The Rise Of Worthy Park Estate - With Alexander Kong
Chatting about Worthy Park Estate is almost as good as drinking their rum. Especially when it is with Alexander Kong, their charismatic Export Sales Manager. If, after reading all this, you need more information about the distillery and their products, I've written about them here, here and here.
You were born and raised close to Toronto, how did you end up working for a rum company in Jamaica?
Yes, I grew up in Mississauga; but being from a big ass Chinese-Jamaican family, I’ve always felt very connected to the island. I studied Hotel and Tourism in University and after graduating I decided to make the move to Jamaica to work in the resort industry. Bounced around a few years from different spots in Jamaica, to Turks and Caicos and Florida before moving back to the island. While working in my previous job I crossed paths with Gordon Clarke (Worthy Park's Managing Director & CEO) . The rest is history as they say.
What is your proudest Worthy Park achievement so far?
Every bottle we sell is a proud moment for me lol. I mean, I’ve been with the company for coming on 5 years now but overall just seeing the positive recognition that Worthy Park is getting on the international stage makes me really proud. I mean, no matter how many times I see our products on a back bar or in a cocktail menu I still get giddy.
There’s 800+ employees that work at Worthy Park – across the Farm, the Sugar Factory, the Distillery and administrative staff. I do feel like I represent everyone when I’m out on the road promoting the brand and it’s a good feeling when I can come home and tell them how well received our rums are worldwide.
Now, specifically rum speaking, the launch of the Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve is a proud moment for me since it was the first rum launch that I was able to be a part of from the conception of the product, through blend and packaging selection straight through to the sales, marketing and promotions of the rum. It helps that we win awards like Spirit of the Year from The Whisky Exchange (UK), that always makes it more rewarding!
What do you find frustrating or challenging about the rum industry?
I’d say the biggest challenge we have (specifically speaking as a small Jamaican rum brand) is that we are competing in a rum market that is dominated by a few big brands. For us it’s always a challenge to get seen and hard in the market place. Thankfully, with the rise of social media, we’ve been able to get in front of people at a very low spend but it’s still a fight to get those shelf placements. I mean, you live in LCBO territory, you know all too well what I’m talking about!
Don’t even get me started on the misconceptions we are fighting in the rum world. The same ones you’re all aware of: rum has no rules! Rum is sweet! Deceptive age statements! Rum is only cheap and only good for mixing etc. etc.
How has the Rum industry changed in the years you’ve been involved in it?
In my few short years in the rum world, I’ve already seen the shift in consumers demanding higher quality rum. At the same time there is more interest in the backbones of what makes a rum a rum. Not the catchy marketing slogans but the interest in where is the rum from, who is making the rum, what are their practices and ultimately who owns the company. Most answers are only a google search away but there’s still a lot of BS to sift through before you get to the real answers.
You’re also seeing rum crossing over where it’s not only the Tiki and Rum bars where you are finding good rums but bars that are focused on beer, on whiskey or even the more “mainstream” bars; these bars are looking to up the quality of their rums. So while they may not be stocking 200+ rums, the few that they do have are better quality.
Worthy Park is becoming a household name in rum enthusiast circles, while not too long ago the company didn’t even make rum. What are the major factors that have contributed to this quick rise to fame?
The timing of us starting to push in the export market coincidence with the demand by the rum enthusiasts to have honestly made, top quality rum. Shout out to some of my colleagues in the industry who have been paving the way and we’ve been able to help spread their message – people like Dr. Joy Spence from Appleton, Richard Seale from Foursquare. They’ve helped to introduce rum as a premium spirit. It didn’t hurt that the palates and demands for the ‘funky’ Jamaican rum was increasing and that we were one of the first brands to launch with 100% pot-still distilled rum. It was very serendipitous.
If we step outside of rum for a moment and think of the whole ‘farm to table’ and ‘eat locally’ movements that have dominated the food industry recently. That is now finding its way into the spirits industry. So it helps that there are not that many true single estate rum brands out there, especially one with (this year) having 350 years of history. Plus, being family owned/Jamaican owned and operated doesn’t hurt!
Worthy Park produces and sells a lot of sugar. Does that make Worthy Park rum production totally self sufficient? Cane to bottle?
We’ve been the biggest sugar producer for the past 4 years (with the smallest sugar factory in operation). But yes, our rum production from cane to bottle is all done at Worthy Park. We’re proud of it and you’ll hear us talk a lot about being a Single Estate producer.
What differentiates Worthy Park from other Jamaican distilleries like Hampden and Long Pond, specifically in how the rum is made and aged?
Each distillery takes a different approach to rum making, which is really cool about all of us. We all make Jamaica Rum but from fermentation to distillation to aging and blending, we are all unique. The biggest question we get is about the use of Dunder, which is something we don’t do. We prefer to leave that to our friends out in Trelawny. For our High Ester rum, we have a 90-day propagation for the yeast followed by a 2-3 week fermentation time. We all have double retort pot stills but they are all different configurations which also contributes to the uniqueness of all of our rum; we actually have the only fully automated pot still in Jamaica.
Aging wise, it’s really the uniqueness of climate. We’re 1,200 feet above sea level and while we do get hot during the day we get more rain and cooler nights than some of the other distilleries on the island.
One difference with those two distilleries is their higher level of esters in some of their rums. Why is Worthy Park using a maximum of 900 esters? Is there a certain vision of what your rum should be like? One that leans towards a lighter style?
Esters are interesting. There’s a huge demand in certain markets for the highest amount of esters as possible. But judging a rum solely by ester count is tremendously misleading because it doesn’t really give you an indication of the quality of a rum or if you’ll even like it or not. I mean there are so many different esters out there that you could, in theory, take a rum from WP and a rum from Hampden that have identical esters but taste wildly different.
