In the early of my rum wonkery, after exhausting the rum offerings at at our state controlled liquor stores, a set of elegant looking and pricey bottles caught my eye while. The labels said Berry Bros. & Rudd, and each bottle held rum from a different country, and included more specifics about the rum than I was used to seeing; like what it year it was distilled. It was obvious that these bottles were somehow different from what I’d seen previously. Although I had many questions, only the $120 price tag kept me from buying them.
This was my first exposure to independently bottled rums. They offered something far more exotic than the bottles of Appleton, Mount Gay, Bacardi, or Angostura that had become commonplace. For starters, the distillery and year of distillation was right there on the label! Many cited ages far older than those found on mainstream rum brand labels. Even more compelling, some of them were cask strength, so far more interesting than the pedestrian 40 percent rums next to them on the shelf. Some even indicated they were bottle 37 out of only 273 bottles. It certainly made me feel like I’d stumbled across something very rare.
Surely these expensive bottlings costing three or four times more than “regular” rums had something better to offer–the additional production details, the higher proof, the rarity of the bottling. Slowly I dipped my toe into this realm, purchasing one bottle, then another. Some were revelatory; others were ho-hum. I soon learned that just because a rum was independently bottled didn’t mean it would be life-altering.
As I pieced together more about how the rum world works, much of the independent bottler mystique fell away, replaced by a growing set of questions. For instance: why did the same distilleries and age ranges keep popping up?
In time and with a lot of help from very knowledgeable people, I began to better understand this murky aspect of the rum world. In what follows, I’ll share what I’ve learned, including where these brands source rum from. Plus, a few surprises known only to a handful of rum industry insiders.
Original Producers, Private Labels, and Independent Bottlers
Before we start turning over rocks in this story, let’s first clearly define an independent bottler. There is no official definition, so we instead look to how the term is generally used. Even then it’s tricky, as experts don’t necessarily agree on who’s an independent bottler and who’s not. What follows is my definition, which I’ve spent considerable time mulling and tuning to be very precise.
First, consider the set of all rum brands. They can be neatly cleaved into two groups: Original producers (OPs), who make rum and sell it under a single brand name. Well-known examples include Bacardi, Don Q, Havana Club, Appleton, Mount Gay, Foursquare, El Dorado, Rhum Clément, Flor de Caña, Angostura, Cartavio, and many others. Each is made at one distillery, and the brand owner also owns that distillery. That is, there are no middleman between the distillery and bottled product. When you see that brand of rum, you have a very good idea of who made it. The chart here can help you identify many of them.
Then there are brands which aren’t original producers. This is when things get tricky.
Some brands buy bulk rum directly from a distillery or through a broker. Well-known examples of brands that aren’t Original Producers include Banks, Smith & Cross, Rum Nation, Denizen, Mezan, Gosling’s, and Pusser’s. There is no Banks distillery, no Denizen distillery, and no Pusser’s distillery. Even if a brand discloses where the rum was made, it doesn’t make them original producers. The keen-eyed among you might note I’ve omitted Velier and Plantation from this this list–we’ll return to them later.
These non-original producer brands can be divided into two categories:
- Private labels
- Independent bottlers
What’s the difference? I contend it boils down to one detail: The scarcity of the rum being sold.
Generally speaking, independent bottlers sell rums from a specific batch of rum (e.g. a set of casks) and identify its provenance. For instance, an independent bottler might sell bottles filled from three casks of Worthy Park, distilled in 2006 and aged for eleven years. Even if the independent bottler doesn’t cite a specific distillery, the country of origin is often sufficient to identify who made it. For example, Lemon Hart is labeled as a Demerara rum. Since there’s only one distillery in Guyana (Demerara Distillers), we know it had to have been distilled at Demerara Distillers. (Some distilleries don’t allow independent bottlers to cite the distillery name, although there’s often enough clues provided to guess.)
Private labels are the opposite of rare, single-batch rums. They buy in bulk and sell as much of as possible. Sure, Doctor Bird is a Jamaican rum, but the brand sells much more than three casks’ worth, and they certainly aren’t disclosing when the rum was distilled. (Us geeks know that it’s from Worthy Park, but the brand owner won’t say that.) It’s the same story with Banks, Smith & Cross, the Duppy Share, and many other private label rums. Anyone can create a brand name, buy rum in bulk, and sell it as a private label rum–and we’re all the richer for it.
