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Barbados Rum Identity - Richard Seale

In Barbados, a lot of work has been done recently in regards to establishing an identity protecting geographical indication for Barbados rum. To make this come to fruition, all four distilleries on the island need to agree on a draft GI and present it to the Barbados government. Getting on the same page seems challenging with Foursquare, Mount Gay and St Nicholas Abbey being in agreement, but the fourth party, Ferrand owned West Indies Rum Distillery, having a drastically different viewpoint.

Time to get some more clarity on this from Richard Seale, owner, distiller and master blender of Foursquare distillery.

Can you briefly describe your family’s involvement in rum over the past decades?

My family started as merchant blenders in the 1920s. Often overlooked is that the same transformational forces that produced ‘rhum agricole/rhum industrial’ also transformed the Anglophone rum industry. To survive the impact of European beet sugar in the late 19th century, the industry was rationalised so that by the 1920s most individual estates no longer crushed their own cane, but sent it to more efficient centralised industrial scale sugar factories which now made vacuum pan sugar instead of estate muscovado sugar. So most estates stopped making rum entirely. This void was filled by ‘rhum industrial’ - large industrial scale column still distilleries taking molasses from the large central sugar factories. These distilleries (and the few remaining rum making estates) sold their rum through dozens of merchant bottlers like my family. Martin Doorly was another merchant bottler.

My family is actually the last of the merchant blender tradition. Mount Gay is the last of the estate tradition. When we purchased Foursquare, the last family of the merchant tradition revived the estate tradition at Foursquare, which had produced sugar and molasses since the 1730s. Foursquare has seen it all. It went from wind driven estate (making sugar, molasses and rum) to steam driven central sugar factory (making sugar and molasses) to today’s incarnation dedicated to making rum.

St Nicholas Abbey is also a resurrection of the estate tradition in 2006. They probably last made rum there in early 1900s, but the estate goes right back to the early 1600s. They are a perfect resurrection because they exclusively use their own cane.

What is a GI?

I will give you the textbook answer - A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In simple terms this would mean that a product certified as Barbados Rum or Jamaica Rum would have actually been produced in the respective country and meet the standards of that country for the product.

Are there examples of GI’s in rum or other spirits that show their importance and success?

The most obvious example is Scotch Whisky. Through several legal mechanisms, including the registration of a GI for Scotch Whisky, that provides the industry with the tools to enforce that any product labeled as Scotch Whisky sold more or less anywhere in the world, has been produced in Scotland and meets the required standard. Outside of spirits, a good example is Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica. Before that GI was established there were several examples of coffee passed off as Blue Mountain Coffee that did not originate in Jamaica.

Can you describe Barbados rum tradition and why it needs to be protected?

We have an unrivalled provenance with rum making dating to the 1640s and it continues to be a significant industry in the Island. Barbados has earned an excellent Global reputation for its rums. To further build on this success we need to put standards in place that will protect the quality and hence the reputation we have now and also put in place standards that will ensure the economic value earned by Barbados Rum is properly earned in the Island. The GI is a tool by which we can achieve these objectives. The latter objective is an important reversal of the colonial economic model. This model left us with a devastated sugar industry because the economic value was largely earned outside. We can avoid these mistakes with rum.

Why wasn’t it done 20 years ago? What’s the current trigger?

IP legalisation is relatively new. The legislation must exist at home first to establish the GI at home. And the legislation to recognise and protect GIs must also exist in your target markets. I think there is another factor at play as well. 20 years ago, there was not the thinking to enforce your own standards abroad but the opposite, reduce the standards to obtain vital export business. There was not the self belief that rum could compete with the best spirits in the world. It has been hard to shake off the colonial mentality of exporting bulk to be branded and bottled elsewhere under the standard of their choosing.

Barbados has a very good reputation when it comes to rum. From an outsider’s perspective it’s hard to understand why the Barbados government wouldn’t be swift in protecting it. Why is it taking this long?

