The Royal St Lucian is a grand place for a sunset rum-tasting, which is no doubt why the West Indian Rum and Spirit Producers Association (WIRSPA) chose it to host a battalion of distillery representatives and European journalists for its recent ‘Authentic Caribbean Rums’ event. A showcase of the region’s finest brands of rum, the media tasting was warmly received, as venerable names such as Mountgay and Appleton cosied up against boutique producers such as our own St. Lucia Distillers and newcomers like Monymusk from Jamaica.
In the ‘speed tasting’ session, a glowing panoply of golden, amber and caramel hued liquids were on offer, each with their own blending secrets and flavour profile, and many with a long history behind them. Angostura captured my attention with a range of 5, 7, 12 and 15 year old rums, and the experienced John took me through the story of each, and the background of the company best known for its world renowned bitters. Angostura’s foray into rum brands and blends is much more recent than its 300 years of history, and by all accounts the journey has been a successful one.
But as Dutch grogmeister Erik Voskamp would put it, “Time flies when you’re having rum!” and so it was on to the more serious business of the evening: a reception for government officials including Minister of Commerce Emma Hippolyte and Prime Minister Kenny Anthony. After a slick and professional video presentation about ACR and the Caribbean rum export business, an official welcome was delivered by St. Lucia Distillers’ MD Margaret Monplaisir, who spoke of the pride the company felt in being chosen to host the event and show off the island to so many visitors. Monplaisir also mentioned the enduring memory and solid legacy of Laurie Barnard, the ‘Chairman’ whose Reserve blend is still winning awards around the world.
And on to the guest speaker, who was in fine form. The PM welcomed the attendees and immediately invited them to return, speaking of Saint Lucia as “a very special island . . . an island of romance” which also happens to make some of the best rums in the world.
Surprisingly, the lawyer in Dr. Anthony went on to give a short lesson in legalese, in particular the term “authentic,” which the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque utilizes to great effect in its marketing.
“I can’t think of a better word to use [than authentic], as this word captures all the essence of the history of the Caribbean, and also the sheer quality of what we produce. The problem is we have to say that to the world, to our customers and to those who buy our rum. They need to understand that they are not just having an ordinary product, but [one] of absolute quality and absolute excellence . . . Sometimes we’re a little shy to say to the rest of the world ‘we are the best at what we do.’
“There are some new emerging challenges that we collectively have to think about; firstly to protect our industry in the Caribbean . . . We have to maintain a foothold in our traditional markets, so that the after-dinner drink always remains a special rum in restaurants throughout the world. But critically and crucially, we also have to deal with our competitors, which can only mean we have a unique and exceptional product, an authentic product. I would like to say to the rum producers that the governments of the region are solidly behind you in our efforts to ensure that we protect and market the quality and excellence of the products that we have.”
“The second challenge is a homegrown one. Caribbean people love their rum. No party can ever be a party without a good supply of rum. But increasingly the health sector is beginning to target the consumption of rum.
“Here in Saint Lucia we have had to make some adjustments on the fiscal side because of the challenges we face, and only this afternoon I had a meeting with the trade unions representing the public sector workers, because I have to convince public sector workers that there is need for adjustment, that we have to resolve fiscal issues. And the first thing I heard was ‘Prime Minister, why don’t you tax cigarettes and the rum industry a little more?’ I remembered I was coming here tonight so I said nothing [laughs].
“But that is just to say to you that increasingly within our own domestic space it is going to be necessary that we transmit the message that rum is a good product but you have to drink it responsibly. I think this is a matter you need to be aware of, you can’t sweep the issue under the carpet, but what matters is how you respond to it and how you deal with it.”
“Rum production is not just part of our history, not just a legacy, not simply the fact that we were pioneers, it is more than that. It is part of our culture, our way of life. It is the drink that we know and the drink that forms part of our social existence. I say all of this to say to our producers that whenever we are marketing our products, let it be understood that we are marketing the . . . Caribbean personality. That the distance between that personality and the product that is sold is not all that great, because the authenticity springs not just from the fact that we were original creators, but simply by the fact that what we produce is excellent because it is real and part of our daily existence.”
According to Dr, Frank Ward, Chairman of WIRSPA, the event was an extremely successful one.
“The hospitality extended by the local producer, St. Lucia Distillers, and the people of Saint Lucia was excellent, and the European press were very impressed with the range of quality products presented by regional producers,” said Dr. Ward.
He also noted that while producers continued to move into the branded market, there continued to be much
unfair competition from subsidised products, nevertheless rum continued to be the largest agricultural based export for the Caribbean region, a major employer and contribution to public finances through tax payments.
Dr. Ward thanked the CARIFORUM governments for their support to the export effort of the industry and to the European Union for financing the development and promotion of the quality ACR Marque.
As still a very young initiative, he expressed the hope that the governments and European union would continue to support this effort which was critical to the survival of the industry, and even more so for the smaller producers.