There are a lot of independent bottlers out there. The majority of them bottle good rum, as there is a lot of great product available nowadays. There are differences between bottlers in approach, commitment and knowledge though. Some seem to look at rum as “the next best thing” and are jumping on the bandwagon, hoping it will be able to make them a good living. Fair enough. For others, a high degree of rum passion is at least part of the decision. They actually love the beautiful spirit, want to learn everything about it and feel they can make a living by sharing this passion for finding the best rums to bottle. BIRA! anyone!?
If they seem knowledgeable, I’m more likely to buy something from them. As a consumer, it gives me more confidence that they’ll pick something excellent, while understanding what their target market wants. I communicate with quite a lot of people in the rum universe. Partly because of this website and partly because I want to learn and share. This includes regular attempts to get information from independent bottlers. I’m staggered by their lack of knowledge and interest at times. I have quite a few examples of this, but I'll share just one. Recently, I asked a bottler for some background information about a certain expression they were bringing to market. The answer was something like:”Best to look at a blogger’s site for information”. Que?
I realize the rum market has become pretty hot and subsequently some of these releases will sell without any knowledge from the seller, but to me it’s just not good enough. This is a product that has so many layers, such history, such diversity. People are so passionate about it. Also, people like to know what they are consuming and why one expression is better (value) than the other. Each bottle of rum provides several easy and interesting angles to educate and sell your customer. Why won't you? It shows disinterest in your customer and in the product you are selling when you don't. What kind of reputation do you want to have? I’m in a sales career and can’t imagine not knowing what I’m selling. Why on earth would anyone want to work with me?! As a consumer, I feel I’m not taken seriously in a situation like that. I’ll buy elsewhere, unless you have something extremely unique on offer.
Luckily, there are lots of fantastic companies out there as well. I already mentioned BIRA!, but Holmes Cay is another excellent example. They started their work in the US years ago, when there was very little good rum available in that market and as good as no independent bottlers. It wasn't fully clear if there was enough appetite for truly high end, cask strength rums in the US. Despite that insecurity, Holmes Cay went all in and started tying up a lot of capital in rum casks. A risky move. First time I met owner Eric Kaye was at UK rumfest in London. The UK wasn’t his market. Why was he there? I never asked him this but I have a few reasonable sounding guesses. UK rumfest provides an incredible learning opportunity for anyone who’s interested. He's clearly interested. There are plenty of rum distillers and brokers (Scheer) at the event for networking opportunities. Last and certainly not least, it’s a chance to meet and get to know part of the enthusiastic rum community. People who’d likely turn into his customers and online cheerleaders. He instantly created a lot of goodwill there.
Another thing that sets Holmes Cay apart from many is that they visit a ton of distilleries. Again, for networking purposes, but mostly to try and get amazing releases straight from the distillery. I’ve joined Eric on one of those trips and it was fantastic. The majority of independent bottlers get their rum from Scheer in Amsterdam and Main Rum in Liverpool. Nothing wrong with that of course, Scheer is a wonderful company. But it does show an additional level of commitment to want to offer something on top of that. Remember the first HC Belize release? Fully tropically aged, cask strength rum from Belize wasn’t available, until Holmes Cay went there and bottled it. Belize is now becoming a household name in rum enthusiast circles and I personally believe that has a lot to do with the efforts of Holmes Cay.
Last time I saw Eric was at UK rumfest 2022. He generously shared some HC samples with me to go through. One of them a very old rum from Fiji, the other an extremely rare 20 year pot still rum from Foursquare in Barbados. Rare because Foursquare typically doesn’t sell pure pot still rum, only blends of pot and column. There was however a time when Foursquare made an exception and sold some to Main Rum Company in Liverpool. They were even shipped and aged in their original casks. I asked Richard Seale, CEO and distiller of Foursquare about this. He said:”We sold some after a request from Main Rum Company, but stopped because we needed it ourselves”.
