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Thursday
Mar072013

Rum Hunting - Day Five - Duty Free Clue

I was on my way through the Barbados Airport duty free store this morning when I found the bottle I had been searching for on the island: Mount Gilboa Pot Still Rum. Mount Gay distillery was once known as the distillery at Mount Gilboa plantation and we knew there was still an eponymous rum in production somewhere. In my hand was now the evidence. At the behest of plantation owner John Sober, Mount Gilboa was renamed Mount Gay in 1801 after the death of Sir John Gay Alleyne, who had been an effective and inspirational leader of the company for more than two decades. There was already a Mount Alleyne in Barbados, so they went with his middle name instead as a tribute. 

Flash forward to the 20th century. In the early 1900s the distillery fell into the hands of the Ward family who increased production and recognition of the brand's reputation. It wasn't until 1989 that Remy Cointreau became the majority shareholder. Audrey Ward was perhaps the most famous of the master blender/distillers at Mount Gay and, for some time, one would find his signature on the label of each bottle. Today no longer. Where you will find the Ward family name, however, is on the Mount Gilboa label. According to the packaging with the bottle, Frank Ward, who is descended from Audrey Ward, is currently the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery Ltd, where Mount Gilboa is made today. Here's a photo of the distillery below.

Wait a minute, David! This is the exact same photo you showed us two days ago! You said that was the distillery at Mount Gay! The one they wouldn't let you into! 

That's correct. However, I found a blog post from a webpage called the Rum Collective that shows the same building, but with photos of the inside as well taken from an educational tour. The tour itself wasn't organized by Mount Gay, however. It was given to this person by the man and family behind Mount Gilboa rum: Mr. Frank Ward, whose family ran the Mount Gay brand for ninety years. If Frank Ward is the head of Mount Gay distillery, the home of Mount Gilboa rum and apparently of Mount Gay rum as well, does this mean that Remy Cointreau doesn't actually own Mount Gay distillery, but rather just the rights to the Mount Gay brand? This isn't an uncommon practice in the booze business. Berry Bros. & Rudd, for example, recently purchased the rights to Glenrothes as a brand, but have no control over the distillery itself.

When we were on the boat last night one of the crewmen showed me a sugar refinery off the coast and said the industry is dying a slow death on the island. I found a link to an article from ten years ago that talks about the limited access to molasses on Barbados and how the Wards were forced to look elsewhere as a result. This article from Ebony Magazine in 1975 claims that Audrey Ward founded the Mount Gay Company in 1908 (the company not the distillery) and that every bottle of Mount Gay rum bears his name: A. F. Ward. Yet, today it does not. The modern day Mount Gay is a new brand with a new face that stresses the foundation of the distillery in 1703, rather than the hard work and history of the Ward family. They seem to avoid all discussion of the Wards, but I'm not sure as to why.

So here's the deal. Frank Ward's Linkedin page still lists him as the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery, but there is no mention of him at Remy's Mount Gay. As I wrote a few days back, Allen Smith is the master blender, (italicized in that post, as well), but we never met anyone with any knowledge of distillation. Conclusion? Remy Cointreau owns Mount Gay, but likely not Mount Gay Distillery, which is still owned and operated by the Wards, who founded the company in 1909 and sold the brand in 1989. They're likely contracting rum from the distillery, but I couldn't say for sure. 

Now I'm excited to try this Mount Gilboa! All pot still, no column still! It looks like part of the mystery is solved.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar062013

Rum Hunting - Day Four - Bon Voyage!

After our super tour around the island, outside of the prescripted brand schedule, we met back at the hotel for our final activities of the day. First off was a trip to the Mount Gay visitor's center for a Black Barrel cocktail competition. We were paired up in groups of two (DOG and I together, of course) and had fifteen minutes to create a drink. David suggested doing a variation of a Trinidad Sour, but we didn't have orgeat so we muddled up cucumber with simple syrup instead, adding a ton of Angostura and some lime juice in as well. The drink destroyed everyone else's. We still lost. That's the problem with being from the West Coast. We're light years ahead of what people think they want when it comes to cocktail culture, but what can you do? Make a syrupy Daiquiri? I don't think so. And we wonder why people think we're smug? (Our drink was awesome, though).

