I'm typing this entry while flying over the Caribbean, from Trinidad to Miami, sitting and reflecting on what I've learned this week in Guyana and how I can best convey it. I'm pretty sure I got everything out of this trip I was looking for and I'm also seriously thinking to myself that DDL might just be the best distillery in the world. Granted – I haven't been to every distillery in the world, so it's hard to know. I've been to a lot of them, but I can't think of any other operation I've visited in the seven years I've been with K&L that is on the level of Demerara Distillers. What exactly do I mean by that? Let me try and explain.
First off, I've never been to a distillery that has more than seven different stills, each capable of creating a very different type of distillate. That in itself is enough to make two spirits geeks like David OG and me hot with excitement. Secondly, I've never visited a producer that's been in business since the 1600s and still has functioning equipment from the 18th and 19th centuries in operation. Najuma, who's the chemist in charge of quality control, told me that the heritage stills are not always consistent due to their age, which makes it difficult to keep up consistency. While single malt distilleries blend their whiskies to maintain as consistent a product as possible, El Dorado is blending just to get anywhere close! I like that. I like the fact that Shaun and his team are making rum on old stills that have a mind of their own, but always leave them with something great to work with. There's something endearing in that legacy.
Thirdly, I've never tried to work out a deal with a producer this large who was willing to give a store like K&L its full attention. El Dorado has been voted the best rum in the world for the last few years and there's little argument among enthusiasts that DDL is the cream of the crop. There's no other producer who can compete on their level, simply because of DDL's history and resources. No other rum distillery has an endless supply of high quality, in-state molasses and a contract with the government to ensure it, and no other distillery has the means to turn that molasses into so many wonderful spirits. El Dorado is sold all over the world, in large quantities, and now I hear even Costco wants in on the action. Yet they've decided to put their faith in us – a family-owned California retailer with three stores who cannot even come close to the volume that other accounts purchase – as a partner worthy of collaboration in the attempt to bring something exciting and new to the market. This is the first time that Sharon and Shaun have worked with a retailer to create an exclusive product under the El Dorado label and they want to make it work.
Fourthly, there's a great deal of respect and pride in what they're doing at DDL and the company believes in its people. That's not to say that other whisky distilleries don't support their employees or their local communities, but let's just say that no one at DDL is going to be replaced with a computer or an automated system any time soon. On top of that, the company is not for sale. It's owned by a group of shareholders who also run a foundation on behalf of local Guyanese children, making sure they get the education they need. DDL has even sent its employees to American universities and paid for their education so that they can return with the specific knowledge they need to make the company better. The employees are so thankful for this support that they become loyal DDL workers for life. It's a relationship based on complete respect for one another, and that respect extends to DDL's customers as well. There was no marketing BS, fuzzy math, or slight of hand going on during our visit. If we wanted to know something, they told us. If we wanted to see something, we saw it. If we wanted to taste something, they went and got us a sample. Contrast that with the hour I once spent in a sugar cane field on Barbados, only to learn that the producer was importing all its molasses from India. DDL is not a rum Disneyland. It's as authentic and untouched by corporate influence as any other producer I know of. It just happens to be a big company with big ambitions.
Fifthly, I enjoy working with people I like. If I have the choice between working with someone open and friendly, or someone who's a complete asshole, I'm going with the friendly person 100% of the time. It sounds crazy, I know. I understand that people have a choice when they purchase a bottle of booze, which is why I go out of my way to communicate with customers and let them know that I'm there for them if they need me. No one wants to do business with a jerk if they don't absolutely have to, myself included. But I'm absolutely crazy about the people who work at DDL – to the extent that I'm willing buy a gang load of their rum just so I can hang out with them again next year. David OG, too, as well as my buddy Martin Cate who owns Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco – the single largest bar account for El Dorado in the United States. Martin went to Guyana a few weeks before us and had nothing but amazing things to tell me. He's a true believer, as well, and he knows more about rum than anyone I've met in the bartending scene. I told Shaun Caleb while out at a bar in Georgetown, "Forget the numbers, let's just do this because we're friends who want to help each other out." Consumers not only have their choice of retailers, but also producers, and many customers like to know where their money is going. Let me assure you that DDL is one of the nicest companies we've ever worked with from top to bottom, so if you're careful about where you put your dollars, have no fear. They're going to a good place.