Simply put, independent bottlers sell bespoke, limited editions that can’t be recreated, whereas private labels sell rums to a wider audience, with little expectation of rarity. If demand jumped for a private label rum, the brand could buy and blend more. Not so with a 1973 Skeldon from Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL)–those casks are long gone.
To get a bit more precise, here’s my distinction between independent bottlers and private labels:
- Typically lower ABV, rarely at cask strength
- Often from multiple distilleries and/or distillation years
- Often little or no information about the source distillery
- Relatively inexpensive
- Often used in cocktails
- Often bottled at cask strength
- Single distillery/single year
- Limited production, e.g. four casks’ worth
- Fairly detailed production information (distillery, date of distillation, duration aged)
- Higher priced
- Typically intended to be consumed neat
Mind you, the above criteria are not exhaustive and not fixed in stone. The distinction can be muddied – often independent bottlers often stray into private label territory, and vice versa. We’ll return to that topic later.
History of Independent Bottlers
The original spirit brands originated in the late 1800s, and were typically grocers or merchants, who sourced whisky, rum, brandy, or other spirits from distilleries or intermediary brokers. These merchants were early blenders, purchasing numerous casks, then blending and bottling them. In many cases they aged the rum in their own facilities prior to selling it. These companies are known as merchant bottlers. It was the merchant’s name on the bottle, not a distillery’s name. Much of the profit from a bottle went to the merchant bottlers, not the distilleries who supplied the bulk spirits at what were “commodity” prices.
The products merchant bottlers created were often blended from multiple distilleries with no indication of the source distillery (sometimes not even the source country); the drinking public was generally unaware of specific distilleries as they are today. In the Scotch whisky realm, early brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewars, and Ballantine’s were all merchant bottlers selling blended Scotch whisky. There were no distillery-specific, single malt brands like Laphroaig or Glenfiddich then.
Some Scotch whisky merchant bottlers brands were successful enough to cut out the intermediary brokers and secure supply by expanding into production themselves. One early example was Dewar’s, which built the Aberfeldy distillery in 1896.
Merchant bottled rum brands did not garner the same name recognition as the Scotch whisky brands. Among some early merchant bottler rum brands were Red Heart, and its sibling brand, White Heart, also from Henry White & Co.
Early Caribbean Merchant Bottlers
While Europe and America were home to the largest such bottlers, the Caribbean also had merchant bottlers dealing in locally made rum. In Jamaica, J. Wray & Nephew, Fred L. Myers, Daniel Finzi, and Edwin Charley all sold bottled rum under their names, with the first two still around today.
Likewise, in Barbados, Martin Doorly, Alleyne Arthur, Hanschell Inniss, and R.L. Seale were all early 20th century blenders and bottlers; some of their names remain well known in rum circles.
From Merchant Bottlers to Independent Bottlers
In the twentieth century, original producers, distilling and bottling spirits under their own name, started to pop up, and in many case dominate. Such is the case with single malt Scotch whisky today. Nonetheless, some of the old guard merchant bottlers adopted to the new world order by transitioning from selling blended products to selling bespoke rarities. Often times they sell small lots of rare or unusual lots that a large Original Producer like the Macallan simply doesn’t have the time or inclination to bother with.
Thus, the transition from merchant bottlers to independent bottlers led to them focusing on the high end niche markets and catering to the spirit nerds looking for something unusual, money be damned. Original Producer brands focus on a small stable of expressions that change infrequently. Independent bottlers depend on a steady supply of limited edition expressions to keep the money flowing in.
When it comes to Independent rum bottlers, then can be cleaved into two camps. Some do it as a sideline to their whisky business. Others focus strictly on rum. With the exception of the Bristol Classic Rum, all of the large UK-based independent bottlers like Duncan Taylor bottle rum as an adjunct to their larger Scotch whisky operations.
That said, while there are great releases to be found from UK independent bottlers, if you’re looking for the most exotic, esoteric, or extreme, the rum-only independent bottlers are where most of the exciting releases will be found.
At the end of this story is a table with all the current and recently currently independent bottlers that I could dig up. Looking at their home countries, it’s clear that the independent bottler world is extremely Euro-centric. With the exception of Holmes Cay and Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum line, just about every significant independent bottler is from Europe. Not surprising, as (in general) Europe is still further along in rum appreciation than the rest of the world.