Rather than take another cab to our final dinner of the trip, Mount Gay organized a sailboat to ferry us down the coast and dock at the beachfront destination. The boat was by far my favorite part of the trip because a few of us went up to the front, laid out on the helm, and just relaxed. No talking, no more booze jabber, or anything else. Just us and the sea.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this trip has been the contact with other national retailers who are also here selecting casks. Everyone has been incredibly nice and we've had a fantastic time together, but it's clear we don't see things the same way. Most of the other guys here are store owners, rather than employees. Actually, all of them are. Because David and I are separated from the finances and the paperwork, we don't worry about sales margins or maximizing profit as much as other stores do. We didn't get into this business to make money. We got into this business for fun because we wanted to follow our passion. However, we're here with guys who specialize in 1.75 liters of vodka and run case deals for Budweiser. It's not to say that they're not passionate, it's just that they're up for whatever pays the bills. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not the way we think about things. David and I talked about the whole Maker's Mark incident and we were the only ones who even knew what happened. When we explained it they thought we were lying and got mad – at us!!! How dare we criticize the brand was the mindset.

Sitting on that boat, however, as the sun went down just erased all of the tension and all of the booze politics. In all honesty, I don't give a shit if Mount Gay distills all their rum or not (we only have our intolerable scrutiny that leads us to believe otherwise, no actual evidence). I've yet to actually see the distillery, so I can't say anything for sure. What I do know is that I've tasted a lot of rum while on Barbados and a lot of it is delicious. Remy has chosen to host us here on Barbados for that reason. Mount Gay rum, like many brands that aren't single malt, isn't about a distillery really. It's about an island and a history of bottling great rum that pre-dates any other company. Mount Gay's tagline is actually "there's a time and a place." The time is right now and the place is Barbados – an island that loves its national spirit and celebrates it at every opportunity. I've been drinking a shit ton of Mount Gay rum since I've been here and it's all been outstanding. In tonic, in ginger beer, on the rocks, in a shot, in a beer, with a beer, after a beer, before a beer, whatever. One of the best rums in the world is being produced on this island – Barbados. It's got a Mount Gay label on it.

I've been a bit quieter this evening while the other guys continue on with the drinking and the brand loyalty. I'm not unloyal to Mount Gay, I'm just not going to be loyal to anyone because they're taking me around an island and providing me with a good time. I'm happy to be here because I really love Mount Gay rum and I'm excited to be bringing back two barrels for K&L customers. I wish there could have been more transparency, but that's what you're dealing with at the corporate level. It's all an image. David and I are by far the two least popular people at this point on the trip because we're not simply playing along. I don't think their ambassador Chester Browne likes me at all, but what I can I do?

In this case, the quality is there with Mount Gay, so I'm really just fine with our relationship to the company. There's nothing we can do about it anyway because asking questions is simply what we do. I love the rum, I'm here supporting it, I'm writing about it every day, and I'm going to be selling it because it's delicious and well-priced for our customers. I'll bet you that K&L ends up selling more of these Black Barrels than any other retailer in the U.S. because of our own transparency, so that should keep us in their good graces! I'm up at 5:30 AM tomorrow to catch my plane back to the mainland before a layover in Miami. Back at K&L this Friday. Signing out from Barbados. 

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar062013

Rum Hunting - Day Four - St. Nicholas Abbey

Built in the mid-17th century, St. Nicholas Abbey is a former sugar plantation that has been immaculately preserved and restored in the St. Peter parish of Barbados. It's been around for more than 350 years and current owners, the Warren family, have decided to turn part of the old plantation into a boutique distillery. We were excited to get off the guided tour and adventure out on our own a bit, so we caught a taxi to the Abbey for a closer look.

The distillery itself is merely a small Holstein still over to the right of the barn entrance, exactly like you would see at St. George or Old World Spirits in the Bay Area. To the left, however, is a fantastically old-school sugarcane crusher that squeezes out the fresh juice and sends it to the boiler where it's turned into a syrup.