Sixthly, I'm a sucker for romance. I love a good story. I think most customers appreciate certain tidbits of knowledge as well. How cool is it that the El Dorado rums were made from a set of stills that date back hundreds of years, from one of the oldest operations still in existence? How neat is it that they source all of their base materials locally, rather than outsourcing overseas to cut costs? How satisfying is it that: despite their size and scale, the quality of their rum, and their 100K+ back stock of mature barrels, DDL continues to operate their own business and remain Guyanese owned? And how about the fact that they hire and support the local Guyanese community, rather than bring in marketing strategists and accountants from around the world to assimilate DDL into the modern business place? These are all aspects of their business that I admire have a great respect for.
Guyana is one of the few places I've been (Gascony and Normandy would be the others) where the locals are still in complete control of their own distillation and their own heritage. The main difference between DDL and the farmers of Armagnac, however, is that El Dorado has enough product to compete on a global scale. It's not a niche brand, whatsoever. It's an easy-to-like, relatively affordable, big-tent, eclectic, and well-managed line of incredible spirits that has enough product to supply the world market. And the rums are GOOD! They're something any fan of spirits would enjoy. If not the 8 year, than the 12. If not the 12, then the 15. Or even the three year old with a splash of lime and soda. There are so many different flavors available and so many ways to enjoy El Dorado – cocktails, neat, on the rocks, with a cigar (we did Cubans with the 15 year on Wednesday night – amazing!).
Am I gushing? Am I carrying on, rambling on end about how amazing this trip was? If I am, don't worry: DDL has been watching me do it all week, so they're used to it by now. I've been gushing over their rum, their distillery, their housing staff member Britney who made us breakfast every morning, their professionalism, their kindness, and their belief in the two Davids. And, of course, their staff. I cannot wait to tell you all more about the El Dorado rums (yes, there's a lot more to talk about). I cannot wait to get our blend finished, exported, and on to the shelves. I cannot wait for you all to taste it. And I cannot wait to go back to Guyana to do this all over again.
Komal – thank you for your wonderful hospitality and for taking the time to meet with us. I'm transformed.
Today was our day to get down to business and start talking seriously with DDL's blender Sharon Sue-Hang Baksh about our exclusive rum blend for K&L. As I mentioned in the week leading up to our departure, I'm interested in building a serious relationship with DDL and a creating a sustainable (as in: we can sustain our supply) product that isn't a one-off or a super limited release you have to buy within the first few days before it sells out. I'm sure we'll talk about single casks and older, more allocated rums as we continue to prove ourselves as an ambassador for Guyana's finest spirits, but I don't want to bombard consumers who don't yet understand what makes these rums so amazing with something esoteric or expensive. I wouldn't give someone new to single malt a single barrel cask strength whisky, so I don't think we should do that with rum either. We'll need to prove ourselves with this project – both to DDL and our customers – before we start getting fancy.
We're working with a strong single malt whisky consumer base, so we obviously wanted to create something robust and flavorful, rather than light and smooth. The key to that creating that intensity is the PM double pot still distillate. The heavy, funky, rather sulfurous character captures and retains the flavors inherent in the molasses. Most of us in the states think of pancake syrup when we hear "molasses," however, the black strap stuff is thick, highly-fragrant and has almost an anise, clove, and root beer like aroma. The smell of fermenting molasses can get pretty intense if you're around it too long. The pot-distilled rums from DDL capture more of that character than their column distilled brethren, so we wanted a heavy amount of the Port Mourant rum in the blend.
That being said, we also really enjoyed the fruity and floral flavors of the Savalle still rums. Even though most people swear by the 15 year (mostly because of its cepage of older, pot-still rums), I'm a huge fan of the El Dorado 12. I love the soft, supple mouthfeel and the subtle cane flavor that penetrates the finish. Finding a balance of those two rum styles, at an age that was appropriate for our needs, was going to be our task that afternoon. We obviously wanted to present something sippable, but thought it would be great if the rum was also affordable, so that our customers wouldn't be afraid to mix with it. The 12 and 15 year El Dorado rums are amazing on their own, but they're incredible in a Daiquiri or rocks-based cocktail. I had never even thought about using the 12 as a Daiquiri base until I tasted one on this trip. I've never been a fan of añejo Margaritas, so I'd never even considered using it. I had always opted for the El Dorado 3 year because it's fresh and clean like a blanco tequila.
