Independent Rum Bottlers: The Real Story

Early on my path to rum wonkdom, after exhausting the rum selections at my pitiful state liquor stores, a certain set of elegant looking and pricey bottles caught my eye while scouring the shelves at an out-of-state liquor store. The labels read Berry Bros. & Rudd, and each bottle held rum from a different country. I quickly realized that these were somehow different from the big rum brands. I was fascinated and realized I had much to learn. However, the $120 price tags were prohibitive, especially so for someone not yet well informed on the nuances of different countries, much less different distilleries.

In time, I realized these were examples of independently bottled rums. To me, they offered something far more unique and compelling than a bottle of Appleton, Mount Gay, Bacardi, or Angostura. For starters, the exact distillery and year of distillation is (often) right there on the label! Many of them cite ages far older than those found on the aforementioned brand labels. And many of them were full-proof, cask strength monsters, far more compelling than the pedestrian 40 percent of the typical rum bottles. And many of these labels say that this particular bottle is only one out of 273. Or 319. Or some number that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled across something very rare.

Surely these expensive bottlings, at three or four times the cost of big brand expressions, 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 of my early experiences were revelatory; others were ho hum. The lesson? Just because a rum is from an independent bottler doesn’t mean it’s phenomenal.

As I pieced together more and more of how the rum world works, much of the mystique of independent bottlers fell away, replaced by a growing set of questions: Why did the same distilleries and age ranges keep popping up? In time and with the help of some very knowledgeable people, I assembled a coherent understanding of this particularly murky aspect of the rum world. In what follows, I’ll share where they originated, where they source from, and where some of them are headed; Plus, a few surprises previously known only to a handful of rum industry insiders.

Independent Bottlers, Merchant Bottlers, and Private Labels

Before we start turning over rocks in this story, let’s first clearly define an independent bottler. There are no regulations, so we must 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. This came vividly to the forefront when  chatting with Lance Surujbally recently about his recent rum history trilogy, which also touches heavily on independent bottlers. Thus, 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. Prime examples include Bacardi, Don Q, Havana Club, Appleton, Mount Gay, Foursquare, El Dorado, Rhum Clément, Flor de Caña, Ron Abuelo, Cartavio, and many others. Each has a well-defined distillery or set of distilleries. When you see that brand of rum, you reasonably expect to know which distillery made it.

When a brand isn’t an original producer, things get tricky. Some brands buy bulk rum directly from a distillery or through a broker. Well-known examples of non-OP rums are Banks, Smith & Cross, Rum Nation, Denizen, Caña Brava, Mezan, Gosling’s, and Pusser’s. There is no Banks distillery, no Denizen distillery, and so forth. Even if a brand provides information about the producing distillery, these non-OP brands bought the rum and are reselling it. 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 further divided into two categories:

  • Private labels/merchant bottlers
  • Independent bottlers

What’s the difference? I contend it’s a single factor: The scarcity of the rum being sold. In the simplest terms, independent bottlers sell rums from a specific set of casks and identify their 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. St. Lucia only has one distillery, so we know who made the Ministry of Rum St. Lucia series. (Some distilleries don’t allow independent bottlers to cite the distillery name, although there’s often enough clues provided to guess.)

Private labels don’t work this way. They buy rum in bulk and sell as much of as possible. Sure, Caña Brava Reserva Aneja 7 year is a Panamanian rum, but the brand is selling a lot more than three casks’ worth, and they certainly aren’t disclosing when the rum was distilled. It’s the same story with Banks, Smith & Cross, and 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.

As for the merchant bottler, this is a throwback to the day when merchants such as grocers would buy and blend rums, selling them under their own name. R L Seale and Doorly’s from Barbados were once merchant-bottled brands, although they’re now made at the Foursquare rum distillery. These days, the private label and merchant bottled terms are used almost interchangeably, although you could split some hairs to distinguish them if so desired.

Simply put, independent bottlers sell bespoke, limited editions that can’t be recreated, whereas private labels sell rums to a wider audience, with no notion of rarity. If demand for a private label expression jumped, the brand could likely buy and blend more. Not so with a 1973 Skeldon from Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL)–those casks are long gone.

This distinction between independent bottlers and private labels leads to other points of differentiation:

Private Label

  • 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

Independent Bottler

  • 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 is not exhaustive and not fixed in stone. The differentiation here can also be muddied, as independent bottlers often stray into private label territory, and vice versa. We’ll return to that topic later.

History of Independent Bottlers

The history of independent bottlers begins with Scotch whisky and goes back well over a century. Back then, distilleries like Macallan, Laphroaig, and Glenfiddich weren’t selling their whisky under their now legendary brand names. Rather, Scotland was dotted with hundreds of small distilleries, each making malt whisky and selling it in bulk to blenders like Dewars, Chivas, and Johnnie Walker. This was long before the days of mega-corporate ownership (e.g. Diageo), and distilleries were happy to sell their whisky to whomever had the necessary cash. In some cases, it was simply a desire to offload a few casks that weren’t in line with the distillery’s house style.