While the Abbey has been around for centuries, the distillery at St. Nicholas is quite new. They've only been up and running for about two years, so there's still some construction going on inside the plant. Over to the left you'll see the tanks for boiling the juice, which is piped in from the crusher directly behind me, which you'll see in the next photo.

The crusher was fully-operational today. The sugarcane was coming right in from the field outside where it was being fed through the machinery. It was quite fun to watch.

A tractor outside brought the sugarcane right out of the field and into a the pile being fed to the crusher. The entire operation was quite romantic: local agriculture being harvested and utilized right there on the island. Mount Gay's molasses supply is mostly imported from India and Guyana due to lower prices. Only about 30% of it comes from the island. Our cab driver told us that Barbados' sugar is quite special and demands the higher price point on the market.

The rum being distilled at St. Nicholas Abbey is not blended. It's all coming off their small Holstein still and is not combined with any other distillate from another still elsewhere. Currently they only have the white rum for release as their oldest aged expressions have only been in wood for about two years. The problem with the "pot still" rum is that it is immediately fed into the column still next to it where it's rectified into an almost neutral spirit. We loved the aromatics on the nose, but the palate might as well have been Belvedere vodka. It just goes to show you that you can have all the romance, the small, hands-on production, and the intimate environment, but you still might not have a good product. Mount Gay doesn't have the romance (which is why they've been keeping us away from their production), but their rum is still superior.

As we headed into the gift shop we noticed some aged expressions. "What are these?" we asked. Lo and behold, St. Abbey is bottling pure pot still rum at both ten and fifteen years of age – and they're not cheap. The fifteen year old will set you back about $130 a bottle. Where are they getting this aged rum?

St. Nicholas Abbey is following the old High West business model. Make your own rum, but sell someone else's in the meantime. There are two other distilleries on the island of Barbados: West Indies, which used to make Malibu rum before it was sold to Pernod-Ricard, and Foursquare, which makes a number of other rums sold on the island. The rum was quite good – round and supple, but nothing super special. Nothing that justified the high price tag, at least. I'd rather have the Mount Gay Extra Old or 1703, especially since I could buy multiple bottles for that price. It's clear, however, that the other two distilleries on the island are willing to sell off their stocks to any distillery in need of extra inventory and that there are serious rums being made elsewhere in Barbados. Just in case another company was running low on supply, wanted to buy some, or blend some into their own stock, there is some good rum to be had. Who else would need to do that, however?

More news from Barbados later tonight as we head back to RemyLand for a cocktail competition and more Mount Gay

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar052013

Rum Hunting - Day Three - RemyLand (Part Two)

The blending session was by far the best part of today's events, mainly because we got to ask Allen all the questions we had about the distillery. We had spent an entire morning in a cave, in a field, eating great food, drinking great drinks, but we still hadn't seen anything about how the rum was actually made. It was like a giant tour full of fun and wonderful information, but none of it about the hard facts we actually care about. Every time we had a serious question about the rum and the production methods, those questions were carefully avoided. Now there would be time for time for interrogation. We had the master blender all to ourselves for the next hour and we planned on utilizing that time to the utmost. In front of us were four glasses: white column still, aged column still, white pot still, and aged pot still. Yes, Mount Gay is a blended rum.

As Mr. Allen gave us a quick run down on the four different distillates, David OG and I just peppered him with questions. "What's the percentage of the wash?" "Where are the stills?" "What's the proof off the still for the column?" "What proof do they go into the barrel at?" Some of it was clear cut. Other answers seemed to be a bit fishy, but that may have been because we were like two hard-boiled cops with a suspect in questioning. Mount Gay distills two different rums, albeit both from the same fermented molasses (so it's not quite like blended whisky where there are two different mashbills – malted barley single malt and unmalted grain whisky). The same wash is used for both stills, but the column still manages to get the 6-12% wine up to almost 99% pure alcohol after so much rectification. The other rum is double-distilled on a pot still like single malt whisky and is far more aromatic. Getting to taste the unaged pot still distillate was a revalation! It was incredibly fragrant with hints of menthol and an incredible herbaciousness much like I tasted in the pure molasses. Both rums are aged separately and then blended together to make the various Mount Gay expressions, much like blended whisky and single malt are for something like Johnnie Walker or Dewars. We were given our own quantities to blend with and there was a contest to see who could most accurately recreate the Mount Gay Black Barrel. It was great fun and I learned more about rum in the half-hour we spent in that session than in any other experience so far working in this business.