So for us, I wouldn’t say there is one particular vision of what Worthy Park rum should be like, because we are constantly trying different techniques for fermentation, distillation and aging to get a wider variety of styles from our still. Some rums will be much higher which we might lean towards using as a blend component while some may be a rum better suited to aging or releasing as a straight mark. Also, keep in mind that when we refer to a ‘light rum’, it’s a light pot still rum, so typically still much heavier than something off of a multi column still.
Another Jamaican rum distillery, Appleton Estate, uses pot and column stills. Why did Worthy Park choose to have a pot still only?
When we built the distillery we took a look at the market place and realized that there was opportunity in being a pot-still only producer. There was a niche in the market that we thought we could jump in and fill. Who knows, down the line we may decide to put in a column still for producing different rums but as of right now we remain a 100% pot still rum producer.
Jamaica has a GI or Geographical Indication. There has been a lot of discussion about this in regards to Jamaica and Barbados rum. What's your view on this?
The Jamaica GI was registered in December 2016. I cannot stress how important we feel this is to the future of the distilleries on the island. There’s been some discussion over some of items and whether they were too restrictive. There is one stakeholder who is trying to loosen the rules on it, which has led to a lot of frustration and distraction, but on the contrary, I think we should be tightening the rules!
The way the GI is written is to provide the “rules” for making Jamaican rum with the common practices that we all share in rum production. Of course, you can go back in the 300+ years of Jamaican history and find some document that may provide one example of something happening in rum production; however that doesn’t necessarily make it common practice or make it an integral part of what or how Jamaican rum should be known for. You really have to be careful how you cherry pick history. Let’s be real, for the first couple hundred years of rum making it was under colonial systems. You certainly do not want to repeat that history do you? I mean, jump ahead 100 years from now. There’s going to be someone that can dig up that there was auto-tune in hip hop music. However, I hope that they do not try to define hip hop music based on those tracks!
(Click here for more info on the GI situation in Barbados)
Not counting bulk rum sales, does Worthy Park sell more volume in Jamaica or outside the island?
Jamaica is still our largest market.
The excellent 2006 Single Estate 12 year is a limited edition, how long before Worthy Park is in a position where a long aged expression can be part of the standard portfolio?
Thank you, I appreciate your love of it! That in itself was a big step from a Jamaican distillery brand. A 100% pot still only, Vintage, no caramel, cask strength release. Common for independent releases but never coming right out of the distillery itself! Trust me I still get people at home questioning why we’d bottle it so strong! But back to your question, we have about 10,000 barrels ageing with stocks as old as 15 years. You shouldn’t have to wait too much longer to see longer aged expressions as part of the portfolio.
We are currently working in the lab on developing an “age statement” release to satisfy the demand for a permanent addition to the lineup. It’s also a matter of making sure there’s a wider market for it. Our rums typically run a lot more expensive than current releases on the market so it’s also about releasing a product when the market is ready for it. We have the rum, but it’s a matter of us really trying to wait until the market is ready for it and also for us to educate and warm up as many people as possible to the fact that there’s a huge difference in taste (and price) between 100% pot still rum and blended or column still rums.
The amount of rum enthusiasts is definitely growing in Canada. Despite that, the rum selection in our liquor stores remains mediocre. A lot of Canadians only hear the politicians and LCBO people’s side of the story about how great they are at collecting taxes and saving teenagers from drinking alcohol. Can you please share some of the challenges you are facing with getting Worthy Park rum into Canada? A lot of people don’t know that side of the story, while it’s important for them to understand this before change can actually happen.
Before I address the obvious one, shipping to Canada is not cheap. I’m definitely no expert in how the shipping and logistics industry operates but what I’ve learned in trying to get going in Canada is that it’s very expensive to ship from Jamaica!
Now, I don’t think anyone can argue that the LCBO contributes HUGE amounts to the tax revenue of Ontario. That one is pretty obvious. As far as saving teenagers from drinking alcohol, I can tell you from growing up in Mississauga that there was no shortage of teenagers drinking alcohol. I digress, but getting into the largest single buyer of alcohol in the world (LCBO) is not an easy feat.
There are tenders every year in each category of alcohol, but that doesn’t mean that they are starting their buying from a blank slate every year. These tenders might only be looking for ONE sku. You’re competing for finite shelf space, so if they don’t delist many brands, there isn’t necessarily room on the shelf for new ones. For the tenders it’s not just price they’re asking for but a lot of other questions about stuff like international sales, market recognition, A&P plan etc. So it takes into account more than just the quality of the rum.
If you somehow manage to survive the first round, then you send your products in for the tasting panel. This is an interesting one because there’s no way to tell what the buyers are looking for? Are they comparing the rums and rating them based on the rums own merits? Or are they doing a comparative tasting with what else has been submitted? Are they doing a tasting based on the current products they have listed? I wish I had the answers for you but I get the feeling not many people know. Panels are interesting in that regard. When you are doing a tasting competition with people with a lot of rum experience, they are more likely to understand (and appreciate) the nuances of Jamaican rum (for example) and understand why a funkier rum has a place and home on a shelf next to rums that of a lighter flavor profile.
When you’re tasting with buyers they may be looking for something that they think will “sell” right away versus something new to the market which might take a bit more education and work to sell it. Again, take this with a grain of salt because it's just my personal opinion and not based on what I know of the tasting panels approach.
What can Canadian consumers do to help getting WP rums on their store shelves?
Your guess is as good as mine my friend! I’ll let you know when we tap into the market, then I’ll start to really enlist the Canadian rum geeks for their help :)
Many thanks for your time and rum passion Zan! Keep doing what you are doing.