Where do they source?
The exotic and mysterious world of independent bottler comes to the foreground when you ponder where these rums, from so many distilleries, originate.
The obvious answer is from the distilleries named on the label. But the reality is much more complicated. When you see, for instance, a seventeen-year aged Hampden, it’s easy to think the independent bottler showed up at Hampden’s warehouse, asked to poke around in the rows of slumbering casks, sampled many pours, and selected these three particular casks, which were duly shipped off to the purchaser’s facility.
While a delightful story to picture, it rarely works that way. These days, distilleries are well aware of the value of their aged stock. If they’ve got barrels that old, it’s for a strategic reason. The angels have already taken a healthy share, and yet the distillery holds on to them. Casks like this are almost assuredly designated for high age statement releases, e.g. Appleton 21, or for strategic use in blends.
What about unaged or very lightly aged rums then? Perhaps independent bottlers buy a thousand liters or so from a distillery, with the plan to age it themselves? Again, a nice idea, but it doesn’t happen very often. Distilleries want to sell and ship rum at far larger scales – think 25,000 liters, the size of a typical ISO shipping container.
If independent bottlers aren’t buying from the distilleries directly, they must be acquiring their rum some other way. In talking with several people very well connected with the rum industry–including a major distillery owner who sells bulk rum, an independent bottler with a broad product line, and various professionals in-between–here’s how independent bottlers typically source their rum:
First, they may occasionally be able to purchase rum direct from the distillery, although as mentioned above, that’s rarely the case.
Second, a private individual may have acquired a substantial collection of casks as sort of a retirement portfolio. Perhaps they worked for the distillery, or otherwise had means to acquire rum. A good example of this was Frank Ward, former master distiller for Mount Gay. Around the time of the Remy Cointreau acquisition of Mount Gay, Ward sold some of the casks to at least two purchasers. Some of that rum popped up recently as Velier’s Last Ward releases.
Third, independent bottlers sell to each other. Perhaps one got a fantastic deal on Hampden estate rum but had to purchase a large quantity to do so. They could easily sell off a few casks to another bottler.
But here’s the thing – by several accounts, all of the above represent less than half of the rums sold by independent bottlers. The majority of independently bottled rums all pass through a single company – a company virtually unknown even to the vast majority of rum experts.
The Dutch Giant
E&A Scheer has been in business for more than 250 years. Originally a trading company with its own ships, it eventually narrowed its focus to buying bulk rum, blending it, and reselling it. They work on a massive scale; their Amsterdam warehouse and port facilities hold enough bulk rum to make untold millions of bottles. Every year they sell enough rum to put them in the same league as brands like Havana Club and Appleton. But not a single drop of rum is sold under their own name. Rather, they sell to brands like Banks, Denizen, and Dos Maderas, i.e. private labels.
Scheer’s primary focus is on bulk rum blending of unaged or lightly aged rum. Scheer’s warehouse has no casks where rum continues to age. If Scheer buys a three-year Bajan rum, it sells it as a three-year Bajan rum. Their operations aren’t set up to cope with hundreds or thousands of aging casks; you won’t find a 15-year Enmore cask from DDL slumbering away at Scheer’s Amsterdam facility.
(I’ve written about E&A Scheer twice before, having visited both their main office and the warehouse and port facilities. It’s a truly fascinating story, so I highly suggest reading them both to soak up all the details.)
Unlike a distillery, E&A Scheer is quite capable of dealing with smaller quantities of rum, like 1,000 liters, something a small brand might be able to handle. While my prior stories focused on brands like Banks purchasing custom rum blends from Scheer, an independent bottler can also buy from Scheer with the intent of casking it themselves and letting it age for however long in their own warehouse. It may take many years before the rum is ready, but if they have the patience, it’s a viable route–one not too different from that of the original independent bottlers.
However, there’s a twist, and a whole other part to the story: There are plenty of independently bottled rums of very long age, older than the independent bottler selling them. Unless they somehow managed to buy very old rum from another bottler, it’s obvious they couldn’t have purchased young bulk rum from Scheer and aged it themselves. The answer to how independent bottlers get ahold of the much older rums lies 500 kilometers to the northwest of Amsterdam, in the seaside city of Liverpool, England.
