The rum world is a confusing one. When you first get into rum or begin a “Rum Journey” as many say, the rum world is veryconfusing.
After trying a few different styles/brands you’ll start digging around stores and the Internet for new experiences. You will begin noticing strange bottlings by companies that seem to go beyond the usual brand structures.
Most rum brands will produce r(h)ums from a specific location or locations. For instance Don Q’s output is from Puerto Rico. Most recognisable “brands” don’t produce or distribute rums from a variety of locations or in a variety of styles. For example Appleton Estate deal in Jamaican rum, Foursquare deal in solely Bajan rum and Havana Club deal solely in Cuban “ron” (unless of course you count Bacardi’s “Havana Club” effort).
Bacardi International and Diageo’s output with numerous brands such as Ron Zacapa, Captain Morgan etc are the big “commercial” bottling operations in the rum world. They do produce rums in a variety of styles and from various locations but they are (mostly) all branded very differently and with very distinct idenitites.
Independent bottlers are found mostly in Europe (Samaroli, Cadenhead’s and Silver Seal are all good examples). So what do these “Independent bottlers” offer and what is the difference between them and “commercial” or “non independent” bottlers?
Well firstly, you could argue there are even two kinds of Independent bottlers. There are those such as Velier and Cadenhead’s who release mostly unblended rums or rums of the same origin in limited quantities. Then there are those who release a continuously released brand name.
An example of this would be Elements 8 rum who release a Gold and Silver St Lucia rum which they get direct from St Lucia Distillers. Another example would be The Duppy Share who release a branded rum which is made up of Worthy Park and Foursquare rums. Just to make things even more complicated the likes of Cadenhead’s and Velier also occasionally release their own blended rums such as their Classic Rum (Cadenhead’s) and Papalin (Velier).
For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on Independent bottlers (well I’m trying to) such as Velier, Samaroli, Bristol Classic Rum etc. Not the blended one off “brand” names. Though I’ve no doubt there will be further crossovers.
Perhaps the most recognisable “Independent” bottler are Plantation, however they have become such a recognisable brand in their own right they are rarely seen in this light. The added sugar debate has not helped their cause in this respect either.
Independent bottlers can obtain their rums in a couple of ways.
They can source their rums via brokers – Dutch super broker EH Scheer are a well known source for what is known as bulk rum. Bulk rum is sold by distilleries to the brokers. It is then either blended with other rums for 3rd party products (as mentioned earlier) or it is sold as is to Independent bottlers – which is what I am trying to focus on. A lot of rum sales are to independent bottlers who then choose how to age and when to release the rum.
Some Independent bottlers have developed relationships with certain distilleries and actually visit and hand select particular barrels. Mezan are one such operation who do this whenever possible. Until recently Velier/Luca Gargano also did this to enable him to select the very best Demerara rum. Having a financial interest in DDL was an advantage as well. As we have seen with the recent El Dorado Rare Collection this will no longer be the case.
So now we’ve established what we are talking about I’ll let you know why I’ve decided to write a piece on Independent Bottlers.
In short its the prices of these bottlings and the confusion and disappointment it seems to cause people.
I’ll give a simple example.
In the UK you can easily pick up a bottle of Rum Sixty Six by Foursquare for around £35. It is a 12 Year Old blended Bajan rum. Alternatively you can visit Berrys’ Bros and Rudd and pay £59 for a 10 Year Old Bajan Rum. Or you can go that extra mile and fork out in excess of £100 for a 10 Year Old Bajan rum from Silver Seal. All of which come from the same distillery – Foursquare.
So what exactly are you paying for? Well, here is where you really need to do your research and have a good think about why you are buying the pricier rums in the first place. Before parting with your hard earned cash I would consider the following.
Alcohol by Volume is the % strength of the spirit in the bottle. This is key for a couple of reasons.
Most commercial bottlings are released at between 37.5 and 43% ABV, few are higher which means in the Independent world you may find you get more for your (extra) money. Diluting a cask strength spirit with water to your own tastes increases how much “rum” you get out of the bottle.
The higher the ABV the more likely you are to be getting something at “Cask Strength” or simply a rum straight from the barrel. An Independent bottling coming in at between 40 and 46% ABV will not be Cask Strength, it will have been watered down to what the bottler often believes is the optimum drinking strength. The more cynical amongst us will also note this also increases the profitability of the spirit. It also increases the amount of bottles per release. Which will be our next consideration.