Here's what doesn't add up for me, however. We were not allowed to see the distillery. No stills, no fermenting molasses, nothing. According to Remy it's being remodeled and the building is considered dangerous for outside visitors at the moment. Yet, there are people working in there? Distilling rum at this moment? Why is the distillery completely separated from the rest of the warehouses and offices? Why is there a chain-link fence with barbed wire surrounding it? Why was there no trace of fermentation anywhere in the air? Not even a whiff! When you go to Glen Garioch you can smell it from five blocks away. At Mount Gay, you wouldn't even know they distilled anything unless you asked. And then when you ask you're told you can't see it. 

The warehouses at Mount Gay are another mysterious component of this puzzle. There can't be more than ten thousand barrels in the warehouse we saw and there are only four warehouses at Mount Gay. That means there are probably around forty-thousand casks aging at the facility. When we asked how many barrels were on site, we were told they couldn't answer that question. "Why not?" we asked. "Because smart people like you will do the math," was the reply. The others in the group scratched their heads. What could that mean? Why would they be so coy and crpytic about basic statistics. David and I smirked, however, because we knew exactly what that meant. The picture was becoming clearer every hour. We had already asked how many cases a year Mount Gay ships globally, so we had the info we needed.

According to one of the Remy people Mount Gay ships about 900,000 cases of rum a year globally, most of it aged rum and not clear (which plays a role). Here's the math.

900,000 cases x 9L (assuming they're all 750ml cases, which they're not because some are 12L) = 8,100,000 liters of alcohol every year for the market. 40,000 barrels x 200L per barrel = 8,000,000 liters. That means in order to meet their global demand Mount Gay must use 100% of its rum on site to fill those bottles. But that's not possible, is it? What about the rum that needs to age? The 10+ year stuff that is slowly maturing and consolidating into fewer and fewer barrels as it evaporates? Where is Mount Gay getting all that extra rum? Look at the picture of the distillery again and tell me if you think that facility (which is "under construction") cranks out enough rum to supply that amount. Unless there's another warehousing facility somewhere, it's just not possible. Maybe in RemyLand this all makes sense.

After taking another break for lunch we went back to the distillery and chose our barrels for K&L. The distillery is releasing a fantastic new expression called Black Barrel - aged first in Jack Daniel's barrels before being transfered over to charred Jim Beam barrels for an extra kick of spice. The samples we tasted were fantastic and we selected two for the store. We have no doubt in our minds that people are going to love them for the price, which ultimately is the real problem here: we love Mount Gay rum! It's fucking outstanding rum! It's not sweetened or altered or colored or manipulated. We tasted right out of the barrel, right into our mouths and this stuff is legit. So if you know you've got the goods, why the vague information about distillation? Have you ever heard of a tour without seeing the actual distillation process? I want everyone to understand right now that my skepticism so far is in no way based on the quality of the booze. Mount Gay rum is probably my favorite rum in the world. Therefore, I'd like to know how it's distilled. Or, more importantly, who's distilling it? I don't really care how it's made because whoever is crafting these selections is a master. I just want to see the actual process!!

Here's the thing: Mount Gay is not the only distillery on Barbados. Who else is making rum on the island, you ask? We might know a bit more tomorrow. 

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar052013

Rum Hunting - Day Three - RemyLand (Part One)

What a day we've had. There's so much to share with all of you. This morning and afternoon were spent doing a variety of activities that were meant to help us understand the reason that Mount Gay Rum tastes the way  it does. We learned about the island of Barbados, about how it's not a volcanic island like the other Caribbean outposts, and how the coral limestone that composes the island helps filter the drinking water. The rain must travel through layers of it before filling the many wells underground. There is some damn fine water in Barbados.