A GI places more economic value at home. This is not in the interests of outsiders who want to use the Barbados name without paying their fair value. This is not restricted to spirits. We see this in hotels who want to set up operations in Barbados but pay no tax, or cruise ships who want to visit but pay little or no fees. They lobby for their interests.

Imagine we are in the 1970s while the sugar industry is still strong. Imagine there are a handful of estates making branded artisanal sugar - 100% packaged, refined and branded at home. Imagine they want a GI to protect the good name of 'Barbados Sugar' and to ensure the economic value of Barbados Sugar is wholly earned at home. But a large foreign brand owns the largest sugar factory on the Island which only produces bulk unrefined sugar. They ship in bulk to package and brand outside. Imagine they adulterate and produce a substandard product which is largely of little interest to the average consumer but hurts the efforts of the true Barbados Sugar brands. Imagine this foreign brand might not like the efforts to create a GI and will lobby accordingly. That is where we are today.

How does it benefit Foursquare to have a GI in place and how does it benefit the rum consumer?

We continue to invest in rum. As much we want to develop the reputation of our own brand, it is imperative that the reputation of Barbados Rum is protected if not our own efforts will be compromised. It is also about a level playing field. We invest in ageing and bottling in Barbados, which has has a higher cost but an obvious benefit for the economy of Barbados. By certifying those who invest in Barbados, we reward those who invest in our economy.

For the consumer it is about ensuring when they invest in Barbados Rum, they are getting a rum befitting of the reputation. What the consumer can rely on is that the rum is not adulterated and the age statement is true. It doesn't guarantee a certain taste profile, but is more focused on underlying value.

Some say a GI is a restrictive measure that will prevent innovation in rum making. What is your opinion on this?

This is one of the more disingenuous and deceptive arguments.

The measures of a GI are aimed either at preserving the geographical link or preserving the reputation. Rum must be from sugar cane, you can't innovate rum beyond making it from sugar cane. Likewise you can't innovate Barbados Rum beyond making it in Barbados. The geographic “restrictions” are non negotiable because it can't be a Barbados Rum if made somewhere else. It makes a nonsense of the whole certification. As everyone knows, the climate is an enormous influence in the character of an aged rum. A geographically certified Barbados rum can only be aged in the Barbados climate. Anything else makes a farce of the whole process.

The other measures are aimed at reputation - for example ageing must be in oak casks as opposed to wooden vats. This has no effect on innovation but protects the veracity of an age claim on a Barbados Rum. Adding sugar is a deceptive practice, it is banned in the GI to protect the reputation. You can sweeten rum but now it's a flavoured rum, not a certified Barbados Rum.

Unlike some GIs and AOCs the draft Barbados GI places no restriction on innovation and in fact relies on the producers to preserve the Barbados style. It is trite to make something taste different. Just using a non oak cask as a marketing novelty is not innovation, it is a marketing gimmick. The challenge is to develop rums which are high in quality but retain the identity of a Barbados Rum. Real innovation is hard and done for real benefits irrespective of its marketing value. We have been innovating with copper surfaces. Mount Gay is innovating with cane varieties. The innovation options are endless but they take time and hard work.

Some say the GI will be protecting a way of making rum that hasn’t been tradition for very long. What’s your position on this from a historic perspective?

This is true. Today’s Barbados rum style is largely developed in the last 100 years. But today’s reputation is mostly informed by rums of the last 100 years. The GI does not restrict going back to earlier styles. It is just that once earlier developments have arrived, e.g. the column still, and the current reputation has been earned using (or not harmed by) these developments, we cannot turn back the clock - so newer styles are in the GI.

The column still is only 100 years old in Barbados rum but it's here to stay. Having not done a GI, we sadly have lost earlier styles because there was no economic value to saving them. The GI is a tool to help bring them back. The GI is a tool to protect what we do today from further inevitable corruption. Once anything of value is created, the cheaper ersatz will appear. We are late but not too late to protect something valuable we have now.

If the GI is put in place by the Barbados government, what’s the next step? Recognition by the US and EU?

Recognition in the EU is the next step.

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