An Interview with El Dorado Distiller Shaun Caleb

Along with the fact that El Dorado's Diamond distillery is perhaps the most dynamic spirits facility I've ever visited, they're employing one of the smartest and knowledgeable distillers in the business: Shaun Caleb. The Princeton graduate had some large shoes to fill, taking over for the late George Robinson who spent more than 40 years with DDL, but he's done a masterful job blending the old-world traditions with a new modernist approach. He's perfectly equipped to take El Dorado into the future.

In this conversation Shaun talks about his beginnings at DDL, the heritage of the Diamond distillery, the difficulties in working with ancient stills, the importance of Demerara molasses in the El Dorado expressions, and his appreciation for column stills over pot stills. Check it out:

David: Can you talk a little about how you started working at DDL and what intrigued you about the distilled spirits business?

Shaun: For me it started by wanting to contribute to development in Guyana, so I was looking for companies that were progressive, making a difference, and had some sort of international credibility and DDL was one of very few companies that fit the description. I’ve had a strong interest in chemical engineering since I was in school, so obviously I wanted to work with a company where I would be able to apply the benefits of these skills. Again, not many companies in Guyana offered that kind of opportunity. Nothing in manufacturing would draw as heavily on those skills as distillation, so it was a happy coincidence that I was able to find DDL. Luckily for me, once I made contact with the company they were extremely receptive. The company has always been very focused on building its human resources capacity and, at that point, I know they were conceptualizing a modernization program to update their infrastructure and technology. It seemed to be the right timing for me, finishing up school and looking to come back home.

David: You went to Princeton for your education in chemical engineering, right?

Shaun: Yes, having gotten into Princeton I actually approached DDL early on to see if coming home after finishing was actually a viable option. I wanted to come back, but the question was: is there something interesting enough for me to do? If the answer had been “no” I would have found something to do in the United States. But knowing something very positive was there on the horizon, it gave me a bit of surety for life beyond Princeton.

David: When you came back to Guyana to work for DDL, you started under the legendary George Robinson, who was the master distiller at that time. What was your initial role in assisting him?

Shaun: When I got back he was actually celebrating his 40th year at DDL. He has had many roles throughout his career in the company and at that point he had just moved back to distillery operations full time. My function was to support him in distillation practices and understudy at the same time, but also to plan all stages of the recapitalization process. Because I needed to have an understanding of DDL’s distillation philosophy and how that would apply to new projects, having a complete understanding of what we did was important. I was actually straddling both areas – being in charge of the modernization program while understudying the distillation side with George. I needed to translate those philosophies to make sure the modernization program remained consistent with our heritage.

David: Speaking of philosophy, what do you think George Robinson’s philosophy was concerning distillation?

Shaun: Very simple: one – to essentially produce spirits from distillation that have the full flavor profile characteristic to each particular mark of rum, and two – to do it in such a way that there’s stability in the operation; stability, predictability, consistency, and reliability. He strove to have particular settings that would optimize the way our stills were run. Once you’ve achieved those settings it would become easy for the operators to monitor the process. That would make the system more reliable for getting a consistent product each time. Running the stills with a stable set of parameters, so that everything from pressure to temperature to which valves were open – whether an eighth or a quarter – would improve the reliability of the distillation process.

DDL has very specific marks of rum, so knowing the specifics, the parameters, and the rationale for those parameters is obviously particular to us. To learn those specifics I relied on George and his notes. I would read about distillation in my free time, but then work with the operators to marry those two worlds together. When we were building the new column still, for example, I had to work with the contractors to make sure the specifics would satisfy the production requirements that we already had. One idea that was thrown out there, for example, was why don’t we make a light rum by separating the essential oils in the column and then blend them back together in the tank? Our response was immediately: “no.” While this method may be efficient for many other places, in India for example where the need to lower the cost of production has led many distilleries in this direction, it was against our philosophy. I had to be a guardian of our process and our heritage, understanding the principles of the older stills while mapping out the potential of the modern ones. It made for a very intense learning process.

