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Thursday
Feb202014

Guyana: Day 2 – DDL Diamond Distillery

David OG made a great point during one of our various, long, detailed, and magnificent conversations about rum today. He said, "When we talk about whiskey we're talking about various types of spirits with different flavors, but most people think rum is just one thing." It isn't, however. There isn't one type of rum, just like there isn't one type of whiskey, and there's no better example of that fact than the Demerara Diamond distillery where more than twelve stills make a multitude of different rum styles with numerous flavor profiles. For the El Dorado brand, DDL has a distinct advantage with their historical distillates that couldn't be produced or recreated anywhere else.

We know that DDL has a long and storied history, but I'll get more into that tomorrow. Let's focus on just the incredible distillery for now because there's a lot to talk about. The Diamond campus, which consolidates stills from three other former distilleries (imagine if the stills from Port Ellen, Brora, and Rosebank were all moved into Caol Ila), is one of the most diverse and fascinating spirits facilities we've ever visited. Everything is happening right in front of you, out in the open, and it's all self-sustained. The boiler room, which you can see here, begins the process by powering the facility with steam. It's run mostly by methane, which is created by fermenting the spent rum wash and trapping the resulting gas. They installed it in 2010, which ended their dependency on oil.

Like we've seen at Four Roses and Wild Turkey, yeast is an important factor in keeping the flavor profile of El Dorado consistent. They have an entire room with four separate vats dedicated to the propagation of yeast cells, derived from a combination of both local strains and purchased distiller's yeast. You could smell the fruity, almost white wine-like aromas drifting out of the steel tanks. 

That yeast is unleashed into a house formula of one part molasses to four parts water, creating a sugary liquid with a Brix level of 19. All of the molasses comes from Demerara sugar cane, grown specifically along the Caribbean coast. Guyana is an incredibly fertile land. It's said that if you eat a piece of fruit and accidentally drop a seed, you'll likely return to that spot later and find a small tree growing where you left it. Part of this fertility is due to the fact that the coastal regions of Guyana are actually below sea level; it was originally colonized by the Dutch, who were very good at draining the land and creating cultivatable space. 

Guyana is also quite close to the equator with a temperate maritime climate, allowing for perfect growing conditions. Their sugar cane is therefore some of the finest in existence, and the by-product of this cane – the black strap molasses – is some of the best for fermentation. There are eight closed fermentation tanks at Diamond distillery, along with five gigantic open vats. They distill around the clock and almost every day of the year.

But let's get to the stills because, really, this is why we're here. What needs to be stressed before we break down each device is this: the El Dorado rums are not simply the same rums at various age levels. The 15 year is not simply an older version of the 12. The 21 year is not simply an older version of the 15, and it's not just different barrels from various parts of the warehouse that distinguish them from one another. They are all different combinations of rum from a formula that uses various combinations of the individual distillates. For example: 

- the 3 year old uses mostly light to medium-bodied rum from the Savalle still with a bit of the copper column still.

- the 12 year is comprised of rums from the wooden Coffey still, the copper Coffey still, the double pot, and the Savalle still.

- the 15 year uses a majority of rums from the single and double wooden pot stills, giving it a more robust flavor.

To understand each of the selections, however, you have to understand what makes each still unique, and how that uniqueness affects the ultimate flavor. The EHP wooden column still, which you can see in the above photo, is said to be an exact replica of the first still built by Coffey himself in the 1800s. Even the plates inside of it are wooden and the spirit distilled from it is incredibly unique when compared against the standard copper version. 

Then you've got the Port Mourant double wooden pot still – an antique built in the 1700s from local Greenheart wood (also used for building ships) valued for its incredible durability. The still is completely heated by a steam pipe that injects the piping hot vapor directly into the liquid. The escaping alcohol vapors are then condensed directly into a second wooden pot still that uses the incoming heat from the vapor to create a second distillation. It's not over yet, however, as the second distillation passes through a gigantic copper rectifier to increase the ester content before the final condensation.

Speaking of esters, there's an all-copper "high ester" still right next to the PM double pot. Esters are the aromatic and flavorful compounds found in fruit and flowers that we taste and smell when we interact with them. In distillation, they're the result of the fermenting alcohol coming into contact with the leftover acidity. When slowly dragged over copper while vaporizing, these compounds become highly pungent and the "high ester" still is specifically designed to maximize their intensity by increasing their exposure to the metal. For example, the Savalle still creates a spirit with about 20 ppm of esters and the double wooden still about 50 ppm. In contrast, the "high ester" still results in a spirit with 10,000 ppm of esters, which is mind-boggling because at 50 ppm you're already tasting the esters in the PM distillate. Tasting rum from the "high-ester" still is like numbing your tongue with intensity, rather than alcohol. It's absolutely insane and difficult to describe.

