Who doesn’t like Jamaican rum?! Fruity, funky, flavourful, expressive, bold, elegant, fragrant, light and heavy are all words that can be associated with rums from Jamaica. The variety is enormous, while a clear signature can typically be found. Doesn’t matter if it’s rum from Worthy Park, Hampden, Long Pond, New Yarmouth or Appleton. They are all different, but would each be classified as Jamaican rum in a tasting with more experienced rum drinkers. That’s a wonderful achievement in itself, which is accomplished by following rum making traditions that have been used for hundreds of years.
With more and more major corporations being involved or even owning rum producers, it’s important to protect these valuable traditions. This can be done through establishing a GI, or Geographical Indication. A GI can be described as follows: “The use of a GI may act as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation, due to its geographical origin.“ The benefit for the consumer is that it’s clear the product is made locally, according to certain production standards and traditions. It creates clarity and an extra layer of confidence in regards to the quality of the product. Downside can be the potential of higher prices. In 2016, all Jamaican producers agreed to a GI for Jamaica rum. Which means all products that carry the term “Jamaica Rum” must adhere to the rules stated in the GI, when sold in a country where the GI is registered.
Let’s have a look at some of the rules in the current GI. Filtered limestone water from certain areas on the island must be used and fermentation and distillation has to happen in areas of these limestone aquifers. Copper pot stills and column stills with a copper rectifier are both allowed. For fermentation, natural (open fermentation) and commercial yeast are allowed, although it has to be of the Saccharomyces type. The wash can contain molasses, cane juice and syrup. Ageing has to be done in small oak barrels. Colour can only originate from cask ageing or from adding sugar cane caramel. There is more to it, but I think this covers the gist of it. What’s obvious is that this GI is quite flexible. Different stills and various types of oak barrels can be used for example. Also, nothing is mentioned about sweetening. Likely because it’s covered in the Jamaican Excise Duty Act, which states the following:
The GI is currently only registered in Switzerland and Jamaica. For the registration to be accepted in Europe, it needs to be strengthened. All Jamaican rum producers are in favour of this, except one.
There are six distilleries in Jamaica. Appleton and New Yarmouth, with their parent company J. Wray & Nephew Ltd., are owned by Campari Group. Then there are Worthy Park, Hampden, Clarendon and Long Pond. There’s been a recent ownership change in the Jamaican rum landscape which is significant in the GI process. Let’s look at NRJ. National Rums of Jamaica owns two distilleries, namely Long Pond and 73% of Clarendon. Diageo owns the other 27% of Clarendon and the Captain Morgan brand. It’s therefore easy to see where a lot of the Clarendon rum production goes towards. Since 2006 NRJ has been owned by 3 parties. The Jamaican government, Demerara Distillers Limited from Guyana (El Dorado) and Goddard, the owner of West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados. This changed in 2017 when French company Maison Ferrand (Plantation rum) bought WIRD, which came with a 1/3 ownership of NRJ. The date of this change in ownership is important, since it’s a year after the Jamaican rum GI was established. If it would have happened before 2016, it’s very likely there would have never been a GI. One only has to look at Barbados to see why, as this process is almost a carbon copy of what has happened in Barbados, where Maison Ferrand has so far been successful in stopping a GI from being implemented.
When we look at that situation in Barbados, which I’ve written about here and here, a lot of people in the rum industry and in the enthusiast scene have called this a war between Plantation and Foursquare, or more specifically between Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Maison Ferrand, and Richard Seale, owner of Foursquare Distillery. In my opinion, it’s way too simplistic to view it like that and doesn’t give any respect to the process and all the stakeholders involved. Larry Warren, owner of St Nicholas Abbey and Raphael Grisoni, former managing director at Mount Gay, are just as passionate about this as Richard Seale is. They are simply less outspoken and, more importantly, less present on social media, the realm of the rum enthusiast. Richard Seale has mentioned many times that it’s not just three Barbados distilleries versus Maison Ferrand, it’s six distilleries. Foursquare, Mount Gay, St Nicholas Abbey, Hampden, Appleton and Worthy Park. At the time it might not have been obvious to everyone why he said this, but it’s now becoming very clear.
A recent series of articles in the Jamaican newspaper “The Gleaner” are giving a good insight to the local GI struggles. When reading these articles, it immediately gives the impression that Martha Miller, CEO of NRJ, is the one at the forefront in all communication in regards to the Jamaica GI, whereas in Barbados we heard much more from Alexandre Gabriel. Of course, in Barbados, Maison Ferrand is 100% owner of a distillery and in Jamaica they are not. But it’s also a clever strategic decision, as it looks a lot less like the European white man telling Jamaicans how to make rum, even though that is what seems to be happening.