The Main Rum Company’s warehouse, located on Liverpool’s famed docks, is quite likely the world’s largest holding of long-aged rum from multiple distilleries. Many thousands of casks hold rums that have a very good chance of ending up in an independently bottled rum. It’s essentially one-stop shopping for someone looking for say, a ten-year Worthy Park, a fourteen-year Fiji, or perhaps a nineteen-year DDL Uitvlugt. They’ve been in business since 1984, so they’ve had plenty of time to accumulate a very diverse set of casks under their watch.
What E&A Scheer is to custom rum blends for private label brands (i.e. a reliable source for great inventory), The Main Rum Company is for those looking for bespoke, long-aged rums. And here’s the final twist: E&A Scheer and The Main Rum Company are effectively the same company –the two merged in 2001, creating a single enterprise that touches a huge swath of the rum world, from the most inexpensive supermarket brands to the most bespoke independent bottlings.
You can read much about Main Rum in this exclusive inside look.
For the sake of covering all bases, I will note there are other intermediary rum merchants and blenders besides E&A Scheer, including Ultrapure and PILSA. But by all accounts, E&A Scheer and The Main Rum Company are the dominant players in this little-known aspect of the rum universe.
Tropical vs. Continental Aging
No account of interpedently bottled rums is complete without addressing the topic of tropical versus continental aging. It’s an important distinction that most rum enthusiasts have only become aware of recently.
As the saying goes, age is just a number. When it comes to distilled spirits, you’d like to think that “aged twelve years” on a label means that it spent at least twelve years in a wooden cask. Often that’s not the case, but that’s a different story. While we all generally accept that more years in a cask is better, it’s also very important where those years were spent.
When it comes to aging and age statements, rum is special, because it’s the only major spirit category where the aging may occur far, far away from where the spirit was distilled. Bourbon distilled in Kentucky is usually aged in Kentucky. Scotch whisky is distilled and aged in Scotland. But for centuries, it was common for unaged Caribbean rum to be shipped to the European continent for aging prior to sale. Of course, lots of rum is aged in the Caribbean as well.
Over time, observers noticed that rum disappears from casks in the Caribbean much faster than rum aged on the continent, especially in the northern climes like Scotland. The intense heat of Caribbean aging warehouses causes evaporation to occur much more quickly. It also makes chemical transformation like esterification to occur more rapidly and in different ratios.
Although it’s a bit of a simplification, rum ages faster in the Caribbean than in, say, Italy, France, or Scotland. Twelve years in Jamaica is vastly different than twelve years in Liverpool. Rum aging in the Caribbean loses around eight to ten percent per year due to the angel’s share. In Scotland, it’s closer to two percent per year. Compound those losses of twenty years, and you can see that Caribbean aging nets far less rum for the same initial amount.
For this reason, some people believe tropical aging is better than continental aging. Others dismiss that, saying that the aging is just different. But everybody agrees that after twelve years, there will be a lot less rum in a Caribbean-aged cask than a continental-aged cask. As such, with less rum left to sell, the tropical-aged rum should command a higher per-ounce premium.
To wrap this all up neatly, when considering an independently bottled rum, it’s important to know where it was aged and factor that into your price/value consideration. Some bottlers like the Transcontinental Line are include this information. Hopefully more will follow suit. Until then, you may need to politely inquire with company representatives.
Special Case: Plantation Rum
Despite their small size compared to the giants like Bacardi, Plantation Rum is well known in rum circles. Beyond their readily available blends like O.F.T.D., Original Dark, and Three Star, they’ve also release a steady stream of vintage rums from a wide swath of distilleries. When you see a bottle like Plantation St. Lucia 2005 it’s entirely reasonable to consider Plantation an independent bottler.
However, with their recent purchase of West Indies Rum Distillery on Barbados (which includes a one-third interest in National Rums of Jamaica), they have ventured into original producer territory. The recent release of Stade’s Rum is a clear example. In a way, it’s similar to the Scotch whisky independent bottlers buying distilleries.
All told, depending on which bottle you pick up, Plantation could be simultaneously considered an independent bottler, private label, and original producer.
Special Case: Velier
Within the high-end rum world, Italy’s Velier is particularly beloved. Beginning around 2005, Velier released a stunning array of exceptional rums. Initially focusing on Guyanese rums from DDL, then Trinidad rums from the Caroni, and more recently, from Hampden Estate, Velier built a reputation for cask-strength monsters of impeccable background and breeding.
