First time I contacted Ben Jones was when he was in Toronto a few years ago, giving a rum presentation at a whisky festival. I sent him a message and asked if he was interested in doing a small event in a downtown bar for a group of rum enthusiasts. He answered with a resounding YES! What followed was a masterclass in rhum agricole and St Lucian rum by a very passionate rum expert. Everyone in attendance was buzzing, including Ben in the end.
He decided to come back for another event with Jeff Berry. The crowd was even bigger this time and afterwards Jeff said:"we talked for several hours without a script and nobody got up and left. I've never witnessed that anywhere". The love between Ben, Jeff and the Toronto rum crowd is definitely mutual.
Therefore it makes total sense to get some more rum insights from Ben Jones....
Can you briefly introduce yourself please?
My name is Ben Jones and I am Spiribam’s Director of North America. I came into the rum industry after brief stints with a small craft brewery doing mainly production type of work; and with an Italian wine company doing product & brand development and launched their export sales to the United States. With the combination of this experience and my passion for my family’s roots into Martinique’s culture, I explored fervently the opportunity to bring Rhum Clement to the USA.
I suppose I should explain that my mother is originally from Martinique and I had travelled there a few times when I was a child. The founder of Rhum Clement was my great uncle. My cousin, whom we were visiting, was the distiller and director of the habitation/distillery. I embraced the Martinique culture and was struck by the convivial mood as well as the ritual of the Ti’ Punch.
Being born into a rum producing family, were you always destined to work in the family business? Did you feel any pressure? Didn’t you want to be a fireman instead?
I never had pressure or expected to be in the rum business growing up. Clement was a strong local brand in Martinique and in France. I never imagined I would be involved as I am today. Furthermore I am very fortunate and excited to see how my initial inquiry for importing Rhum Clement has blossomed into creating Spiribam, the brand management company that houses our own proprietary rum brands produced by our distilleries.
What does a working day in the life of Ben Jones look like?
This year life is quite different than previous years to say the least. I used to travel about 50% to 60% of the working year visiting our key customers, working with our distilleries to develop new products or work on the evolution of our existing brands, participating in many consumer and trade events, and delivering as much education as possible to the world to develop the universe for authentic premium rum.
I am doing a lot of this same work this year, but virtually from my desk in Rhode Island. I look forward to getting back to the next new normal, but I do not believe I will need to travel as much. I am blessed to have a very strong competent and passionate team around me and we are working very well together during this pandemic period. I am very optimistic to when we can resume life as we knew it and business will return back to a relative normal.
How has the rum industry changed while you have been involved in it?
The rum industry is so different. There might have been 10 or 12 established brands in the USA if I quickly think back to myself of the period when I started. Certainly there was only white, gold, spiced and dark rums. We have come a long way. Through the tireless efforts I share with several colleagues in the rum industry we have forced new situation, which is that bars/restaurants and liquor stores are pressured to make room for rum as they discover more varieties & styles. I should also include the consumer here, who is asking for these new styles of rum.
Now we can confidently say that Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, and Martinique among other rum territories have arrived as distinctive stylistic and authentic origins of real rum pedigrees. Rhum Agricole is established today. But when I started, this segment in the rum category didn’t exist.
There is Groupe Bernard Hayot, Spiribam, Rhum Clement, Rhum JM and St Lucia Distillers. How are they all tied together?
GBH is the owner of these three distilleries. Spiribam was created (also owned by GBH) to be the umbrella over GBH’s rum business. The distilleries focus on making delicious rum . Spiribam is in charge to manage the brands, product development, distribution, marketing, sales, and communication around the world (outside of the local markets).
Rhum Clement is currently made at Distillerie du Simon, which also produces rhum for HSE. It wasn’t always like this. How did this come about and how are the two brands separated from a production standpoint?
Each brand is owned by the same family, but respectively by two brothers. They are not the same company. The brothers decided together to stop distillation at Clement and to consolidate at Le Simon. This gave Clement the opportunity to develop the museum and create an educational visitor’s experience at Habitation Clement. The brands don’t share anything except the distillery. It is very simple. Each brand has their recipe and product style, which needs to be followed explicitly by the distiller. Clement grows sugarcane and takes the raw distillate from the distillery. All of the conditioning of the white rhums, aging, blending, bottling, etc. is done at Habitation Clement.
Does each brand use the same sugar cane?
For each of the brand’s entry-level white rum, yes. For every other product no.
Both Rhum Clement and Rhum JM are under your umbrella. How are they different from each other and is each brand aiming at a different type of customer or market?
Rhum Clement is much more focused on aged rhum. I personally feel Clement has an obligation to continue a long legacy for Martinique Rhum Agricole with a strong commitment to making the very best rum; and to continue to push the envelop and create new flavors and characters as we have by experimenting with diversity of oak barrels and utilizing various levels of char for our barrels.
Rhum J.M is distinctive for its “terroir” flavors, which are most notable in the purity of its white rum. It makes sense if you know the place. Rhum J.M captures the organic character of being in a rainforest at the base of a volcano. But Rhum J.M also makes some delicious aged rums and can also play with char levels as the distillery is doing all of their own toasting of their barrels in-house.
While our whole company is very environmentally conscious, Rhum J.M is by far leading the charge to be green. The recent investments in the distillery and the new innovations employed in the treatment of vinasse and excess bagasse, not to mention the movement to 100% electric vehicles and removal of all plastic material, has positioned Rhum J.M to be the most sustainable distillery in the world.