Harrison's Cave is one of many natural wonders one can visit on the island. Hundreds of feet beneath the surface is a series of passages and caverns that have hollowed out over thousands of years due to rainwater that drips down through the limestone. Stalactites and stalagmites eventually join columns within pools of pristine water that are deposited throughout the cave. We took a forty-five minute tour under the earth before emerging with a thirst (for water, rum, and more knowledge about Mount Gay!). Remy wanted us to understand that the island of Barbados is unique, quite fascinating, and has incredible drinking water. Supposedly this is big part of why Mount Gay rum tastes so good. I'm fine with that!

Remy had all their ducks in a row today. We got on the bus at 8:30, hit up Harrison's Cave, then stopped off at an official Mount Gay rum shack, where more Remy people were expecting us. There are no billboards or large advertisements allowed on the island, so rum shack owners make deals with brands to paint their buildings instead. A rum shack like this one might get $3000 a year for choosing allegiance to Mount Gay and Remy, which is a nice little cherry on top of what is already brought in from liquor sales.

We know that the water can play a big role in why a spirit tastes the way it does. We know this from single malt whisky studies. Barbados has great water. It also has a lot of sugarcane and, since rum is made from sugar, it was time to learn about the fundamental substance behind rum distillation.

Awaiting us in the sugarcane field was a giant tent with a few chefs who had prepared some fantastic snacks for us. While we had a small bite and some refreshments, Chesterfield Browne - Mount Gay's International Brand Ambassador - got out the machete to show us some sugarcane basics.

Cane is quite an interesting plant. It has a hard, thick outer layer, but a fibrous and juicy inner core. Most of the sugarcane on Barbados is now machine harvested, but some hard to reach or mountainous fields are still done the old fashioned way – with a machete. We all got a turn manning the blade, cutting down the sugar cane, and taking a bite out of the sweet inside.

I found it quite interesting tasting some rum right next to the sugar cane. There are definitely similar flavors to be found that carry over into the Mount Gay profile. However, there was one big problem with this explanation: there wasn't much talk about molasses. Mount Gay rum isn't made from fresh sugar cane. While sugar does indeed come from sugar cane, Mount Gay rum is made from fermented molasses – the by-product of the sugar, which is the by-product of the sugar cane. Shouldn't we go to a refinery, maybe? Shouldn't we at least taste some molasses? Right before getting into the van to make our way to the distillery we got to sample a wee bit of molasses which was incredible because it was raw and fresh. Now that is where I really got an idea of why rum tastes the way it does. There was a bit of black licorice and menthol in the bitter and intense flavor of the leftover sludge. That's where Mount Gay comes from. I could taste it and sense it. But that wasn't very important. At least, Remy didn't think it was.

At the distillery we met Allen Smith – the master blender for Mount Gay. We settled down in one of the open warehouses (there are four at Mount Gay) which had pallets of barrels stacked upward rather than on their sides.

"How do you taste what's in the barrels?" we asked immediately, flabbergasted that the bungs were on the side in a vertical position. Pulling the peg out in this position would shower the culprit immediate with a stream of valuable liquid. What's the deal? Apparently, they cover the bung in Barbados and drill a new whole on top which allow them to palletize their barrels in three by three rows, making nine barrels per pallet. Allen said there was more wood exposure that way, they had less evaporation due to a smaller surface area, and they could fit more barrels per warehouse if they did it vertically. That makes total sense. Barbados is hot so the Angel's Share can be about 10-15% by volume per year (Scotland is more like 2-3% in comparison). That's a huge loss to evaporation, so minimizing the surface area is helpful. Nevertheless, they're in a hot, humid climate, so there's not much you can do. Mount Gay does top up their barrels after a few years, combining what's left of the remaining rum to fill up the remaining space.

More to come! We're off to dinner.

-David Driscoll