Updated: Apr 20, 2020
The first times I heard about Grander was through rum aficionados Steve Leukanech and Russ Ganz. I’ve sipped rum with Steve on several occasions and know how impressive his palate is, so if he’s positive about something I feel I need to give it a try at least.
Of course that isn’t easy when living in Canada, where it isn’t available. I recently went to Chicago for rum fest though. In that beautiful city they have a magical liquor store called “Binny’s”. They carry the Grander 12 and a cask strength 8 year which is their own private barrel pick. Naturally I bought both.
The age statements represent the minimum age of the rum in the bottle. The 8’s abv is 54.6%, the 12 is 45%. They are both molasses rums from Ingenio San Carlos (Las Cabras) in Panama, Don Pancho’s distillery. Many rum enthusiasts know him for producing plenty of products with additives, debatable age statements and even questionable provenance. Nothing questionable about these Grander releases though, according to Dan DeHart, the very passionate, honest and transparent brand owner.
I had a chance to speak to him and get to know more about him and his ideas behind Grander.
Can you please describe your journey into the rum world, what made you fall in love with this spirit?
I grew up in Kentucky and bourbon was what I grew up with. Rum, to me, was strictly for mixing and not to be taken serious which I believe is the average American view.
My first experience with a rum that left an impression with me was during a sailing trip in the Caribbean. The boat we rented came with a nice bottle of rum and I tried it neat and to my astonishment, it was really good and intriguing. After that trip I essentially forgot about that rum and it wasn’t till moving to Florida, where I began experiencing rum that could be enjoyed like a good bourbon. It was then that I fell in love with this spirit.
Why did you make the move to start your own rum brand?
Most people who know me would have guessed that I would have started a bourbon brand, which I did give consideration many years ago. However, upon learning more about rum I became intrigued with the high-end rum segment in the US which is minuscule and essentially an under developed market. There are many good high-end rums available, with a wide range of styles, that would suit just about any palate. However, most Americans have that notion of rum being a cheap party mixer. I was attracted to the challenge of launching a quality aged product in an underdeveloped market that holds a lot of promise.
What were your top 3 challenges in making this happen?
1. Getting the support from my wife, Jill. Actually, she has been very supportive from day one but I appreciate this is not for the faint of heart and there is no way I could do this without her supporting me. As difficult and challenging as it is for me, it is equally scary for her.
2. Educating people of the delights of well-crafted aged rum. I find many people are hesitant to try rum because they hold a negative perception of rum. Once they try a good rum, they’re hooked.
3. Distribution – unless you have tons of cash, this can be very difficult. It is important to find the right distributor who appreciates the brand and help place it in the right accounts. I had to learn that many distributors are beholden to the big brands whether they or I like it or not.
Why Panama? Was this a personal preference in taste over let’s say Jamaican or Barbados rum, or were there other benefits of going with this distillery?
Many countries make great rum and that is the beauty of this spirit. The primary reason I ended up in Panama was due to the taste of their unadulterated rum. I knew I could work with it. I also felt very comfortable with the team in Panama – they were very attentive to my needs and I felt we would form a great collaborative relationship. I also appreciate the distillery grow their own sugarcane for the rum. It is very nice knowing they control the raw ingredients and I can state that Grander is 100% Panamanian, starting with the sugarcane to the bottling. Lastly, being situated next to the Panama Canal is a huge plus for creating a spirit that can be sold around the world.
Which bourbon producer are the barrels from?
As of recently, we have sourced a lot directly from Heaven Hill. The Heaven Hill family is wonderful and have been very good to me. We also have secured barrels from Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace.
How much are you involved with the production part of the product?
I have a very good collaboration in place with the team in Panama. I’d like to fancy myself as very knowledgeable of the production process (sugar cane, fermentation, distillation, etc.) but the truth is, I am not an expert. I rely on my producer for those aspects. However, I do know what I want as an end product and that is where the collaboration comes into effect. We have a harmonious relationship of creating various blends and profiles, that I ultimately decide upon.
I do personally approve every batch of Grander that is created. I travel to Panama to do this and yes, I have rejected batches that were off. When this does happen, we have to go back and select different barrels to blend in to ensure continuity. This is when I realize the importance and beauty of the Master Blender, Francisco Jose Fernandez. He simply can’t go into the lab and make adjustments with additives – he has to select the right ‘mix’ of barrels to adjust the profile.
I am now spending time on selecting barrels for finishing. I personally source barrels I want to use and send them to Panama. Currently, we are finishing some really nice aged rum in Rye Whiskey barrels that I procured from Heaven Hill and plan to bottle (less than 2,000 bottles) later this year. I am working on sourcing other barrels as well.
For each of the different barrel picks that are being sold in the US, did you go to Panama to select it, or do they send you samples? What does this process look like?
The simple answer is I do select the barrels. The longer answer is it is a collaboration between my master blender and myself. We have now been working together for a number of years and he understands what I am looking for, what I want, what I don’t want. When I go to Panama to select samples, he will have scoured the warehouse, choosing barrels he believes will resonate with me. I will taste and make the final decision on which barrels will be offered to buyers before bringing them back to the USA.
This distillery and several others in Central and South America are known for adding sugar, sweet wines and/or copious amounts of colouring to many of their rums. Why did you choose to go the non additive route?
I chose to go the non additive route because of my bourbon roots (born and raised in Kentucky). I do still love bourbon and appreciate that, by law, one cannot add sugar or color to bourbon. This is rare for a spirit and gives you the sense for how ‘simplistic’ bourbon can be but yet how important ingredients, metho