What was the thought process behind buying St Lucia Distillers and what has changed to their operation since?
There wasn’t a long thought process. We know we wanted to grow outside of Rhum Agricole and we expected it to be within rum, since this is an easier parallel for us to manage. But when this beautiful little distillery just next door to us, that we have long admired, came up for sale we jumped on it. It makes a lot of sense for us simply because it is our neighboring island and at the same time they are making wildly different rum than we are in Martinique.
It was a good project for us to take on as a first venture outside of Martinique, and the move gave Spiribam many more diverse options in our rum portfolio to play with. Nothing much has changed with their operation, except that we are in the middle stages of a rehabilitation program to upgrade the distillery. The distillery was left unbridled and without any crucial maintenance attention to the equipment and the facilities . We have built new aging cellars and overall adding many new pieces to make operations more efficient. We are simply polishing the gemstone we know and love as St. Lucia Distillers.
It sounds like there is a treasure trove of casks waiting to be emptied in St Lucia. Can you give us an idea of the type of casks and ages of rum sitting in the warehouse?
Laurie Barnard was passionate about his rum and enthusiastic about how to be unique and develop St. Lucian’s rum identity. Beyond his research into yeast strains and bolting on different types of stills, he challenged his master blender to create new flavors by blending rums of different ages and different still types, and from different types of barrels. Long after he passed, his legacy lived on and the team continued to fill a variety of different oak barrels and continued to honor him with playful blends of rums with innate characters. Behold we have cellars full of bespoke rums. The rums are truly aging in barrels of different appellations, not just a quick finishing period.
Why was the decision made to stop selling bulk rum at St Lucia Distillers?
For a few reasons. Principally because we believe in St. Lucia Distillers and we will need the liquids to support the future sales of the brands as well as to have the assets to develop new products. But also equally important was to control the destiny, the image and exposure, and the overall pedigree of the origin of Saint Lucian rum. We are proud to say St. Lucia Distillers is the largest independent employer on the island and Spiribam delivers its profits back to St. Lucia to continue to develop this company further.
A lot of people in North America love the cask strength Hamilton St Lucia Pot Still rums for their flavour and value for money. Is anything similar to that expression planned for the Chairman’s Reserve label?
I too love this rum! But it is also very singular as a product type for what St. Lucia distillers can do. The rum that Hamilton was buying is done in very small batches. It is also very unique in flavor. I don’t believe we make quantities significant to release it as an everyday commercial product.
We have made some very small independent releases of this style of rum under the Chairman’s Master’s Selection cask program. But to make that type of rum does not fit within the true DNA of the Chairman’s Reserve brand. Price has truly nothing to with this, if this is also part of your question.
Getting rum into Canadian stores is a challenge. We have some St Lucian rum here on a regular basis, but never see special releases for example. What makes it so difficult to get these in Canadian stores?
The Canadian government buys for the masses. They are not inclined to take risks. I can’t say I understand the whole system very well, but that is what I think. I see this point of view kind of backwards as well as prohibitive of exploring new routes of revenue. There is too much bureaucracy and effort as well as risk to the supplier to offer special releases to this market when we can do so much easier south of the Canadian border. I would love to, don’t get me wrong. Honestly I have committed myself to solve this problem and I will, but it will take time and energy that I will pump at it when I can do so.
The situation seems worse when agricole rhum is concerned. We barely ever see any here. One of the major reasons seems to be the government stance on ethyl carbamate levels. Can you please explain what EC is, why it’s more present in rhum agricole and how your view on this issue is different from the Canadian government?
Ethyl Carbamate is an organic carcinogen that is a by-product in natural fermentation of certain distillates such as corn, rice, grapes and sugarcane. It occurs with molasses but at far lower insignificant levels than with rhum agricole. As it is organic in nature, it is not present in each batch. These rules developed by the Canadian government were developed I believe in the 1980’s. I think maybe to protect some national products, but really using in my opinion old technology or old thought processes that I believe are obsolete now. I am surprised Canada is alone in the world with this regulation and that nothing has been done so far to challenge the rule. I am in a difficult place to do so as we are a very small brand and also have a bias in their eyes. But how their minds can be so closed and how the Canadian people and the business enterprises have allowed this to continue is also baffling.
Furthermore Canada allows for different acceptable levels of EC in different products. Fruit brandy can have less than rhum agricole for example. So it is okay, in the eyes of the Canadian government, to drink more fruit brandy than rhum agricole is what my take away is.
I understand that there is an equal amount of EC in one slice of burnt toast as there is in 6 bottles of white rhum agricole 50% abv. So don’t eat burnt toast! Again maybe I do not know enough about it. I need to do more to contribute to the solution…
What are possible solutions to this problem and do you see differences in how each Canadian province deals with EC?
This problem really is only an existing nuisance in Ontario and Quebec. I think Canadian agents and other business enterprises in the spirits industry need to lobby for this change, or offer other gateways for these products to be available to the Canadian consumer. If the products weren’t safe for sales in over 180+ countries, I wouldn’t be so pushy on the subject.
There are a lot of special releases entering the market under the Chairman’s Reserve label. Would a Canada only version be an option? How about an agricole Canada exclusive release?
I would not be opposed to a Canada only release. But we don’t have enough of a footprint nor enough brand recognition to go there yet. And for sure we can do an Agricole for Canada that would be tested to be sure we have EC levels below the Canadian threshold.
We simply are not big enough to manage these unique projects nor do we have enough exposure or presence in the Canadian market yet to pull these together. But for sure some day.