Then there's the single wooden pot still taken from an old Versailles distillery (Versailles is a small town West of Georgetown on the way to Uitvlugt) that adds a another antique option to the mix. Keeping up the heritage and quality of production is very important to El Dorado, or else there would be no reason to use these old things. Making rum in the wooden pots is three times more expensive than using the column stills, so there's no economic motivation. Each batch also takes 16 hours as the wood helps to maintain the vapor inside the still longer than a standard copper pot would.

The jewel of the Diamond estate, however, might be the Savalle still taken in the late 90s from the former Uitvlugt (pronounced eye-flut) distillery. Because of the various columns and how they are arranged, it's possible to make nine different rum distillates depending on how much you want to rectify the spirit. There's the possibility of total neutrality, or a floral and fruity distillate that makes you want to sing! The forth column is specifically designed to enhance the natural flavors in the fermenting wash, so there are a lot of options. 

Then there's the standard copper Coffey still, which does the same as the wooden still, but rather with more copper contact for a higher ester content. El Dorado's master distiller is Shaun Caleb, a Princeton-educated Guyanese local who spent years working under the legendary George Robinson. When George passed in 2012, the torch was given to Shaun who was expected to lead DDL into the future. I think they made the right move. Shaun is knowledgeable, kind, and humble. He listens more than he talks, which is always a good sign. The man knows as much about distillation as anyone I've ever met.

Of course, there's the "new" still, which you can see all the way from our guest house – a gigantic monolith that can crank out 15,000 gallons of spirit a day. That's where the majority of the bulk spirit comes from. We did get a chance to taste white spirits from each of the stills and the differences are highly noticeable. Being able to blend from various distillates is a huge advantage and it's something that Diageo pays heavily for with their Johnnie Walker whiskies, blended from a number of different distillates from various distilleries. Here at DDL, it's all done under one roof.

Between their five warehouses (they still use the old sites of Uitvlugt and other estates for their storage, a la Kentucky producers with Stitzel Weller and Old Crow, etc.), DDL has more than 100,000 barrels aging around the country. 20-30% of that stock is sitting at the Diamond estate. The barrels are stacked vertically to maximize space and the hot, humid climate causes the spirit to evaporate much faster than our cooler conditions at home. It's not uncommon to lose 50-55% of the barrel over time. Much to my surprise, there is absolutely no sherry maturation happening at DDL. All of their rum is aged in refill Bourbon casks that have been stripped and re-coopered to expose more of the fresh oak underneath the char. The sweetness is simply due to rapid maturation and evaporation under the extremely humid conditions. No barrel is used more than five times (for younger rums) or ten years for the older stuff. After a rum passes ten years in wood, it's racked into a new barrel.

With so many distillates going into wood, how do you keep track of what's what?! Very carefully.

We took a break after our tour and later in the evening went into Georgetown to have dinner with DDL Chairman Komal Samaroo. We're really looking forward to working with him and his team. I cannot express to you how fantastic it is to have the opportunity to express your aims and goals with the person in charge of operations. It's entirely different than meeting with a sales rep or assistant and I think we really communicated our hopes effectively. It was an exciting moment for both David and myself.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb202014

Guyana: Day 1 - Into the Night, Awaken Anew

INTERNET! We've had some technical difficulties over here, but I've got them worked out for now. Let's get you all up to speed.

We landed in Georgetown late last evening and the air was electric. There was no terminal for the plane to pull into, so we exited onto a stair cart and stepped into the humid Guyana night. There was an energy on the tarmac – a feeling that we had finally arrived in the tropics. Whereas the airport in Trinidad was industrial and standardized, the scene at Cheddi Jagan International was entirely different. We all felt a jolt of excitement as we walked through the colorful hallways and into the customs office. There are six main cultures in Guyana, all living together along in northern South America: Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, African, Amerindian, and the mixed Guyanese. It's a melting pot of religions, cultures, holidays, and cuisines.

After a forty-five minute drive through dark jungle roads, we spotted the column still towers of DDL and pulled off onto a dirt entrance way. A guard opened up the gates and showed us the way to the guest houses towards the rear of the campus. We stepped carefully along the wet grass, through the symphony of insects buzzing and chirping, and into a cozy, three-bedroom flat that was stocked with everything we needed: tropical fruit and rum.

