The seaside city of Liverpool, England (yes, home of the Beatles), was one of England’s major shipping hubs in the not-so-distant past. Magnificent ocean liners like the RMS Titanic, Lusitania, and Queen Mary were all registered there. The city is also infamous for its part in the triangle trade, where rum, sugar, finished goods, and enslaved humans crisscrossed the Atlantic between the Old World, Africa, and the New World, with Liverpool as a northern Hub.
Hugging Liverpool’s dozens of remaining docks are gigantic brick warehouses, built in the 1800s as the city rose to prominence. On a blustery October day, I find myself inside one such warehouse, descending to the basement in a rickety freight elevator, although “suspended metal cage” might be a more apt description. I’m doing my best to contain my excitement at what lies in wait once the doors open. For among my journeys to the epicenters of rum, this particular warehouse has become a singular obsession.
The doors open into a cold, dimly lit room. It’s my first glimpse into a virtually unheard of yet fascinating corner of the rum world. Even the most extreme, hardcore rum aficionados don’t know of the treasures held here. For within these walls lies a magnificent, unparalleled collection of rums from all over the world, slumbering away in casks.
Just an hour earlier, having left Mrs. Wonk to her Beatles tour (a must-do, she says, for any music fan who sets foot in the city), I made my way from the city’s Lime Street train station to Canning Street, in the shadow of Liverpool’s enormous hilltop sandstone cathedral. After locating the correct door in an extremely long brick building, I’m buzzed in and greeted by Ian Smith, managing director of The Main Rum Company, a friendly chap in his early forties.
Up a flight of stairs on the second floor is the hub of the company’s operations – a surprisingly compact, square room, with a row of windows along one wall overlooking Canning Street. There’s just enough space for four desks. Here, I meet Eric Strahan and Christine Southern, as well as Ian Hoyles, the latest addition to the operation. What might appear like a small insurance agency to the untrained eye is actually the nerve center for one of the most important enterprises in the rum world. Only the many miniature rum sample bottles belie what happens here.
I have my trusty SLR camera with me, but no pictures are allowed. The Main Rum Company’s operations require the utmost discretion. You see, they do not sell any rum directly to consumers, but rather, they are rum merchants. They purchase stocks of rum to age in a nearby Liverpool warehouse, and sell it to their customers. Main Rum wants to stay below the radar; I’m extremely fortunate to have been granted access.
After a bit of chit-chat about the rum industry, the two Ians and I hop in a car for the short drive to the warehouse. As we drive, Ian Smith outlines a brief history of how The Main Rum Company came to be.
Demerara rum from Guyana has long been a staple of the UK rum market – by itself and in navy style blends such as Pussers. For many decades, Demerara rum from Guyana was shipped to the UK via tanker ships docking at Liverpool’s Nelson Dock. The rum was offloaded from the ships via an elevated pipeline running along the side of a brick warehouse before depositing into giant tanks. You can still see this warehouse today, although it has a new life as the Titanic Hotel. An on-site rum bar honors the site’s rum history.
Circa 1984, Benjamin J. (Ben) Cross de Chavannes was assisting Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) in Liverpool. Ben had the idea to purchase batches of rum and mature them in casks in a nearby warehouse. Thus, The Main Rum Company was born — A company offering a diverse collection of cask-aged rum to other purveyors of rum.
In time, DDL moved their shipping operations away from Liverpool, and The Main Rum Company took over DDL’s office space on Canning Street – the same office The Main Rum Company operates out of today.
In 2001 and prior to his planned retirement, Ben decided to merge his company with E&A Scheer, the Dutch company that also buys, blends, and sells rum to many well-known brands, and with whom Ben had long been associated. Teaming up with E&A Scheer couldn’t have been a better match. I’ve written extensively about E&A Scheer, including here and here. If you don’t know their story, stop now and go read up.
There are critical differences between Main Rum and Scheer that make for a great symbiotic relationship. Scheer’s volume of bulk rum sold annually makes them one of the world’s largest rum companies. They do no aging of rums, only blending, and deal in units of shipping containers, not casks. In contrast, The Main Rum Company sells high quality rum in casks for very limited edition release. Both E&A Scheer and The Main Rum Company, the entire gamut of rum, in provenance, age, and volume is covered.
As we arrive at the warehouse, it’s easy to note by the architecture and faded red brick exterior that it’s quite old. The six visible levels of windows (all gated and closed with metal doors) indicates at least six levels within, plus whatever lurks below ground level. Wording painted on the brick announces that this was once a bonded tea warehouse; tea was once held in government bond, just like liquor. (Hence all that revolutionary action in Boston Harbor.) If you were to imagine an 1800s British dockside warehouse, you’d probably picture something very similar to this.
Once inside, I notice the vaulted ceilings, painted white. Every so often throughout the space are thick support pillars, painted green. The building, built in 1836, is so large that despite all the rum casks within, other companies also lease space here.
Walls separate the expansive floor area into manageable “rooms” of varying sizes, connected by open archways. Entering the first of many rooms, I find what I’m here for: Casks of rum laying horizontally, bunghole pointing upward. In some spots, the casks are stacked two or three levels high; in others, casks are lined up in a single row. On the barrelheads, written in chalk, are a series of numbers and words. Some of the words are known as “marques,” which are basically names for different rums made at the same distillery. Each distillery defines its own marques, and they’re usually quite cryptic, like Hampden Estate “DOK”, for instance.
The Main Rum Company uses its own set of marques, which are completely distinct from the distillery marques. Thus, even if you’re familiar with, say, DDL’s or Hampden’s marques, that won’t help you in this warehouse. However, in time, I’m partially able to decode what’s in a barrel from the labeling – If you know the key distilleries that sell in bulk, it’s not particularly hard to guess.
As we’re on this bottommost level of the warehouse and hence below ground level, it’s not surprising that the air is quite moist. Adding to the challenge– the available light is quite dim in spots. The two Ians and I spend much of our time navigating the warehouse via cellphone flash lighting.
With at least dozens of casks in any given room, the effect of the angel’s share is easily noticeable. Walls and pillars are thickly coated with distiller’s mold, the harmless fungus that feeds on evaporating alcohol. As you might guess, the smell of rum is strong, but heavily interlaced with dank fungus smells.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the lower level of the warehouse resembles a nineteenth century dungeon–a maze of dark, damp rooms. So strong is this impressions provided by these rooms that they appeared (without much set dressing) in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law.
Eventually, the shock and awe of the range of casks wears off (slightly), and I ask about cask management. It’s predominantly ex-bourbon, but you’ll also find French oak, Cognac, Armagnac, and Sherry casks scattered about. Everything here eventually ends up in a cask, regardless of whether it arrived in a cask or a shipping container. After all, the goal here is maturation not mere storage.
Passing one particular cask, my eyes pop out. The distillery is easy enough to guess from the marque, and is quite a surprise. A few days earlier at London’s UK RumFest, I’d seen and tasted a bottle of Compagnie des Indes rum (a French independent bottler), which was labeled 2005 Vintage New Yarmouth. (New Yarmouth is the much lesser known sister distillery to Appleton Estate.) This Compagnie des Indes bottling was the first New Yarmouth bottling I’d ever seen. I had to wonder…
A few days later, I asked Florent Beuchet, owner of Compagnie des Indes, if he purchases casks from The Main Rum Company. He replied that he has “…always been very transparent about where I source my rums from, and for sure I do source some of them from Main Rum.” However, Florent also stressed that he sources his rums from elsewhere as well, including directly from distilleries where possible. In my conversations with several other premium rum purveyors, they have echoed Florent’s words.
Seeing my enthusiasm over this particular cask, Hoyles fetches what looks like an elongated wooden croquet mallet (a “bung flogger”), a siphon pump, and—oh, yes–tasting glasses. Cautioning me to stand back, he swings the mallet in a long, overhead arc, bringing it down squarely on the wooden bung. A violently loud bang echoes throughout the warehouse. A second well-placed strike and the bung pops out. In goes the siphon, and soon we’re nosing off-the-charts funky rum, quite similar in flavor profile to an aged Hampden Estate rum. But not from Hampden!
A bit later and elsewhere in the warehouse, the same mallet swings again to open a cask of blended rums from different distilleries. While most casks here are single estate, single vintage rum, there are times when Main Rum decides the best choice for a rum is blending with other rums.
As we depart the warehouse, I spot a large collection of small rum-filled sample bottles. Looking as if they’re waiting to be discarded, I ask what happens to them. From time to time, Smith says, each is emptied into a cask for future blending. I couldn’t help but think about how some spirits enthusiasts have been making infinity barrels at home, combining the last drops of nearly empty bottles into a small cask and let them marry. All those samples at The Main Rum Company would surely make an amazing infinity barrel!
Rounding the warehouse on the drive back to the office, Smith stops and points to a particular set of steps inset into the side of the building. It seems there’s a famous 1966 black-and-white photo of Bob Dylan sitting on a set of steps surrounded by young children, taken by photographer Barry Feinstein. Those very steps are part of the warehouse we just walked through. How’s that for a cool historical connection?
Back in the office, we tour through many of the old rum bottles Main Rum has acquired over the years. A British armed forces rum flagon from the 1950s appears, and soon I’m enjoying a wee nip of real rum history! (See: Black Tot). Being in the presence of people who worked in the rum industry for many decades, I naturally sought their stories from rum’s not-too-distant past. Eric shows me photos from his travels to Caribbean distilleries in the 1980s, and my jaw is agape as I flip through them. He graciously lets me take a few photos of his pictures of spirit industry executives stirring the famed Hampden “muck” pit.
The Main Rum Company office and the people who inhabit it are an absolute treasure trove of information about the rum world, working in it long before we enthusiasts and our blogs and Facebook groups appeared. Hopefully the history contained within will be preserved for future generations of rum enthusiasts.
I was extraordinarily fortunate to be granted access to The Main Rum Company’s operations. Despite (intentionally) being virtually unknown, they and E&A Scheer, have an enormous impact on today’s global rum trade. From the most inexpensive “supermarket” rums to the most rare, independently bottled ‘jewels’, you’ll find evidence of their handiwork if you know where to look. As rum enthusiasts and experts seek to understand rum from cane to glass, understanding the role of these global rum merchants is essential. My most sincere thanks to The Main Rum Company staff and Carsten Vlierboom for allowing me to look inside this fascinating corner of the rum world.
Note: The warehouse interior images were graciously provided to me by Cotswolds Distillery, who also ages product in the same location.