Speaking of whites, we also wanted to explore the idea of a pot-heavy white mixer for rum geeks who want that fuller body and more intense character in their cocktails. We worked with a few ideas that consisted of 50% or more pot distillate, but we found that the more subtle flavors were completely wiped out by the potency of the PM. By scaling back the percentage we were able to coax out more of the fruity, almond-like notes present in the straight Savalle distillate. Since these the flavors from these two stills were by far our favorites, we decided not to complicate things by adding in the EHP wooden Coffey still rums or some of the other high-ester spirits. One thing I absolutely wanted to make sure of was that we would be able to clearly to explain to each customer why they were tasting what they were tasting. By focusing solely on the very different characters of these two rums, we would easily be able to contrast the lighter against the heavier style in our final flavor profile.
We didn't also didn't want to bottle a full proof rum. 62% spirits tend to scare away some of the uninitiated, however, a standard 40% rum wasn't exactly what we wanted either. We figured 100 proof might be the ticket for the rum as it would provide the maximum level of alcohol before requiring us to pay extra taxes, which would raise our overall price. We tasted the rums at both higher and lower levels, but we also made samples to bring back home in our suitcases, which would allow the blends more time to congeal and come together. Now we can assess our work later on with the council of the K&L staff before making a final decision. So far, I'm very excited about what we've been able to hammer out in a very short amount of time.
And…how awesome is it that El Dorado's blender is a woman? We don't see a lot of women in authority positions here in the booze business, so I'm always excited to get the feminine perspective from a producer (mainly because they're often better tasters than men and they're much easier to work with). It's definitely a male dominated industry, especially on the production side of things. But, let me tell you: it's the women who are running the show at DDL and so far they're the most organized operation I've ever worked with. Everything ran like clockwork during our stay in Guyana and it wasn't because of the men (nothing against the men, either). Besides Sharon, there's Nalini running the American side of the business from New York as the U.S. brand ambassador, Najuma working in the chemistry lab with Shaun, and Tamsia in control of the international office, along with her two assistants – Sanja and Amanda, who are as sharp as tacks. We spent a lot of time with these women and they are the real deal. Tamsia pretty much dedicated her entire week to making sure we were on schedule to accomplish all of our goals, which was great for us because she's such a joy to work with. I'm going to be very sad when we have to say goodbye to everyone.
After touring the ICBU sugar factory, we headed over to the former ICBU distillery where DDL still houses a great number of casks. The equipment, however, has been stripped and taken over to the Diamond site, so only a shell of the original building remains. DDL had three main distilleries before the consolidation was finalized about fifteen years ago: Diamond, Uitvlugt, and Enmore.
The warehouses are huge and they're absolutely packed with mature barrels. There's a lot of rum in wood at the Uitvlugt facility.
When the rums are ready for bottling, the team rolls the barrels over to a grate in the floor where the bung is removed and the rum is transferred to a tanker.
Just outside the former distillery and down the small river lies the vast sugar cane fields that stretch all the way out to the coast. After taking a short walk through the estate, we hopped in the car and headed back over the Demerara river towards Diamond to make some rum.
We got back to the DDL site where the engineers were waiting to give me a lesson in column still distillation. If you've ever been confused about the difference between column and pot still distillation (like maybe you've heard a bunch of people talk about how superior pot stills are, but not specifically why that might be), then let me clear it up for you real easily. Making whisky in a pot still is basically like boiling a pot on the stove and then trapping the alcoholic vapor into a copper neck, which feeds it into a condenser. Once you've boiled all your alcoholic beverage and the alcohol is evaporated, you have to start over – clean out the pot, and then begin again with a new batch. A column still, however, can run for weeks and weeks without ever needing to stop and reload. The liquid is fed into the first column and it keeps pouring it until you run out of wash (which is never at DDL). Even if you need to switch up the type of spirit, this can be done without halting the process or slowing it down. As the vapor goes up the column through each plate, more and more alcohol is rectified.
The more advanced the column still, the more you can manipulate the distillate by increasing or decreasing the rectification process (therefore resulting in a cleaner or heavier spirit). The "new" still at El Dorado can crank out 15,000 liters a day and it's all operated from the control room. The engineers can monitor the proof and the efficiency of all the distillate coming off the four columns. Three of the four were in operation while I was watching. There's another tall Coffey column still (pictured above) next to the "new" still, which functions much the same way, but has a set of copper coils between each plate to increase the ester content of the distillate.
