Guyana Summary & Thoughts
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.