Why Barbados Needs a Geographical Indication for Rum

“Unlike Cognac, Bourbon or Scotch, rum has little or no rules” This oft-repeated canard is a non sequitur. The former three are specific forms of brandy or whisky. If you look at regional rum types, you can find the specific rules. As is the case for Whisky or Brandy, different standards apply in different countries. […]

By Richard Seale

November 20, 2020

Barbados Rum

Unlike Cognac, Bourbon or Scotch, rum has little or no rules”

This oft-repeated canard is a non sequitur. The former three are specific forms of brandy or whisky. If you look at regional rum types, you can find the specific rules. As is the case for Whisky or Brandy, different standards apply in different countries. The canard is pervasive because these regional rules are typically not recognised outside of the home country.

Cognac and Scotch Whisky are protected terms in the EU and the US. When sold in the EU or the US, the rules of France and Scotland respectively apply. Contrast that with Jamaica – It is a violation of Jamaica Excise Law to adulterate Jamaican rum, but once sold in the US it can be flavoured and when sold in the EU it can be sweetened (and in both cases sold simply as Jamaica Rum). It is not that Jamaica ‘has no rules’, it is that they are not recognised in export markets.

The Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) is the tool by which the EU will recognise, protect, and enforce the standards for a product of a particular geographic repute. While enforcing homegrown standards is the common justification for a PGI, often overlooked is the economic argument. The PGI of Scotland forbids the ageing of Scotch Whisky outside of Scotland, and it also forbids the bottling of single malt outside of Scotland. It is not just about ageing in the environment but also retaining the economic value of production. Exporting a spirit to be aged elsewhere can result in the loss of over 90% of its economic value to the country of origin.

In 1992, International Distillers and Vintners (IDV), switched sourcing for its rum ‘base’ of the then IDV owned Malibu to a Barbados Distillery. The low value, un-aged product is shipped in bulk to be packaged elsewhere. The production of Malibu saw Barbados rum exports increase significantly. But, with little value-added earned in Barbados, the economic impact was minimal. The Malibu brand was sold in 2002 for USD 800 million. The Barbados Distillery, still with Malibu production contract in hand, was sold in 2017 for a reported USD 12 million. You do not need to be a professor of economics to understand where the value of the brand was earned. Barbados was not making the most out of its limited resource of local molasses, nor making the most of its gilded reputation for making some of the world’s best rums.

This story is a familiar one to the colonial West Indies. Whether it is sugar, molasses, rum, bauxite, or coffee, under the colonial model goods leave as basic commodities for most of the value to be added in the ‘mother country’. Bulk brown sugar and molasses left in the ship’s hold to be sold as packaged and branded granulated sugar and treacle respectively in European supermarkets. Rum, for most of the near 400-year anglophone Caribbean tradition, has been shipped as a commodity to be ultimately sold by European owned brands. It is only in the last decade that some of the most famous Jamaican distilleries have shipped an aged and bottled at home brand for the first time. The story is the same outside of manufacturing, where rapacious cruise lines and hotel chains demand to market and exploit the Barbados destination free of taxation while using business schemes to shift income offshore. The Prime Minister of Barbados recently lamented that despite record levels of tourism arrivals, income from tourism was less than it was a decade ago.

A very different story was started just three years earlier to the above Malibu debacle. In 1989, Remy Cointreau acquired a majority interest in the Mount Gay brand from the American firm Foremost-McKesson. At this time, the American company pretty much did it the colonial way, shipments were in bulk, to be bottled elsewhere, and the low end of the market was the target. The ethos of Remy was very different. They immediately recognised the intrinsic value of what they had acquired and, over the next 30 years, developed higher-end super-premium rums and moved all ageing and bottling to Barbados. They have also invested in the historic sugar estates surrounding the distillery to maintain and develop sources of local molasses.

Raphael Grisoni, Mount Gay:

“It is time to bring an end to the old colonial business model whereby foreign companies come into Barbados and the Caribbean to buy cheap rum in bulk from various suppliers, take it back to Britain or Europe to blend, sometimes adulterating it by adding sugar or flavouring, then bottle it and stick on a label saying Barbados Rum. That system might be profitable for them, but it is damaging for the wellbeing of the rum industry in Barbados because we lose control of the quality and authenticity of our own Barbados Rum Brand. In the long-term, it also deprives the country of an opportunity to earn increased foreign exchange and create more jobs in the sector.