If you need to check quality, you can always hit the valve on each column and take a sample. This one tasted fresh and clean.
When the others got back from their day with Shaun, I headed out with Najuma for downtown Georgetown where we met up with them at a local bar. We had a few beers, some fried snapper with hot sauce, and took in some of the local culture.
The best part, however, was when Shaun took us by one the DDL employee's house for what's called a "9 Day Party" in Guyana. After a child is born, the family throws a party nine days later for friends and family in celebration. We had an absolute blast hanging out on the street, drinking rum cocktails, and listening to music. The new baby, Mia, was adorable and definitely worthy of all the praise.
We had two options for what we wanted to do on our third day in Guyana: go with master distiller Shaun Caleb on a trek into the Guyanese jungle, or do some things around the distillery. David OG and I decided to split up as best to exploit our resource: I could bug the operations staff all day, while David could spend more time pumping Shaun for information. David OG might be a bit jealous, however, because I managed to convince DDL to call the Guyanese government and give me a tour of the state-owned Guysuco Uitvlugt-Leonara sugar estate factory. I told Komal last night that we were dedicated to El Dorado because they're one of the most open and transparent companies we've ever worked with. I stressed to him that the more information about rum he could present me with, the more I could make the case for his brand; "We're all about communicating the story to our customers," I said. "Then you should learn how we get our molasses," he replied.
After the others departed around 8:30, I hopped in a car with distillery chemist Najuma Nelson and we headed west, across the expansive Demerara river (and over a mile-long floating bridge) towards Uitvlught where the factory sits and high-quality Demerara sugar is produced.
The town of Versailles is on the way to Uitvlugt and our driver was able to point out where the old estate was from where DDL sourced its ancient single wooden pot still. Remember there were once more than 370 sugar estates and distilleries operating in Guyana. Serious booze history is just about everywhere you look.
Preparations for Mashramani, the Guyanese version of Carnivale, were going on all along the road, as well. Sunday is the big celebration, but of course we're leaving Saturday. "You came all the way to Guyana and you're leaving the day before Mashramani?" everyone asked us. Great planning on our part. Maybe I can extend my flight to Monday.
I don't think the Guysuco sugar factory gets many visitors. Of the few they might get, I don't think any of them are Americans with notebooks taking an excessive amount of pictures. I definitely stood out like a sore thumb, but I was given a warm welcome and everyone was very helpful. ICBU stands for Isaac Christiany Boody/Uitvlugt, which you may recognize from El Dorado's single still series we're currently selling. That's because the Savalle still was taken from the former Uitvlugt distillery, which was located right next door to the ICBU factory, so both facilities share the same name. Distilleries were built in Guyana only as part of a sugar estate, but Uitvlugt was closed in 2000 and the equipment was moved to Diamond distillery.
And now I understand why there's a small river flowing through the Diamond distillery that seems to serve little purpose! While the Diamond sugar estate no longer exists, it did at one point and its purpose was to transfer the harvested cane to the crusher. While some operations have moved over to mechanical harvesting, the plant manager said all his cane is still harvested by knife or machete.
Each boat is lifted by the towering crane and dumped into an absolutely massive crusher. I don't think I can properly convey through words and photography what an experience this factory was. It was like being transported back into the early days of industrialization and I loved every second that I spent there.
I'm not sure you can see drop the photo the size and scale of what's going on at ICBU. You're walking incredibly close, over metal bridges and walkways, and on top of a gigantic grinder that's pulverizing the cane and squeezing out the sweet juice. The leftover material is called bagasse and is used for a variety of other things. Even my wide angle lens couldn't take in the entire scene, so I'm going to post another one below.
Don't fall in!
And here's the long view.
And once again from above!
The juice is then transferred into these giant tanks called evaporators where the water is separated through boiling.
And out comes the syrup!
Molasses, of course, is what's left after much of the initial sugar has been removed from the juice. As it boils it continues to separate sugar into crystals.
The guys can monitor the situation by taking a sample and putting it on the microscope to check the crystallization.
And then, in a room with weird lighting, you separate those crystals into sugar. Demerara sugar is never completely refined, which is part of what gives it its special flavor and sweetness. The result is delicious.
More later! I've gotta run over to the distillery and make some rum!