I asked Eric Kaye for the story behind these two rums:
Holmes Cay Foursquare Pot Still 2002 – 20 year – 51.1%
I first found out about these casks a few years ago when Richard Seale posted a photo with the caption “visiting some old friends”. Turns out he sold 20 barrels of unaged pure pot still rum back in 2002 to Main Rum Company. A few barrels came out over the years, mostly to French bottlers. There were about a dozen left, and Main Rum told me everyone wanted them. I’d been bugging them for a barrel for about three years, and after spending a ridiculous (to me) amount of money on rum that year, they agreed to let me have one. Knowing how special it was, we sprang for some expensive boxes to showcase this rum. Unfortunately, Main Rum happened to release two other barrels in the US at the exact same time. So much for exclusivity… Still, the rum was worth the price, as getting 20 year old pure pot still Foursquare rum is quite the rarity, even if it was aged 100% in the UK.
Holmes Cay Fiji 2001 – 21 year – 53.6%
I first had some Fiji rum distilled in 2001 via an early Samaroli bottling of it in 2013 or 2014 or so. It was about 12 years old at that point and very different from any Caribbean rum I’d ever had. Ten years ago was a very different rum landscape in the US. Something like the Fiji back then was a real eye-opener. Fast forward to my last visit to the dungeons of Main Rum in Liverpool, where I happened to spot another Fiji 2001 barrel. I quickly added the barrel to my shopping cart, after a quick taste to make sure it hadn’t gotten too woody. Thankfully, the cooler climate of Liverpool kept it in good shape. I believe it’s the oldest bottling of Fiji rum to date, but I’m sure someone will find another barrel and release a 22 year old Fiji rum next year...
Holmes Cay Foursquare Pot Still 2002 – 20 year
It’s delicate while being complex and somewhat fat. That’s a great combination! I’m getting citrus, oak, roasted coconut, orange peel, light cardboard, brown sugar, vanilla and caramel. After leaving it for a while I’m also smelling saw dust and burnt wood smothered in bbq sauce. What?! I can literally smell this all day and be happy.
Holmes Cay Fiji 2001 – 21 year
Completely different profile than the Foursquare of course. Nothing delicate about it. A proper slap in the face with glue, plastic, paint thinner, oak, licorice, black pepper, raisins and light tar. It’s quite medicinal.
Holmes Cay Foursquare Pot Still 2002 – 20 year
Oak and vanilla are strong. Citrus, light leather, tobacco, burnt wood. It’s got a thick and creamy pot still mouth feel. It’s sweet and spicy to start and turns slightly bitter on the lengthy finish. It’s a delicate rum.
Holmes Cay Fiji 2001 – 21 year
It’s very medicinal with caramel, rubber, oak, dark chocolate, coffee, light tar, burnt wood and bbq sauce. There is a nice light sweetness through the entire experience. The finish is also on the sweet side and never really turns bitter. It lingers for a long time. It’s quite the journey. If I have to compare it to something, it feels like it’s a blend of rums from Savanna, St Lucia and Caroni.
It’s a real treat to have a chance to taste these two wonderful expressions. Both rare and historic rums in their own way. The popularity of Foursquare rum is enormous and the pure pot still variant makes for a truly special sipping occasion. They can’t be compared to each other, which wasn’t my goal to begin with. I did have them next to each other though and it’s like a beautiful ballet dancer and a rough and tough car mechanic who didn’t shower after work, having dinner together on their first date. We all know how that would end.
The Foursquare nose beats the Fiji by a mile. It should be labeled “Eau de Richard”. I can enjoy nosing that all day. On the palate it’s slightly too delicate for me. It’s one you can drink an entire night without any hiccups or complaints. The 21 year Fiji on the other hand……you’ll have hiccups and you’ll definitely have dirty rum burps the next morning. Perhaps not a rum for an entire evening. However, as a single drink, the boldness of the Fiji appeals more to me than the delicateness of the Foursquare.
Depending on your preference for delicate or bold, you can’t go wrong with either one.
Holmes Cay Foursquare Pot Still 2002 – 84
Holmes Cay Fiji 2001 – 86
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