I awoke in the morning to the sound of birds chirping, but in a manner I wasn't used to. There were all types of whistling, calling, and singing emanating from the direction of my bedroom window, so I walked out to the balcony to have a look.  A family of white cranes and various yellow and red species that I couldn't identify were all fluttering about. The distillery was looming far off in the background.

And then I heard the sound of dishes clanking in the kitchen. Our new friend Britney was cooking away, fixing up eggs, bacon, fruit, and tea. 

The others eventually rose as well, slowly coaxed out of bed by the smell of breakfast frying away on the stove. We sat outside on the balcony and took in the scene. I asked Britney what one would normally eat in the morning here in Guyana, to which she replied, "Roti and various Indian dishes." We all agreed that, while the American breakfast was absolutely delicious, we'd all love to taste her Chana Masala." She beamed and flashed her incredible smile.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb182014

Trinidad: The Layover

I've never been much of a pill-popper. I've always preferred to tough out the pain, or keep my senses about me during times of stress and strain. For that reason, I hate red-eye flights because I always arrive at my destination in terrible shape – exhausted and glassy-eyed with little energy to do my work. Last night, however, I decided to take something to put me out during our overnight flight to Miami and it was the best decision I could have made. I was dreading the trip to Guyana, with a four hour layover in Miami, a three hour flight to Trinidad, and another six hour layover on the island before we take off for Georgetown. I slept the whole way to Miami, however, and then conked out again on the flight to Trinidad. I'm feeling great at the moment. The mountains of Trinidad are visible from the the edge of the airport and they look rather mysterious – as if there's something secretive going on within them.

Since we had so much time to kill before our final leg, we decided to walk out of the airport and down the road to where we heard there was some killer Trinidadian street food. We're here with Roger and Mollie from the Henry Wine Group, California's distributor for El Dorado, and we all decided that the double stand was the way to go. A "double" seems to be the hot snack in Port of Spain, as there was a line of locals waiting their turn at the stand. Hanif's little operation consists of taking two fresh pieces of roti Indian-style bread (hence the term "double"), dumping in a spoonful of curried garbanzo beans, then topping them with a cucumber slaw and both a sweet and spicy salsa. He then flips the bread and twirls the sandwich into paper, as you can see sitting on the counter in the above photo.

There are different types of bread as well. Once of them is stuffed with potatoes. Yum. 

Now we're sitting in the VIP lounge at the airport, enjoying our first chance at WiFi and some Angostura Trinidadian Rum (Mollie somehow had free passes for all four of us!). We've got a few more hours to kill until we board the last flight in our long journey to Guyana. So far it's been an easy trip. I'm very, very relieved.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Feb162014

And We're Off (What's New? - Part II)

The American psyche is always obsessed with what's new -- we love the newest phone, the new app, the new restaurant, the new app that tells us about the new restaurant -- and we see this phenomenon in presidential races. Voters say they want experience, but time after time a party nominates the guy we don't know all that well and he wins.

- Bill Maher, on Real Time this past Friday

Americans love what's new because we love to be inspired by new ideas – not just new products, but also new exposures to historic and cultural traditions that many of us lacked growing up away from our various motherlands. Therefore, we go to Europe for vacation and decide we want to be more like the French or Italians, eating locally-sourced dinners around the table instead of fast food on-the-go. We learn about German education and decide we want our kids to go to a Waldorf school where they'll learn how to knit sweaters and make furniture instead of watch cartoons. But rarely do these values, doctrines, or philosophies translate into our permanent American lives in a way that's sustainable. We buy a French cookbook, try a few recipes out for fun, but that's about as far as we ever make it. Let's face it: most of our schedules are not built for this kind of lifestyle. When you get home at 8 PM it's tough to make a wholesome, locally-sourced meal and sit around the fire afterward telling stories. That's why we embrace these new experiences abroad – because they're what we sometimes wish we could be.

We long for new things in America, but what's new can come in one of two forms: the shiny new toy that, like a child, you play with for a few hours until you're bored again and want something else, or the type of new experience that opens your eyes to the world around you and evolves into a lasting appreciation. When it comes to the world of wine and spirits there are definitely many examples of both. There are plenty of whiskies released each year that are new, simply because the marketing companies need something new to market. They know we like new things, so they do their best to give them to us (and we buy them!). But David and I have tried to shape K&L into a spirits retailer that specializes in the other type of experience as well. We're looking to discover spirits that are new to us as Americans, but not necessarily new in general. When we bring in a hot new item from over seas, we're looking to build upon tradition, history, and heritage, rather than the latest trends. We don't want our exclusive spirits to be the kind of thing you drink a few sips of and then say, "NEXT!" We want our spirits to inspire you to the extent that you want to learn more about them and continue to enjoy them for the rest of your life.

