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Rum: El Dorado quest led to alternative liquid gold

Reproduced from Financial Times
by Andres Schipani

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Legend has it that before the Spanish conquest there was an Indian chief in Colombia who, in an annual ritual, smeared himself with gold dust and then bathed in Lake Guatavita. The tale spurred a foolish hunt for El Dorado, a mythical site of endless riches — but Spaniards, Dutch and French adventurers found nothing.

British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh then embarked on an expedition to find the legendary Lake Parime in today’s Guyana, supposedly the city’s site. However, his searches across South America’s shoulder were fruitless. Perhaps, as the explorers journeyed in search of the golden city, all they should have been looking for was a sip of enlivening rum.

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To be fair, however, they might have waited a few centuries to strike gold: Guyana’s award-winning El Dorado rum was only launched in 1992. Today, it is ranked among the world’s finest and, as it can be rather elusive, has become a cult object to some drinkers — in the same way the golden city became an obsession for European conquistadors.

“The name is not random,” explains Shaun Caleb, El Dorado’s master distiller.
“The journey of Sir Walter Raleigh to these parts to find that gilded city of gold didn’t lead to gold of the metallic form, but it did lead to other explorers coming after who found a conducive land to cultivate sugar, so a different kind of gold was eventually discovered.” The search for precious metal led eventually to the liquid gold of rum, he adds.

In recent years there has been a noticeable growth in the presence of the brand, he says, particularly in the US. In 2014, year-on-year sales surged by a 100 per cent in the export market for its 12-year-old rum.

The rum is produced close to sugar plantations on the banks of the Demerara river. Guyana, which means land of many waters, was formerly a Dutch and then a British colony and speaks to the heart of the Caribbean’s rum history.

In 1983 Diamond Liquors and Guyana Distilleries merged to form Demerara Distilleries. The company, which also bottles Pepsi products, is a heavyweight in the small Guyana Stock Exchange. “It’s a company that has the perfect combination of a good brand and good management,” says Chandra Gajraj, a director at the bourse.

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Yet origins also matter. The Demerara region has been involved in sugar cane and rum production since the 17th century. At some point in the 1700s, more than 300 estates were producing rum. However, Demerara Distillers is unique in that it has preserved the distilling methods — or “marks” — of some two dozen of them.

The company operates 12 stills, ranging from a double wooden pot dating back to 1732 that produces 12,000 litres of alcohol a day — to an industrial still built in 2011 that produces drinkable ethanol.

“Increasingly, rum consumers are starting to see rums by virtue of their origin,” says Komal Samaroo, the company’s chairman.
“Our origin is Demerara, which produces a very particular sugar and has a long history of rum-making.
“That’s our point of differentiation from any other rum distiller, the variety of marks we have allows for innovation and creativity for our distillers and blenders,” says Mr Samaroo.

The rums age in former Bourbon casks made of American oak. Mr Samaroo says that the company is in the nature of a craft brand. “Things that are ‘crafty’ are things that are now desired. Once we put it on someone’s lips, people like it,” he adds.

Despite the relatively recent creation of the premium portfolio of El Dorado, Demerara rum was one of the main ingredients of the Navy Rum that was used to mix the grog that fuelled the Royal Navy when it ruled the waves and thereafter. The predecessors of Demerara Distillers used to ship rum by the bulk to those seamen. “It was very popular, and when it was discontinued, the sailor fraternity was quite distraught,” says Patrick Dial, a Cambridge-educated historian, one of the company’s oldest shareholders. After all: “When Lord Nelson’s body was brought back to England after his victory at Trafalgar, it was preserved in Demerara rum.” (That said, other authorities dispute this, saying Nelson came back in Spanish aguardiente.)

The company produces some bulk rum for export but is mainly focused on the 500,000 cases of bottled rum that it expects to produce in the coming decade.

Each of their premium products has an age statement — certifying how old it is — and runs from three- years to 25-years-old. The age refers to the youngest rum in the blend; the oldest can date from much earlier. “Sure, anyone would like to emulate us,” says Mr Caleb. “But they need to have the particularly Guyanese environment and history to be able to do so.”