by events, yet they remain quiet classics of the genre, and carried with them not only the promise of other books written in the decades that followed, but a resurgence of interest in rums as a whole. They remain cornerstones of the literature, not least because they were among the first to try and provide a deeper background to the variety of rums represented without overwhelming the readers in technical minutiae of the rum-making process most neither wanted nor understood.

Released in 1995, Ed Hamilton’s book “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean” was a rich and varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit and try over many years of sailing around the Caribbean. Because of its limited focus, it lacked a global perspective, but it was a treasure trove of information of the rum producing world in the eastern Caribbean at that time, it was based on solid first hand experience, and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. If nothing else, it elevated the knowledge of the curious and made it clear that there was an enormous breadth in rums, so much so that historical info aside, anyone could find something to please themselves. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book calledThe Complete Guide to Rum”).

Dave Broom’s 2003 book “Rum” was a coffee-table sized book that combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of the rum producing nations and islands and regions to that time. It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredientthe introduction and codification of rum into styles. Then as now, the debate over how to classify rum was a problem. Colour was still used as a main marker and gradation of type (the additives and coloration debate had yet to reach wide attention, and was all but unknown to the drinking public), stills were not considered a way to distinguish rums. Mr. Broom’s contribution to the field was to at least attempt to stratify rums: in his case, regions that had broad similarities of production and profile: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole) styles. Cachacas were not brought into the classification and there was no real way to incorporate multi-regional blends or rums from outside the system (like, oh, Australia) – but it was an remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).

What these books did was make rum interesting and more appreciated in the eyes of the larger public, in a pre-internet world where whisky prices were just starting to climb. They showcased something of the variety that rum provided, and educated many neophyte rum lovers into the foundations of their favourite drink. It showed them the varieties and differences and production methods that allowed a more sophisticated understanding of the spirit. Rum was clearly not just some blended bathtub moonshine for the sweet-toothed who didn’t appreciate a single malt, or a bland and boring mixing agentbut a spirit with a long and technically rigorous, geographically broad-based history that deserved mention, if not respect.

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself. Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interactionand all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers. What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 3) arose only after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s. The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

It took more time for the first write ups of Velier to come out the door on such websites, but before that happened there came one website that proved to be enormously influential, which all bloggers from that era remember.

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular. While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted (with Ed’s permissionand for the record he refused it to me when I asked after passing review #50, notingcorrectlythat too many new and aspiring writers folded after a couple of years). At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions. Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest, blogs, aggregators, instant messaging and full-time online presences, it’s difficult to remember how groundbreaking this trend actually was. Now rum lovers did not have to create websites (a difficult and often confusing task in the early 2000s) and then hope that they would be found – they could simply post on the Ministry. Many of the older names in the rum writing game started their careers by commenting – extensively – here. This one original website did more than most other avenues to help disseminate information and news about rum, and introduced the vocal, dedicated fans to one another, a process that has accelerated with the advent of social media.

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

If you put aside the 151 overproofs that Bacardi, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Don Q, Goslings, Matusalem and a handful of others were releasing, the limited edition “cask strength” market was all but nonexistent until a decade ago, and these 75.5% mastodons were all you got. All were considered cocktail bases, not rums in their own right: they were certainly not premiums. Such cask-strength rums as were considered a cut above the ordinary were mostly issued by independents, not by major producers (who limited themselves to powerful cocktail mixers like the 151s), and the independents weren’t looking to make overproofs but echoed whisky maker’s full-proof ethos.

Almost alone in the world, then, the Europeans issued a few high-proof bottlings, released by re-bottlers and spirits companies such as Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Berry Brothers & Rudd among others; as well as smaller concerns like Illva Saronno (Italy), Vaughan-Jones (UK), EH Keeling (UK), Antoniazzi (Italy), John Milroy (UK), Frederic Robinson (UK), Austin Nichols (USA), A.A. Baker (US), Nicholson (UK), Watson’s (UK), Sangster, Baird-Taylor, Gilbey & Matheson, Henry & White, Lemon Hart, (among many many others). The Germans had their own such companies such as those around Flensburg (Rendsburger, Dethleffson and Berentzen Brennereien for example, who made long forgotten rums under brand names like Asmussen, Schmidt, Nissen, Anderson and Sonnberg). And there was a scattering here and there, like Walter Reid in Australia, la Martiniquaise and Bardinet in France, a smattering of Americans…and quite a few small outfits in Italy.

It was a lonely occupation for these rebottlers and small operations, because the rums they createdwhether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at oncenever really sold very well even at standard strength. Fabio Rossi, who started Rum Nation in 1999, told me it took more than two years to sell the first Supreme Lord and Demerara series of rums he started off with; and as recently as 2012, one could get the entire Velier Caroni outturn to that point for a couple thousand euros (on ebay’s Italian site), a situation which could certainly not happen today. It was the hard-to-shake perception of rum as not being “premium” that was at the bottom of it, a situation it took another ten years to rectify, and it was the small, nimble companies who we now refer to as “independents” who led the way.