One way Velier differentiates itself from independent bottlers selling rums with similar credentials is their focus on tropical aging. Velier CEO Luca Gargano fervently believes rum should be aged where it was distilled, or at least in a very similar climate. For example, after purchasing casks from Trinidad’s Caroni distillery, it wasn’t feasible to age them there, so he had them shipped to DDL in Guyana to continue aging.
While you can buy a high age statement DDL rum from many independent bottlers, most of those bottlings spent the majority (if not the entirety) of their time aging in Europe, rather than in Guyana. Velier, on the other hand, makes it a point to tout that their rums are tropically aged. People may grumble that Velier’s prices are higher than other independent bottlers, but when you factor in the huge payment to the angels by insisting on Caribbean aging, their price premium seems justified.
Velier has branched out into Haitian cane spirits, known as Clairin. To date, they’ve all been unaged, although their year of distilling is provided. Likewise, Velier has recently released aged Hampden estate rum. This is great for rum lovers, but these bottlings are also not highly limited. It’s clear that Velier has expanded outside of the traditional independent bottler realm. Some might say they’re now also a private label, while others call them importers for brands that wouldn’t otherwise be sold in a particular country.
Independent Bottlers Crossing into Private Labels
Velier isn’t alone in straddling the independent bottler/private label categories. It’s only natural that as an independent bottler grows, they’d look to expand their brand recognition and sales with lower priced, entry level offerings. Bespoke casks are expensive and more difficult to consistently source. A custom rum blend is a great way to offer something in that space.
While Mezan rum is best known for releases like their 2000 Long Pond Jamaica and 2004/2006 Panama, they also have the Jamaica XO, a blend of rums from multiple Jamaican distilleries. It’s got a healthy dose of hogo and is priced low enough that mixing with it won’t break the bank. However, it’s most assuredly not a limited edition. Thus, by my above definition, the Jamaica XO is a private label rum.
Similarly, France’s Compagnie de Indes is an up and coming independent bottler. Among their most heavily coveted recent releases is the New Yarmouth 2005, aged for twelve years — in Liverpool, now that you know to ask this question. However, they’ve also aggressively moved into the private label space, with custom blends like Boulet de Canon, Caraibes, and Tricorne.
The point here is that many run brands don’t fit nicely into one single category, and the category that best describes them may change over time.
Independent Bottlers – The List
Summarizing the above, independent-bottler rums are often a great way to get access to rare or exotic rums that are too small for the big brands to focus on. However, just because it’s a limited edition doesn’t mean the rum is necessarily better than what original producers are releasing. It’s just different. As with all things rum, a little bit of knowledge and knowing what questions to ask is your best bet.
Below is a table of all the independent bottlers that I could locate, plus a few, graciously added by Lance at The Lone Caner. My criteria is that they’ve put out at least one rum meeting my independent bottler definition and are either currently active or have been so recently. That is, there’s a reasonable chance you might find these bottles on a shelf somewhere. There quite likely are some I’ve missed. Feel free to drop me a note in the comments or via email and I’ll do my best to rectify it.
|Rum Shark||Czech Republic|
|S.B.S||Denmark||S.B.S. –> Single Barrel Selection|
|Berry, Bros. and Rudd||England|
|Bristol Classic Rum||England||John Barrett|
|That Botique-y Rum Company||England|
|Compagnie des Indes||France|
|La Confrerie du Rhum||France|
|Transcontinental Rum Line||France||La Maison du Whisky|
|Alt-Enderle||Germany||May be a private label depending on definition|
|Delicana||Germany||More a private label / rebottler (depending on definition)|
|Isla Del Ron||Germany|
|Our Rum & Spirits||Germany|
|The Rum Cask||Germany|
|Malecon / Malteco||Italy|
|Rum Nation||Italy||Fabio Rossi|
|Veronelli||Italy||May be defunct|
|Gordon & MacPhail||Scotland|
|Kill Devil||Scotland||Golden Devil in the U.S.|
|Rum & Cane||Scotland|
|Scotch Malt Whisky Society||Scotland|
|The Rum Society||Sweden||Absolut Vodka (Pernod Richard) spinoff|
|Letters of Marque|