The following quote is from the first article, dated September 15th 2023: “NRJ still earns most of its income from the sales of its unbranded export rum. That’s increasingly at odds with its peers who are earning from aged rums that add value based on their rarity and strict avoidance of additives.”
“We all have different business models, and we all want to ensure that we can operate in whatever environment within the definitions of the GI and that it is inclusive,” said Miller.
The word “inclusive” was also heavily used by Maison Ferrand to oppose the Barbados GI, where they want to use any water source (including sea water), use any vessel for ageing, age the rum outside of Barbados and have the ability to add sugar.
The next two quotes are from the September 22nd article: “JWN and the other industry players are in favour of strengthening the geographic indication, in order for the registration to be accepted in Europe of the protections to be fully realised,” said JWN in response to Financial Gleaner queries.
“The JIPO [Jamaica Intellectual Property Office] hearing set for next Wednesday will discuss whether the source of water needs to be filtered by limestone, whether the ageing process needs to be done in Jamaica, and whether sugar can be added, sources indicate.”
The first quote shows the support for a stronger GI by J. Wray & Nephew. The second gives a clear indication how involved Maison Ferrand is in this process, as the topics of this hearing are the exact same as the ones they brought forward in Barbados.
The third article was published on October 1st, after the JIPO meeting. Here, Martha Miller made it clear a decision hasn’t been made yet and that it’s all about the inclusiveness of the GI. A couple of quotes from the article:
“This action serves to safeguard the distinct attributes attributable to the spirit’s origin in Jamaica, thereby aiming to capitalise on the resultant enhanced value. This enhanced value will drive the Jamaica Rum industry to become more focused on high value rum brands aged in Jamaica, where most of the value created will accrue to the benefit of our country and our people,” said General Manager of Spirits Pool, Christopher Gentles, in a statement to the Financial Gleaner following the hearings.
“The limits of the Jamaican rum GI can impact sales going forward within a sector where some operators, such as Worthy Park, sell branded and aged rums, while others sell less expensive bulk rum used for blending or white labelling, including NRJ. Bulk rums are exported for US$2.50 to US$4.50 per litre; however, after ageing and bottling the value jumps to US$12 to US$20 per litre.”
Both these quotes point toward the same thing. Bulk rum is cheap. Ageing is expensive, but adds the most value. If a European entity buys bulk rum and then ages and sells it in Europe, they will make a lot more money from it than the rum producer. It’s an important part of the Maison Ferrand business model. Buy cheap outside of France and add most of the value in France. Subsequently, the bulk of the money is made in France, not in the producing countries. The Jamaicans are clearly standing up to this colonial model of doing business. Not that bulk business will seize to exist with this GI proposal. It provides important revenue for the distilleries and there is a strong demand for it around the world. But they should be able to do that on their terms, with their protection measures of their traditions. Not on the terms of a rich European man who feels he can dictate how Jamaican traditions can be improved upon, so that he can make more money. Those days should be over. To provide some substance to this statement, please read this article that has Alexandre Gabriel saying the following:”We can bring rum to the standard of a great Cognac. Some people in the Caribbean still think aging means putting a spirit in a barrel and then coming back five years later, hoping it’s all well and good. To us, that’s like raising your child by throwing him onto the street and telling him: “come back when you’re eighteen.” If you treat a spirit this way, I think about 80% of the time it will be less than average and 20% of the time it ends up fine. While I’m distilling rum in the Caribbean now, I’m still cherry-picking barrels from my friends. Some of them are great but some of them are empty because of an unattended leak, and others are unfortunately tainted. It’s crazy.”
I’ve always felt Maison Ferrand has been good at marketing and propaganda, much better than the Mount Gay, Foursquare and St Nicholas Abbey side of things. Hordes of people believe Alexandre Gabriel when he says one of the batch stills at WIRD wouldn’t fit within the GI requirements, even though the GI proposal states the opposite. He’s paid for self entitled “historians” to dig up quotes from ancient articles to prove somewhere in the world, someone used sea water in their fermentation. In this October 2023 article of the Jamaican Observer there are a few statements from NRJ that make my Deceit O Meter jump. I’ll only mention two, but there are more in there that could win a propaganda competition:"The global rum industry is evolving, and NRJ's position reflects the company's dedication to ensuring the industry's growth and sustainability in the face of challenges such as diversifying local water sources due to climate change."
Ah, this time it’s about climate change! I bet the solution to that is to use local sea water instead. Plenty of that available.
Here’s another from the same article:”The communication went on to defend NRJ's long-standing heritage and business practices, dating back to 1753, which include collaborating with prominent global spirits industry partners to facilitate the growth of Jamaican exports and expand its global reach through Jamaican rum which has been double-aged or aged outside of Jamaica in collaboration with NRJ's customers.