The advantage that I had was that, being a chemical engineer by profession, I am able to transpose the conceptual with the practical. Many of our operators, as experienced as they are, have a very strong sense of what we do and the outcomes that follow. They can tell you what turning one valve an extra quarter turn will have on the final product. But to understand it from a scientific point of view, for example how your chemical profile shifts, what are the principles that explain that shift? That wasn’t something that would be considered each time by our staff. I think bringing that scientific point of view helped everyone involved with the whole operation.

David: I think anyone learning how to distill would have a tough enough time on a new still, whereas you had to learn with some of the oldest stills in existence. You’re using a wooden pot still from the 1700s and a wooden Coffey still from the 1800s. I guess that’s just on-the-job training, right?

Shaun: Absolutely. And this is why George’s philosophy really drove the operation. He wanted everything to be stable, determined, and documented. We have settings for every single detail of operating those stills. When the operator goes to start them he knows what every valve position needs to be and that was a great advantage for me. It made learning a lot easier. You had to memorize settings on one hand, but then at the same time be able to put things into context.

David: I heard from your staff that maintaining consistency isn’t easy when you’re working with ancient wooden stills.

Shaun: I would agree with that, but that’s the point of view of the quality control chemist who has to even out these inconsistencies. By the time we’re done blending, the receiver of the product, the consumer, will only see a consistent quality. For us, we define very narrow tolerances on our production. The quality control system is multi-tiered. It has to go through three checks before it is approved for the blending stage. Because of that we keep a very tight margin. It’s a messy process for the quality control people, but at the end of the day we manage to keep the flavors consistent. That’s important.

David: At the same time, I think the inconsistencies are what make DDL’s rums so endearing to certain consumers. They’re not made from scientifically-controlled, computerized operations that can be run automatically while you step out of the room. You can’t walk away from the stills at Diamond, come back in an hour, and see that everything’s done. In my mind, that’s exactly what makes your rums so special and different from what else is on the market. What do you think is the most difficult still to use of the four antique stills at the distillery?

Shaun: Definitely the EHP Coffey still. With the wooden pot stills – yes, they’re inefficient and so on – you can always make adjustments from batch to batch, depending on the outcome you’re looking for and the outcome of the previous batches. So you make those adjustments and at the end of the day you can blend multiple batches into conformity, evening out any variations. With the continuous still, while you can still even the rum out via blending, it’s a more dynamic process. Any change in parameters can upset this process. Then there’s the fact that it creates a medium-bodied rum. Making a light rum is probably the easiest process because you’re removing more stuff from the alcohol itself, so the number of control points you have to monitor is fewer. Likewise, when distilling a heavy-bodied rum, you’re removing less from the alcohol, so again, the number of control points is fewer. With medium-bodied rums you only want certain elements from a vast array of components present. Therefore, the number of combinations that can go wrong multiplies.

With the EHP still, because it’s old – and by old, I mean it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the modern process control technique – when the product quality goes off by a percent or two, there’s no valve to turn at each of these stages along the way to account for those changes. This severely limits the extent to which you can control the process, making it a lot trickier to manipulate. Having said that though – to our guys’ credit – they’ve developed the touch and feel for the operation of that still, so we do get it right. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require a lot of running up and down, turning of the valves, just to fine tune the right quality that we’re looking for. The EHP Coffey still is definitely the most difficult to use.

David: Do you enjoy the challenge of working with that still, or do you find it frustrating?

Shaun: Oh, we like the challenge! Especially because of the all history associated with the still. There must be a certain mystique associated with a piece of equipment that has been around for so long and has such a rich heritage. The fact that it demands your attention, I think makes people respond positively to it – me, as well.

David: Which still produces your personal favorite rum at the distillery?

Shaun: Personally, the metal Coffey still. The second would be the ICBU Savalle still. Those two.

David: That’s funny because those are both column stills, yet most diehard spirits fans gravitate towards pot-distilled things. What is it about those two that you particularly like?

Shaun: I like the fact that we can make a fruity rum and we can have a range of fruity rums with various fruity notes. We can isolate the pear, the pineapple, the banana. We can isolate the orange, as well. Not always as well as we would like, but just being able to manipulate the still and get rums that are all rich and flavorful, but still different, makes for an intriguing appreciation of what those stills can do, and – by extension – the product itself.