Not only do we want to widen the perspectives of our American drinking culture, we want to do it in a way that's interesting and authentic, not merely creating new opportunities for quick sales. So we're headed to Guyana tonight to find some rum. Not a brand new version of rum, or a limited edition release just to give you something exciting to buy a few months from now. We want to present rum in a new context rather than a new flavor. Why has rum played such a role in Caribbean culture since the 17th century? How does it function in modern Caribbean life and what are the traditions associated with drinking it? What else is there to know about rum that maybe we're missing here at home? More importantly, how can we make rum something more accessible and enjoyable to Americans who are longing to experience something new? We've all had a rum and coke, but maybe a bit more understanding of the process would change the perspective of those who have never given the spirit much thought beyond that one simple cocktail.

And this trip is not about coming back and saying, "This is how they drink rum in Guyana, so this is how we're all supposed to drink rum now." It's not about finding a new K&L exclusive that we can get you to buy once out of curiosity before you take a few sips and move on to the next new release. It's not a promotional ploy to cast a new light on an old dog, either. As an American, I love tasting what's new and what's next, but after a while I start feeling empty, looking at the mostly-full collection of bottles on my bar. I want to build a lasting relationship with alcohol based on an appreciation for everything I love about it and I want it to be sustainable, not dependent upon an increasingly ADD-like addiction to stimulus. Constantly searching for something new, simply for the sake of novelty, isn't going to fill the void. Eventually it gets old. I need substance, a story, and a reason to be inspired.

We're not looking to come back with the newest version of El Dorado and we're not planning on becoming Caribbean experts, desperate to showcase how much cooler Guyanese culture is than boring old America life. We're simply looking for a new experience that hopefully creates and inspires a bit of excitement among those who haven't thought too much about rum and its many possibilities.

-David Driscoll

ALSO: my friend K&L Spanish Buyer Joe Manekin is live blogging from Spain right now on the regular blog. Follow him as well! His adventures are quite interesting.

Sunday
Feb162014

Why I Like Wrestling Analogies

One of my co-workers said to me yesterday, "You wrote another blog post comparing whisky to wrestling?"

Yes, I did.

It's just too similar. If you read the content of whiskey blogs and message boards, it's absolutely identical to the subjects being discussed on their wrestling counterparts. It's the exact same thing going on now in both industries with growing dissatisfaction among the diehards weighing in against the economic growth of a company.

- You've got insiders who know what's going on in the industry, and casual fans who don't.

- These insiders (smart fans who keep up on the internet) appreciate the product on an entirely different level and they want to uphold certain standards that maybe aren't as important to the casual fan.

- When the companies cater to the mass general audience, putting aside desires of the passionate smart fans, it drives them absolutely up the wall.

- The companies (or company as the WWE dominates wrestling these days) sometimes have to decide between taking care of their loyal, outspoken super fans, or what they think will sell to a larger audience and generate more revenue (this has actually been turned into a storyline on current WWE television).

- The smart fans absolutely cannot understand why their beloved company would cater to people who don't love the product as much as they do. Why aren't their desires, as diehard groupies, taken more seriously?

- Wrestling enthusiasts scream for Daniel Bryan, but instead they get John Cena. Whiskey enthusiasts scream for mature, full proof whiskey, but instead they often get 45% without an age statement. In both cases, the people in charge think it's better to go with a general appeal and a broader market.

- In both cases, the super fans are stuck. They don't want to stop consuming their beloved product because it's an important part of their life, but it's becoming more and more aggravating to watch it devolve in to something lesser than it once was.

- Both groups represent a very small portion of the overall consumer market, despite the fact that they're the loudest and most passionate. This is a key reason why their needs are rarely put forward as a priority by the people pulling the strings.

- Smaller companies are always more equipped to handle the needs of these super fans, but they're often difficult to maintain due to revenue needs and start-up costs. They almost always go under or get co-opted by the larger companies. Wrestling super fans had ECW, until the WWE bought it out. Whisky fans had Bruichladdich, until Remy Cointreau purchased it.

I am one of many wrestling fans who is completely unhappy with the current WWE product, so much so that I hardly watch a full program anymore. However, I'm so passionate about wrestling that I can always be hooked back in by something new and exciting, in the hope that it might get good again. I love reading about what's happening next on the internet and what might be in the works for this reason. I think many whiskey fans are the same way.

-David Driscoll