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Barbados Rum GI Panel With Richard Seale & Raphaël Grisoni & Larry Warren - Part 1

The debate about a Geographical Indication (GI) for Barbados rum is still going and it doesn't seem like there will be a resolution any time soon. I've written about it here and here and since then, there hasn't been any meaningful progress. At least, not from what my relatively far removed amateur eyes can see.

There are four distilleries on the island, namely Mount Gay, Foursquare, St Nicholas Abbey and West Indies Rum Distillery.Three distilleries are in agreement on what the GI should look like, WIRD is not. They were taken over by French company Maison Ferrand a few years ago, known in the rum world through their Plantation brand. Since then, the process of implementing a GI has been stalled.

Lately, the feeling I'm getting from certain articles and photo ops of Maison Ferrand's Alexandre Gabriel posing with Barbadian politicians, is that some of them have been tempted by projected growth numbers from West Indies Rum Distillery, aka dollar signs. Ever changing numbers (I’ve seen $20 million investment and recently $80 million investment) which will of course only be feasible if the government allows WIRD to treat Barbados rum the Plantation way. That "way" is already leaving a marker, with the Stades line of rums that is available on the island. This includes an expression that has added sugar. A rum produced and bottled in Barbados that has added sugar, a travesty and somewhat unthinkable up until recently. Some people seem to think it is prohibited to add sugar to Barbados rum. However, that's currently not the case. It simply wasn't a tradition, it was a no no, until Maison Ferrand arrived. If the GI proposal would be implemented, a rum with added sugar couldn’t be labeled as “Barbados rum”.

Sugar is very powerful. It starts dominating the flavour profile of a rum very quickly, taking out a lot of the beautiful and complex nuances that can be found when sugar isn't added. One might ask: why add sugar then? Simple fact is that the majority of people like sweet stuff. Next to that, the added sugar changes the mouthfeel, takes away some of the burn and gives it a syrupy texture, depending on how much is added. It can even make a young rum feel older. This sells very well. It's one of the main selling features of Plantation rums. Combine that with pretty packaging, a charismatic slick salesman as a leader and a whole lot of misleading marketing, and you've got yourself a winning sales formula. MF calls added sugar "dosage", which sounds more premium. Furthermore, they state that added sugar brings out flavours instead of muting them, "like a chef who adds salt to his dish". Everyone who's tasted a lot of rum, sugared vs non sugared and has experimented with adding sugar syrup and glycerine to rum, knows this is nonsense. In reality, it is done to make the rum more main stream. It's about money.

There are other things in the GI proposal that Maison Ferrand opposes. Since it’s a Geographical Indication, it contains geographical links that make Barbados rum unique. Seems logical. They are a large part of what makes Barbados rum….Barbados rum. The climate and local water are prime examples. The local climate has an enormous impact on the finished product. Ageing the same rum in Barbados and Jamaica will give you two different rums. Let alone when you age them in Barbados and France. Therefore, the GI proposal states that ageing has to be fully done in Barbados for it to be called Barbados rum. Maison Ferrand opposes this, as it goes against one of the main features of their business model. They typically buy aged rum from broker Scheer in Amsterdam, or sometimes straight from a distillery, ship it to France and then age it for another year in cognac casks. They feel this improves the rum. Here’s a quote of MF’s owner Alexandre Gabriel from a K&L Spirits Journal interview:”some of the aged rum I tasted were not so impressive. Then I tasted rum straight from the still and I thought: this is great stuff. We can do something with this. We can bring rum to the standard of a great Cognac”. More recently, in a Barbados news publication, he mentioned that Barbados rum will conquer the world. Naturally, Barbados doesn’t need the help of deceiving marketing, cognac casks in France and added sugar to conquer the world. It has already been done. The reputation of Barbados rum is very strong around the world. This has been built up by Barbadians for hundreds of years. It’s easy to see why MF is against fully ageing rum in Barbados. Adhering to that geographical link would make sure their standard second maturation in cognac cask will prevent them from calling it Barbados rum.

Using local water is another geographical link that provides something unique. Barbados is an island of coral limestone with underground aquifers. The taste of the water is unique to Barbados. With a bottle of rum typically containing 40-60% water, it has a clear impact on the flavour of the product. The GI proposal states local water needs to be used. MF is against this. They have apparently found an old document about someone using sea water in their fermentation/distillation somewhere and want to experiment with this. Naturally, nobody has seen this document. Even if it does exist, it would be very hard to defend it as a tradition. It seems complete nonsense to bring this to the table as an argument against the GI. Perhaps they are trying to come up with as many items against the GI as possible, to see what will stick? Stalling the process. In the end, it seems they want a Geographical Indication without the geographical links. They want to benefit from the Barbados rum reputation, while simultaneously disrespecting it, just as they are trying to do in Jamaica.

Apart from Barbados having a certain quality standard by tradition, which they'd like to protect, it's also about value. In much of the Caribbean history, rum has been produced and sold as a bulk product. Selling at very low prices to Europe for example, where the real profits were made through ageing, marketing, packaging, distributing etc. It’s a typical colonial business model. Currently Foursquare sells bulk rum to Scheer in Amsterdam, but also has a very large inventory of rum that’s ageing in casks. As a matter of fact, Foursquare and Mount Gay represent the vast majority of aged rum stocks in Barbados, with more than 90000 casks. Compare that to WIRD, the largest distillery on the island by volume of distilled product, which only has a tiny inventory of ageing rum. They provide massive amounts of low cost unaged rum for the likes of Malibu and Bumbu, with most of the money being made outside of Barbados. The three distilleries in favour of the current GI proposal want to increase their revenue on the basis of a solid and ever improving reputation of Barbados rum and to keep more of that money in Barbados by ageing and bottling locally. They want to change the tide and largely move away from the colonial model, where products leave the Caribbean at a low price and most of the money is made elsewhere. Maison Ferrand has built its business on this old fashioned model and wants to continue it. If Barbados rum goes that route, the current reputation will definitely be at stake.

There clearly are large financial implications on both sides in this matter. It’s impossible for anyone except the stakeholders to know what these truly are.

When following the debate on social media, a lot of people seem to think it's a war of words between Foursquare's Richard Seale and Maison Ferrand. The GI panel discussion at the Barbados Rum Experience will show that it's not like that. Richard Seale is simply the most present on social media, but Larry Warren (St Nicholas Abbey) and Raphaël Grisoni (Mount Gay) have equally strong opinions about a Barbados GI. This is part 1, part 2 will follow soon.

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