A word should be spared for the work of the Martinique and Guadeloupe rum producers which don’t conform to the title of independents, but which also laid some of the groundwork for the renaissance of strong and singular rums that was about to take off. These small estate distilleries sold their rums primarily on the local market and exported to France through their own distribution arms there. Among all their lightly aged rums and blends and whites, they also and occasionally produced millesimes which were specific years’s limited productions, bottled when such outturns were considered a cut above the ordinary. And while these were never very consistent (each one was different from the last), never really aged beyond all reason, only occasionally issued beyond 50% – they did showcase that a particular year’s output of rum might be considered a connoisseur’s drink and could be said to be grand-uncles of the single barrel releases by others. And that is why the Clement 1952 and 1976, the Damoiseau 1953, Bally 1939 and 1960 and 1970, Montebello 1948 remain hugely expensive, yet still-sought-after exemplars of craft rum making by the producers of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

However, it’s the Italian companies which were to some extent key to the emergent Age, because although many were simply importers and distributors, some also dabbled in blending and reissuing of rums under their own labels. They created the culture of Italian independents that dated back to the 1960s when sweetened “rhum fantasias” were in vogue in Italy, produced by companies like Pagliarini, Toccini and Seveso; they were accompanied by importers and rebottlers (Veronelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Antoniazzi, Pedroni, Illva Saronno, and Guiducci are just a few examples) which led to their more successful inheritors, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Silver Seal and Velier, just about all who started with single barrel whiskies before turning their attention to rums.

Which leads us to that little importing company from Genoa, and its ownerLuca Gargano.

Luca Gargano and Velier

In the 1980s, Velier was a small family-owned Genoese spirits distributor with perhaps a quarter million dollars a year turnover and a staff of less than ten. It had been formed in 1947 by Casimir Chaix and concerned itself primarily with importing and distributing wines, spirits, brandy, tea and cocoa. Luca Gargano changed all that by buying it in 1986, when he was still only in his twenties. He had been a very young brand ambassador for St. James (from Martinique) and the experience had left him with a deep appreciation for rums, especially artisanal ones. When the time came for him to start a company of his own, he used Velier as a vehicle for his deeply held beliefs and the outpouring of his ideas.

Luca, who came from a family that was both close to the land and well connected in Italian commercial and political society, had spent years traversing the Caribbean in his time with St. James. His filial connection with traditional farming and agriculture, his observation of the way technology was changing the world (not necessarily for the better), his feelings about politicians and the slanted biases of the news, led him to create his now-famous Five Principles: nothing happens in specific chunks of time; newspapers and the media are there for sales and not truth; politicians are in it for themselves; telephones tie you to themselves but offer little except conversations that were better and more enjoyably conducted in person; and why stress out about driving a car when one can use taxis? And as a consequence he stopped watching TV, didn’t waste his time with newspapers or personal vehicles, chucked away his watch and never bothered with a cell phone of his own.

But there was a sixth principle, not often stated, yet deeply held. And that was that food and drink should be as natural as possible, organic, free from the interferences of technology, fresh from the land. When one applies that to food it’s one thing, but few before him sought to apply the concept to rums (except perhaps out of necessity). He felt that rum should be bottled as it either came off the stills or out of the ageing barrel without further messing around. He may have known more than we did in those more innocent times, because although it is now common knowledge that many old favourites which came to the market in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were dosed with additives, back in the day there was a lot more trust going around between consumers and producers.

Whatever the case, Luca wanted to put his name on pure rums that were as close to the still as possible, and if aged, fresh out of the barrel. He started by finding some old Guyanese rums, continentally aged, and put them out the door in 1996, with a further set of three in 2000. Neither entirely satisfied him, because the first set was diluted down to 40% and the second to 46%. A third series was released in 2002, also at 46% by which time he was in a better position to negotiate barrels with DDL.

And he needed to go further with his ideas on rums, because these early Demerara rums, to put it bluntly, made no mark, no splash, and fell flat. They sold, but not well (I’ve been able to pick a few up as late as 2017), and in any event were not exactly what he wanted. The continental ageing and dilution in particular dissatisfied himhe felt something of the intrinsic character of the underlying distillate that showcased the stills and their uniqueness, had been lost. He pulled in his horns, gave it some thought and was much more personal and involved in his future selections. He wanted to issue a rum that was at the full proof of the barrel, not some milquetoast please-the-most rum which he himself did not appreciate.

He was still wrestling with whether this was a workable commercial concept when he found a stored 18 year old rum at Damoiseau in Guadeloupe which was so spectacular, that he released it at 60.3% ABV in 2002, crossing his fingers as he did so. The success of the Damoiseau 1980 made it clear that among people who knew their stuff, such rums would sell and find their own audience and he not limit himself in the future, as he had with the past three releases.

He issued no new rums for the next three years, and then emerged with the next outturn in 2005. Four rums, one of them almost a legend. The Age can be said to have begun here.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rums of the Age, and in Part 3 make some points about the aftermath of their issue and revisit some of thesehistoricalfigures to see where they’re at in 2018.


Notes

Much of this is written based on my own writing and thinking and life experiences, though I have dipped into other bloggerspublished work here and there (like Matt Pietrek’s essay on Scheer and Marco Freyr’s background essays on Barrel Aged Mind). The research done in writing my own rum reviews and company biographies for nearly ten years has provided much of the remainder.

It’s hard to find people whose memories stretch back that far, to recapture the flavour of what the pre-1990s rum world was likeso some artistic license has been used to describe those times, though the facts are as accurate as I could make them.

The section on older aged rums and independents is by no means exhaustive. It’s surprising how difficult it is to find exactly when a particular ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old rum first emerged on the scene, and to find discontinued variations becomes an exercise in real Holmesian diligence. I used my own photographs from Velier’s 4000+ rum warehouse for some of the examples in this section, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Peter’s Rum Labels in Czechoslovakia, which is an amazing resource, the best one of its kind in the world. I hope that people with large rum collections built up over many decades will one day allow people like me access to their stocksto photograph and catalogue them (and maybe even to try a few) and for sure to write about them, as I do for the Rumaniacs. Too much history is being lost just because we don’t know enough, forgot too much, and never thought to record things properly.

Needless to say, if any mistakes or errors (especially of omission) are noted, please let me know and I’ll make amendments where required.

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 opprobriumthere’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, arumshop”), 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 Madeiraand 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 areas 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 GuyanaHistory 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 asDuck 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 ofStay Home Darlinrum” – 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)