Barbados is the birthplace of rum, with more than 300-years of accumulated expertise, so rum that is produced on the island by using traditional methods, then aged and bottled here, is recognised as a premium product. Today’s consumers around the world place a high value on artisanal products and are willing to pay more for them. So we must protect the integrity of the Barbados Rum Brand in order to generate the

greatest possible value for the island’s premium quality rum, such as we produce at Mount Gay Distilleries.

Establishing a Geographical Indicator for Barbados Rum will help us build a stronger value- proposition and keep the financial benefits of that added-value here in Barbados. This has already been proven in many countries, ranging from single malt scotch whisky from the island of Islay in Scotland, to Portugal and their port wine, where each bottle has a registered seal with a specific number, so it can be traced back to the producer. We can learn a lot from that. Barbados Rum needs a GI founded on clear parameters with specific rules, that legally protects the brand and guarantees authenticity for the consumer. We will have to build up capacity, but it can be done.

We should be aiming to create a scenario where people anywhere in the world looking for a premium rum will automatically ask for a Barbados Rum. That is the level of recognition we should aspire to achieve.”

Raphael Grisoni, Mount Gay

Through fate, my family is the last of the historic Barbadian families in Rum. Today, we still bottle several legacy brands – John D Taylor, ESA Field, Alleyne Arthur, and, of course, Martin Doorly – all named for the historic merchant blenders, or independent bottlers in modern-day terminology, that produced them. The independent Barbadian Rum blending tradition arose at the turn of the century when the estate and city distilleries were restricted by law to selling only in bulk. Independent blenders, such as my great-grandfather and Martin Doorly, purchased in bulk from the distilleries for blending and bottling under their own name. In 1994, the rum blending tradition married with the sugar estate tradition when my family acquired the closed Foursquare Estate and returned it once again to rum making. While Foursquare no longer makes its own sugar and molasses, we use local molasses when available and once again mill sugar cane on the estate to produce sugar cane juice to be directly used in rum making, as was done a little over 100 years ago on all estates in Barbados.

As might be expected of a Barbadian family, we have invested in Barbados. We have grown our aged reserves from a few hundred casks 25 years ago to over 40,000 casks today and expanded our bottling capacity from a single line to five. The integrity and economic value of our historic brands added to the Barbados economy remain in our hands. What if we sell? What protection is in place? A PGI can provide that protection. How can we derive the additional value to justify using local sugar cane, over cheaper imported molasses, and to justify the more costly tropical ageing and local bottling. A PGI can assist in communicating and selling that higher value proposition.

An effective PGI will, in all export markets:

  • Protect Barbados Rum from adulteration
  • Protect the organoleptic qualities attributed to Barbados Rum that earned its reputation
  • Protect Barbados Rum from deceptive marketing
  • Ensure the essential characteristics of Barbados Rum are derived from the geographical origin
  • Ensure the highest possible economic value added is earned within the origin

A PGI for Barbados Rum will be the tool by which we can reverse the colonial economic model. We can shift rum production from un-aged to aged. From bulk sales to packaged brands bottled in Barbados. It can be the tool by which we can cease importing molasses to once again relying entirely on local sugar cane. Today’s market demands and rewards authenticity. We can deliver this and communicate these distinctions using the PGI. The PGI will be the tool that will make Barbados Rum immune to whether the brands are foreign or locally owned and to whether my family retains the business or not. It must outlive us. It will be the tool to ensure that only firms of the right ethos will desire to invest in Barbados Rum.

It will come as no surprise then that Remy Cointreau owned Mount Gay and Foursquare both support the adoption of a strong PGI for Barbados Rum. We may be competitors but we share a common philosophy. Likewise, the Campari owned Appleton supports the Jamaica Rum PGI. We need the Barbados Government to seize the opportunity and to get it right. The protection of the near 400-year heritage of West Indian Rum and its economic value to the Islands go hand in hand.

Larry Warren, St. Nicholas Abbey:

“Foursquare, Mount Gay and St. Nicholas Abbey have made significant efforts to raise the standard, authenticity, and premiumisation of the Barbados Rum Brand produced in Barbados. Much of the criticism levelled at the current draft of the GI, which has already been agreed to by 3 of the 4 distilleries, is that it is too restrictive and stifles innovation. But the whole point of a GI is to be necessarily restrictive and to set a minimum standard that must be met for the production of rum in Barbados, which can be legally defended internationally. In response, we continue to produce brands with world-class pedigree that give the consumers transparency and, more importantly, portray our brands with integrity, which after all is the hallmark of Barbados, the birthplace of rum. Nothing within the GI should diminish this.”

St. Nicholas Abbey DISTILLERY

Richard Seale