"NRJ staunchly defends this model because its loss would not only jeopardise the heritage of Jamaican rum but also put at risk over 40% of Jamaican dollar rum exports, which is a substantial and steadily growing contribution to Jamaica's economy," the company expressed. "Additionally, the questioning of National Rum of Jamaica's heritage endangers the livelihoods of hard-working and committed Jamaican families, as certain actions put the National Rum of Jamaica at risk if this geographical indication is restricted."
“Double aged” has become a Maison Ferrand marketing term. It again hints towards their involvement with this process. Interestingly, NRJ calls the proposed GI restricted, while all the other distilleries use the word strengthened. Finally, NRJ is of the opinion that bulk rum sales are jeopardized if the GI is strengthened. Question is, why would Appleton, New Yarmouth, Worthy Park and Hampden agree to a new GI if it would significantly impact their bulk rum trade? All of them make money from this part of the business. I don't have the answer. Fact is, anyone can do whatever they want with the Jamaican rum they purchased. They don’t have to follow the GI rules at all. They just can’t use the term “Jamaica Rum”.
I thought it would be good to get the perspective on this situation from a local expert. Luckily, Gordon Clarke, managing director of Worthy Park Estate was willing to answer a couple of questions.
How does a GI benefit Jamaica rum?
The GI sets rules and standards for what is labeled as “Jamaica Rum”. This will make sure that honored traditions and production methods that have established the good reputation of Jamaica Rum are preserved and protected and that the consumers will be assured of not getting adulterated or perverted rum, which would damage the reputation of Jamaica Rum.
When the current Jamaica rum GI was established, did all the distilleries agree to it?
It was established in 2016 and all Jamaican distilleries (6)/all Jamaican Rum producing companies (4) were in agreement and directed the Spirits Pool Association Ltd. to register the GI on our behalf. At that time NRJ was 1/3 owned by WIRD which was owned by Goddard’s.
Why do you feel the GI needs to be strengthened and which particular parts aren’t strong enough right now?
More or less the opposite of what NRJ wants. We say water used in fermentation must be from naturally filtered limestone aquifers in specified locations in Jamaica including where all distilleries are operated. We say aging must take place in Jamaica so that age statements to consumers ensure “apples vs apples”, we say aging in small wooden barrels of certain wood types, max. 250 Liter vats to ensure a minimum surface area for Rum & wood for maximum maturation. And we say No sugar to be added which is currently the case and matches the Jamaican Rum Standard and the Caricom Rum Standard.
What are the steps and at which step are you in this process of changing the GI?
More than a year ago, a vote was taken at Spirits Pool Association according to the voting rules and majority voted for strengthening the GI. Application from Spirits Pool was made to JIPO (Jamaica Intellectual Property Office) and NRJ objected directly to JIPO and hence the legal proceedings.
What does NRJ’s version of the GI look like and why is it not good for Jamaica rum? They want aging in Europe, aging in large vats (Wood?), use of any kind of water in fermentation including sea water, and the addition of sugar to finished distillates. There are reasons that all of these things will mislead the consumer and negatively affect the Jamaica Rum quality and reputation.
All the distilleries are part of the Spirits Pool Association Ltd. On their website they describe themselves as follows:”The Spirits Pool Association Ltd. was established in 1932 to promote the interests of Jamaican Rums. The association is owned by all the distilleries.” It’s a trade association for the distilleries, managed by Christopher Gentles. In a Jamaica Observer article he mentioned:“Jamaica Rum, Jamaica Jerk and Jamaica [Blue Mountain] Coffee have collectively suffered millions of dollars of losses in the past due to exploitation of the brands by pirates who produce counterfeit or substandard products using Brand Jamaica labels, and in so doing undermining the value of our brands.” He also stated that, through protection, “Jamaican products will be able to achieve full brand equity and revenue that would result from proprietary production techniques, craftsmanship, heritage and unique geography, employed over centuries.”
NRJ’s GI proposal to the Spirits Pool Association was voted down by the other producers. NRJ then took it to JIPO, Jamaica Intellectual Property Office, which is the agency that handles Jamaican trademark registrations. It’s up in the air what will happen next.
I’d like to leave you with one final question and one final quote. Which user of NRJ’s distillates has pushed for loosening the rules and stands to benefit? Diageo doesn’t use “Jamaica Rum” on their labels and Monymusk appears to follow the rules. To make answering that question a lot easier, here’s a Martha Miller quote from a 2021 interview with The Spirits Business: “Our largest customer, our single largest customer who would take, I would say 95%, of the production from Clarendon, was Diageo. Diageo has now sold one of its brands to Sazerac, so our two largest customers are Diageo and Sazerac,” she adds, referring to the Captain Morgan Black and Myers rums.
Barbadians created a “Save Barbados Rum” logo to make clear to the outside world how serious they are taking Maison Ferrand’s actions. It looks like it’s time for the Jamaicans to do the same.