Number of Bottles
Unfortunately this information isn’t always available. If you are considering paying say £100 for a independent bottling then I personally would want it to be a pretty limited release. One of the keys to buying independent bottlings is the fact you are paying for something which is rare. Certainly rarer than a commercial bottling anyway. It’s still nice to know how limited it is though.
So I would always try and find out how much of the stuff is out there before you commit. It’s not uncommon for numerous Independent bottlers to release the same rum.
Where the rum hails from should also influence your purchase. Firstly make sure you enjoy this particular style of rum – don’t go buying a £150 Jamaican Long Pond or Hampden State if you can’t stand Smith & Cross.
You might also consider it important to seek out rums which are no longer available commercially like Caroni for example or hard to find rarer examples of “rum” such as the Clairin’s from Haiti released by Velier.
Another point you may wish to note is trying examples of rum which aren’t released commercially. The Demerara Rum’s released by Velier, Bristol Classic Rum and Cadenhead’s are very, very different from the El Dorado range. Likewise you may find rums from the likes of Guatemala or Belize are very different before they have been turned into Ron Zacapa or Travellers One Barrel.
We’ve already touched upon this with Number of Bottles and Heritage. Having said that there is still a lot to consider when deciding on the rarity of things.
If you fortunate to live in a part of the world which still has an abundance of Off Licences or “Liquor Stores” – then you might come across all kinds of weird and wonderful old bottlings on your travels. Dusty bottles that have long been on the shelf and have been overlooked by the Captain Morgan and Coke crowd. You may never see these bottles again and often the store has made no attempt to update the prices – meaning you bag a bargain!
Often but not always Independent bottlings are a single rum – not a blend for example of Pot and Column Distilled rum. Quite regularly you will find yourself getting a pot still only rum. Many people consider these to be the best and purest of rum.
So you are getting something which the distillery would never release. The costs associated with producing Pot Still rum is higher than column – another factor which may influence the price you pay.
As mentioned previously a lot of this rum is not tropically aged for the larger part of its existence. Very often it is aged in Europe in particularly Scotland.
European ageing versus tropical ageing is not an argument for me over which is best but it is a huge influence on the final product. A Bristol Classic Rum Demerara is very different from a Velier.
Different not better! (Not always anyway)
Also Independent bottlers often age their rums longer than commercial bottlers – so it is not uncommon to see 25 year plus Independent bottlings. Some bottlers age rums from seemingly strange time periods such as 13 years. Which seem a bit random but maybe they select them at just the right time.
For those who collect music or are avid fans of particular bands I would liken buying Independent bottlings to live bootlegs. They can look very bright and flashy with all the right photography and sleeve notes but the sound quality is an audience tape.
You never quite know what you are getting until you actually try the juice inside. All independent bottlers have the odd “bad” rum. It is also true that some Independent bottlers add sugar or even wine to their rums – just like commercial operations.
There are some Independent bottlings which resemble the commercial product so much they are not really worth the extra cash. There are also some Independent bottlings that go so far from the tried and tested line, that they are virtually undrinkable!
The whole concept of buying Independent bottlings is a process which I don’t think anyone should rush. There is a lot of very very good rum released by commercial bottlers (more arguably than most of us could ever taste). If you are going to dip your toe into this murky world I would only do it once you have exhausted the commercial bottlings of a particular distillery or if you see something that is really very different to what you have tried/or is available commercially.
The one thing I will say is that a £100 12 year old Bajan rum is not 3 times better than a £35 Bajan rum. More often than not in many ways you could argue you are getting an inferior product because the rum often hasn’t been tropically aged for anything near the 12 years.
What you do get however and this is what you need to consider – is something perhaps very different from the norm.
For the most part in this article I have mentioned “older” Independents such as Cadenhead’s and Velier. In the past few years a number of newer bottlers have sprung up whose rums also are worthy of investigation.
Mezan in particular offer exceptional value for money with their bottlings averaging around the £30 mark (in keeping with this article note the ABV on the Mezan’s is low 40%).
Compagnie des Indes have released an eclectic range of rums from all around the Caribbean at again pretty reasonable prices which average out at the around £60 mark.
Whisky bottler Hunter-Laing have also recently released their own “Kill Devil” series which has a number of different Caribbean and Central American expressions.
Commercial distillers such as Foursquare and DDL (riding on the back of Velier’s orginal experiment sadly) have taken note of higher ABV limited releases which seems to be what a lot of more seasoned rum drinkers want to see.
So it would seem that these bottlings are getting more and more popular. As Richard Seale would say “Drink what you like, but know what you are paying for”. I hope in that respect this article may be useful to you all.