David: With all the attention that, for example, American and British spirit aficionados give to pot stills while looking through whisky goggles, do you think they’re missing out on the potential of column still distillates? Maybe because they don’t fully understand the process?

Shaun: Absolutely. That’s one reason, and the other would be the fact that column stills are mainly used for making light rums. You add other heavier rums afterward to blend them into what you want. Because we do things differently here, where our rum comes off the columns with a distinct flavor profile, not many people appreciate that. I think if they knew to appreciate this in the first place, then they’d understand that the art of distillation requires masterful intervention in the case of those column stills, as opposed to the pot stills.

David: What type of intervention specifically?

 Shaun: What we’re doing first of all is manipulating. It depends on the number of columns in operation. It depends on the process flow. We can actually change where things flow, so they may enter at different points and they may also flow in different directions. It also depends on the process parameters; the operating temperatures and pressures at different stages of the column can be adjusted, so as to emphasize or de-emphasize certain components. Also, the point at which we remove congeners can have an influence on what eventually finds its way into the product and affect the flavor profile.

When I was commissioning the new column still, as well as the new metal Coffey still, I learned so much from that process. Here was a new piece of equipment, which you’ve designed so that it has features that can replicate most of the other stills, but you still have to figure out those exact parameters – tweaking things and seeing the impact those changes have. Because there are so many levels of control which can be adjusted and fine-tuned, it really allowed us to explore our approach to distillation and the final product quality. The exciting thing is that, while we have not yet been aggressive about creating new products or new releases of El Dorado, it has opened our eyes to the potential of new possibilities beyond what we currently produce. We have so much flexibility and versatility in the operation now. That’s what’s possible with column still distillation.

David: Part of the reason people love pot stills is because they capture more flavor from the base material. When it comes to distillation of Cognac or Armagnac, a brandy producer will always talk about the importance of the base wine. However, with whiskey, there’s very little talk about the quality of the corn or barley. How important do you think the Demerara molasses are to the flavors of the El Dorado rums?

Shaun: It does have a significant influence because the environmental influences and the fermentation process both make a huge difference in terms of the number of congeners that are produced (NOTE: congeners are substances other that alcohol produced in fermentation that are responsible for most of the taste and aroma of distilled alcoholic beverages). At one point we did an exercise engaging some overseas facilities to try and catalog as many of these congeners as possible. We discovered that over two-hundred compounds are present in our molasses wash. It’s a very, very rich brew. Not only that, but then because of the presence of native, wild yeasts and the local fungus, the bacteria in the sludge of the molasses, all of those things help to not only introduce additional congeners, but also increase the content of those additional congeners. When it comes to distillation, they present more possibilities in terms of what flavors we can keep in the product and how we can influence their profile.

Having said that though, again because we want to strive for reliability and consistency, we tend to remove all of the congeners that we do not want in a particular rum. So, in a way, sometimes their benefit may be lost because we might have to remove them. But on the flip side of that, if we decide we want a different combination, it opens possibilities for new core products that we can produce. In other words, having all these congeners is useful and can benefit us when looking for new product possibilities.

David: We’ve been experiencing a huge renaissance of distilled spirits in America, even globally, particularly centered around single malt whiskey and American Bourbon. How do you think rum can position itself to help capitalize on the overall growth in the distilled spirits category?

Shaun: What is happening is that the consumer is developing a nuanced appreciation of those particular spirits. Obviously, in the process, we can move away from rum being seen as a cheap spirit that can get you drunk quickly. We can focus on quality, an appreciation of flavor, and offering rum that resonates with that fine appreciation. Rum has a market with this consumer; there’s a niche – to the extent that we now have many brands going after these consumers. They want consumers who appreciate quality, but also who are willing to try something different – a different experience of appreciation in a way that they’re already accustomed to with their enjoyment of whisky. Because rum is now able to do that I think we’re ready to bring rum into these niches.

David: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I think your words will go a long way in inspiring new and curious drinkers to give El Dorado rum a shot in their liquor rotation.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll