Idyllic images come to mind when picturing rum: Sweeping Caribbean cane fields, historic pot and column stills. Barrels slowly maturing in the hot sun for decades. A master blender wandering the warehouse, carefully selecting barrels to produce the perfect blend, bottled and transported to your local bar or liquor store. While this narrative may be somewhat true for brands like Bacardi, Mount Gay, Appleton, or Havana Club, distillery-driven brands are a relatively modern concept – rarely seen prior to the middle of the twentieth century. The vast majority of rum brands operate in a different universe, much as they did a century or more ago: the world of bulk rum, merchants, and blenders.
Consider a few rums widely known in enthusiast circles, such as Smith & Cross, Banks, Pusser’s, Ron de Jeremy, Denizen, or The Duppy Share. Each is a distinct brand, and not associated with any particular distillery–there’s no Smith & Cross distillery, no Denizen distillery. Banks 7 “Golden Age” rum comprises 23 rums from seven countries. All of these brands are examples of “merchant bottlers” or “private labels,” buying bulk rum, likely blending it with other rums, and selling it under their name. The brand itself is wholly disconnected from the producer, at least to the casual eye.
Note: It’s important to distinguish merchant bottler brands from “independent bottlers,” who also source their rum, but usually fully disclose the source distillery, vintage, and other details. Think brands such as Duncan Taylor, Velier, Samaroli, and Kill Devil.
If you sum up the Caribbean rum distilleries, there are only a few dozen. Yet there are many hundreds of rum brands, most of them very small potatoes compared to giants like Bacardi and Captain Morgan. These minnows in the rum sea buy rum a few thousand liters at a time, dilute it (a normal occurrence), then bottle it. However, to be viable, distilleries operate in units of shipping containers – on the scale of 25,000 liters at a time.
The economics of a brand like Denizen, with its Merchant’s Reserve five-rum blend, just don’t pencil out to make, for instance 10,000 liters of a five-distillery blend. You’d be hard-pressed to buy those quantities directly. To blend such a rum on your own, you’d need to buy five ISO tanks of 25,000 liters each and manage 125,000 liters of rum.
Even if a brand sourced from a single distillery (e.g. 5 year aged rum from Jamaica’s Worthy Park), it’s unlikely a brand can count on that particular rum being available consistently– perhaps the distillery is out of stock when more is desired, or a transport ship to move the rum from distillery to buyer isn’t available right away.
Clearly there lies an opportunity for a buffer between the buyers (the brands) and the sellers (the distilleries) who can smooth out the bumps, buying rums from distilleries in large quantity and making custom rum blends consistent and readily available to brands from an inventory conveniently at hand.
The city core of Amsterdam is incredibly picturesque. Centuries of history envelop the row houses, canals, and narrow streets lined with quaint shops. So when Mrs. Wonk and I climb into an Uber, the driver gives a quizzical look when he sees our destination is on the industrial outskirts of the city. Within minutes, the city’s bicycle-jammed streets have given way to a motorway bordered on both sides with agricultural fields. Twenty minutes later, we exit the motorway into a light industrial area. The driver leaves us in front of a large, low slung dark grey building set back behind a metal fence. A huge, horizontal silver tank is the only indication of what might lie within: the world’s most diverse warehouse of rum and cane based distillates.
In short order, Carsten Vlierboom, Managing Director of E&A Scheer, arrives at the gate to welcome us in. He has a look of competent authority and could pass for a diplomat (which he is, actually), but today he’s wearing blue jeans and a sports coat – we’re at a warehouse after all. The first time we’d met Carsten, it was at the company’s office in central Amsterdam–within an inconspicuous canal-side row house, in a refined and sophisticated office space, Carsten and commercial director Hein Smit meet with vendors and clients.
The canal house is also where much of Scheer’s rum blend creations occur, in a surprisingly small room filled with hundreds of sample bottles of Scheer’s rum stocks, representing the enormous palette these master rum blenders can utilize to create custom rum profiles for hundreds of customers, including Banks and The Duppy Share. Carsten and Hein’s virtually anonymous work is experienced by rum neophytes and connoisseurs around the world. Our visit to E&A Scheer’s office in early 2016 was revelatory about this part of Scheer’s operation, but far from the complete story.
Today, we’re visiting the warehouse, the less glamourous but equally important side of the company. Situated very close to Amsterdam’s docks, millions of gallons of rum arrive and depart here every year. Rum from twenty-five distilleries around the globe arrives in ISO tanks, 25.000 liters at a time and departs in many different sizes and containers, from 60-liter plastic totes up to 30,000-liter tank trucks.
Just how large are Scheer’s operations? By the time their high proof distillates are diluted and bottled by brands, it’s the equivalent of tens of millions of bottles, putting them in the same realm as Havana Club and Appleton. Yet E&A Scheer has no brands of its own and does no bottling. Outside of a few rum industry insiders, they are virtually unknown – the way they prefer it — so as to not distract attention from their customers.
After a spell of coffee and chit-chat, Carsten first leads us to a loading dock at the back of the building. A tanker truck backs up to the elevated floor, and two workers scramble to move hoses into place to pump the rum from the truck into one of the countless tanks within the building. On a nearby wall hang metal stencils spelling out “Batavia Arrack,” an Indonesian cousin of rum that’s also part of Scheer’s 250-plus year history. While the company originally began as a general trading company similar to the legendary Dutch Trading Companies, over the years Scheer narrowed its focused to cane spirits – sourcing, blending, and selling. Today, E&A Scheer is essentially the best source for Batavia arrack, unless you somehow purchase it directly from the source.
A bit farther back in the warehouse, lining both side of a passage, is the money shot, what we’ve come to see – humongous wooden ex-wine casks lying on their side, trimmed with red metal rings on the ends. Each is several thousand liters in size, with slender, vertical glass tubes attached near the bottom which facilitate assessing the tank level. If there ever was a picture perfect image of a historic rum blending warehouse, this is it. It’s hard not to imagine these casks in use a century ago. I was weak and had to take a selfie.
Just beyond the large wood tanks, the practicality of the modern world intrudes: upright, brushed stainless steel tanks–so much more practical, yet far less romantic. Further dispelling the romantic imagery of the wooden tanks are IBC containers, white-plastic cubes that fit on a pallet and hold 275 gallons (1,000 liters) — a common fixture for moving around bulk liquids in the modern era. There are many of them to be found in this warehouse.
A small office is mission control for the work that goes on throughout the warehouse. I spy an elaborate, table top Anton Paar density meter for precisely measuring ABV percentage. Obviously knowing exactly what you’re working with is important in an operation of this size, especially with alcohol taxation involved. Each incoming batch of rum is tested to be sure the product is what the distillery says it is.
For the next 45 minutes, Carsten leads us through the many passageways snaking through the warehouse. The scale is hard to convey in words. Huge tanks, up to 30,000 liters, arranged in a grid. Several aisles are lined with “smaller” wooden tanks of only a thousand liters or so, stacked four high. Another aisle is lined with IBC tanks stacked four high. Each vessel labeled with just a word or two about its contents. If you’re a rum geek who can rattle off distillery names, it’s easy enough to figure out what’s in many of them, which I did repeatedly. As Carsten said to Mrs. Wonk, “I’ve never seen someone so excited as Matt is here. He’s like a kid on Christmas morning.”
With so much rum arriving from so many different distilleries, and with so many different marques and ages from a single distillery, it’s easy to imagine the huge logistics and math problem. The warehouse can only hold so many different vessels, and the vessels are all one of a few standard sizes. A giant tank that’s only ten percent full becomes a liability – it’s far more useful for holding a large batch. As you can guess, it’s quite a sophisticated operation, moving liquids hither and yon to optimize tank storage. Around the facility, long hoses and mobile pumps mounted on carts speed up the process immensely.
While it’s easy to focus on all the incoming rum, ultimately its purpose is to be blended and shipped to a customer. Using custom instructions for each batch, the warehouse workers collect the correct quantities of rum from various tanks, blend them together, and then fill an appropriately sized shipping container. Carsten says most orders are turned around and shipped in seven to ten working days. Remarkably fast compared to how long you might wait to get rum shipped from a distillery.
It’s surprising to learn that Scheer doesn’t attempt to keep each rum batch separate from other batches. As rums arrive, most are blended into what Carsten calls intermediate blends. (The components of each blend are carefully tracked, of course.) Around twenty-five intermediate blends are in use, serving as the primary palette for Carsten and Hein as they create a custom blend based on their customer’s desires.
The intermediate blends are 75 percent ABV, which Carsten notes is traditional, “…as pot distilled rums generally come of a still between 80 percent and 86 percent ABV, and aged rums are anywhere between 60 to 70 percent ABV.”
Somewhere in the maze of tanks is the sample library room. Although not excessively large — picture a four car garage– the number of sample bottles contained within is jaw dropping. Packed tightly together on numerous shelves, row after row, layer upon layer, the bottles (mostly 100 ml) easily number ten thousand or more. Each represents a particular moment in time: Some hold a sample of every single batch delivered to the warehouse. Others contain samples of every single intermediate blend created here. And some are sample of every single shipment to a customer. Most bottles are only held three years before their contents are dumped and recycled.
Feeling completely lost among countless tanks, we emerge from the warehouse into the daylight and walk to the front of the enormous building. Now I fully grasp what Carsten meant earlier when he said they were expanding. What we had just explored was only half of the facility.
Entering the new area of the warehouse, workers are putting final touches on new tank installations. Altogether, Scheer is adding 56 new stainless-steel tanks to their operations, in volumes of 15,000, 30,000 and 60,000 liters. Being new and not yet filled with rum, all are spotless — a forest of towering shiny silver cylinders. (As I write this in early 2018, Carsten tells me that they’re now in use.) Unlike the older area, where tanks accumulated over many years in many shapes and sizes, this new cluster of tanks appears meticulously planned out, with transport piping and control hardware. Once completed, the new tanks will bring the capacity of this facility to around 4 million liters.
Ponder this for a moment: Most of the rum here is 75 percent ABV. Diluted to normal bottle proof, (i.e. 40 percent ABV), the warehouse holds the equivalent of ten million 750ml bottles of rum.
Staggering as this thought is, it’s not the entirety of Scheer’s rum holdings. They have more–much more, just minutes away. A quick ride in Carsten’s car brings us to the water’s edge of Amsterdam’s busy port. Here, Scheer utilizes numerous outdoor tanks that dwarf the warehouse vessels.
Passing through the gate of a guarded facility, we arrive at a cluster of 100 tanks, 60 million litres capacity arranged in a grid and ranging in size up to 2.1 million liters–. Scheer doesn’t use the entire storage facility, but they rent about half the number of mostly the smaller tanks and do occasionally use tanks up to 1 million liters here. While Carsten won’t divulge exactly how much rum can be found in these tanks, several million liters at any one time is a reasonable estimate.
The white painted tanks and industrial nature of the port facility helps to drive home a very important point about E&A Scheer and Liverpool’s Main Rum Company, which Scheer merged with in 2001. At The Main Rum Company, all of the rum inventory is stored in casks and undergoing aging. When Main Rum sells spirit, it’s in increments of a cask. In contrast, Scheer’s Amsterdam operations aren’t about aging–any aging in a Scheer-blended rum occurred before it arrived in Amsterdam. The operation here sells bulk rum, thousands of liters at a time, rather than by the cask.
Back at the warehouse, I wrap up our visit by asking a battery of questions that I’ve collected in the eighteen months since we first met Carsten and Hein. Among the highlights:
- Well known producers such as Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL), Trinidad Distillers Limited (TDL), Foursquare, Worthy Park and National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ) have been large suppliers of bulk rum to E&A Scheer over the years.
- While most people think of Scheer’s business as selling rums for consumption, more than a trivial amount but less than 10 percent of their sales are for other uses. Think candies, confectionery, perfumes, aroma, tobacco, etc. The rums for these purposes are typically extremely aromatic rums from Jamaica and “grand arome” rhums from Martinique and other origins.
- Batavia Arrack sales are mostly for two purposes: Aroma (see above) and Swedish Punsch. While Scheer is by far the largest merchant dealing in Batavia Arrack today, it’s a small percentage of their overall sales volume. Also, Batavia Arrack bottlings like van Oosten and By the Dutch represent a very small percentage of Scheer’s Batavia Arrack sales.
- It’s not a huge surprise to learn that Scheer buys and sells cachaça from Brazil. They source from several suppliers and blend it to a single, consistent marque.
Realizing the amazing opportunity before me, I had one remaining question. The rum world (or at least the world of rum enthusiasts) has been roiled by the topic of rum categorization–the effort to move away from useless categories like white, gold, and dark and toward systems like the Gargano classification. Carsten is without a doubt one of the most connected people in the rum universe. He purchases from multiple distilleries. He blends rum. And he sells rums to hundreds of customers around the globe. If anyone would have an informed opinion, it’s he. I had to ask what he thought of the categorization debates. Surely he has a deeply informed opinion.
His answer surprised me, but only momentarily. At the end of the day, E&A Scheer strives to sell honest rum to their customers, whomever they may be. While we enthusiasts debate over esoteric topics, the vast majority of rum sold by Scheer is bought by brands that have no vested interested in the rum debate. We rum wonks can talk endlessly about the high-end Foursquare, Hampden, and Caroni rums, but the average consumer has no inkling of those brands and the raging discussions about categorization.
Carsten, Hein, and the rest of the Scheer team follow the heated debates about rum categorization and related topics–they need to be well versed in what’s being discussed to have meaningful conversations with their clients. However, you won’t find them weighing in or taking sides. Ultimately, their mission is to sell rum, be it to an inexpensive “supermarket” brand or a high end, exotic blend that sells for $50 or more.
Over the course of four days in October 2017, I’d had the opportunity to visit both The Main Rum Company in Liverpool and Scheer’s Amsterdam warehouse, coming away from the experience with a much deeper understanding of how the modern rum world really works. I’d finally completed my personal “rum trail” from beginning to end. From cane fields to rum bars, I have gone behind the scenes with cane growers, master distillers, merchants and blenders, independent bottlers, brands, and rum bars, growing not only my understanding of the craft and the industry, but making many friends along the way.
I wish to once again thank Carsten for granting me access to the inner sanctum of E&A Scheer, as well as his assistance on numerous fronts, including answering my many questions. It’s information from people like him that allow me to tell the fascinating, behind the scenes stories of today’s rum world.