Among those purchasers were merchants like Gordon & MacPhail and A.D. Rattray, who purchased unaged or very young whisky from the distilleries, then aged it to maturity in their own warehouses. This spread the financial risk and potential profit among the distilleries and merchants. The distilleries got cash up front without waiting decades to sell the aged whisky, and the merchants got whisky at a substantial discount to sell under their house branding.

In the modern era, despite the rise of single malt whisky as a world-beating category, well-funded by conglomerate owners such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, the old-line independent bottlers have not only survived, their ranks have grown. Some independent bottlers have been so successful that they’ve purchased or built their own whisky distilleries. Recent examples include Signatory’s purchase of the Edradour distillery in 2002, and independent bottler Hunter Laing completing the construction of the Ardnahoe distillery on Islay in 2018.

While we now associate Great Britain predominantly with whisky, rum is also a huge part of its history. Need proof? The daily rum ration, distilled in the British Caribbean colonies, aged on the London docks, and served to Royal Navy members up until Black Tot Day– July 31, 1970. It’s no surprise that Scottish independent bottlers, awash in casks and looking for profitable expansion, would start dabbling in rum. Fast-forward to today, when some of the most prestigious independent rum bottlers are also Scotch whisky independent bottlers–names like Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead’s, and Gordon & MacPhail.  (The Gordon & MacPhail 1941 Long Pond, aged 58 years is my unicorn bottle.)

Independent rum bottlers can be cleaved into two camps: Those doing it as a sideline to their whisky business, and those who focus strictly on rum. With the exception of the Bristol Classic Rum, all of the UK-based independent bottlers such as Duncan Taylor are bottling rum as an adjunct to their larger Scotch whisky operations. There are great releases to be found from UK independent bottlers, but if you’re looking for the more exotic, esoteric, and extreme, the rum-only independent bottlers are where most of the exciting releases in the high-end rum market are 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 Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum (the St. Lucia series, in particular), every independent bottler is from Europe, which isn’t too surprising since Europe is much 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. brands without their own distillery.

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.

(I was also extraordinarily luckily to visit The Main Rum Company’s offices and warehouse last October and wrote about it in this story, which chock full of additional detail.)

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

Despite their relatively small size, Plantation Rum is very well known in rum circles. Beyond their bartender friendly blends like O.F.T.D., Three Star, and Stiggins’ Fancy, they’ve also built their reputation on releasing vintage rums from a wide swath of distilleries. When you see a bottle like Plantation St. Lucia 2005 (which must have come from St. Lucia Distillers, the only distillery on the island), it’s entirely reasonable to consider Plantation an independent bottler. However, the Plantation crew doesn’t see it that way.

From Plantation’s perspective, they purchase great rum from around the world and enhance it by their elevage process:  Further aging the rum in ex-cognac casks, as well as utilizing aging techniques in the Cognac tradition. Things like wet cellars vs. dry cellars, selective replacements of part of the casks, and in many instances, adding a bit of toasted sugar that’s been blended with high- proof rum and cask-aged for several years. Plantation refers to this as dosage. And yes, it’s controversial.

Recently, Plantation created the Extreme series, a yearly release of exceptional casked rum, with little or no dosage and limited to a small number of bottles. In this regard, one might argue Plantation has entered the independent bottler space. But such releases are the exception rather than the norm.

Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Plantation’s approach to rum, they believe their approach adds value to the final product. As such, Plantation considers themselves producers, not independent bottlers. With their recent purchase of West Indies Rum Distillery on Barbados and one-third interest in National Rums of Jamaica, they can rightly proclaim themselves as original producers for rums from those distilleries. In a way, it’s similar to the Scotch whisky independent bottlers buying distilleries.

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.

NameCountryNotes
EkteDenmark
JuulsDenmarkLabel of a spirits shop (made the Ping 9)
Norse CaskDenmarkNo longer in business
Cane IslandDutch
Tres HombresDutch
Berry, Bros. and RuddEngland
Bristol Classic RumEnglandJohn Barrett
MezanEngland
Chantal ComteFrance
Compagnie des IndesFrance
Excellence Rum
La Confrerie du RhumFrance
La MartiniquaiseFranceMay be defunct
L’EspritFrance
PlantationFrance
Transcontinental Rum LineFranceLa Maison du Whisky
Alt-EnderleGermanyMay be a private label depending on definition
DelicanaGermanyMore a private label / rebottler (depending on definition)
Isla Del RonGermany
Our Rum & SpiritsGermany
RendsbergerGermany
The Rum CaskGermany
MaburamaItaly
Malecon / MaltecoItaly
Moon ImportsItaly
Rum NationItalyFabio Rossi
SamaroliItaly
Silver SealItaly
VelierItalyLuca Gargano
VeronelliItalyMay be defunct
A.D. RattrayScotland
AdelphiScotland
CadenheadScotland
Duncan TaylorScotland
Gordon & MacPhailScotland
Kill DevilScotlandGolden Devil in the U.S.
Renegade RumScotlandMurray McDavid/Bruichladdich
Rum & CaneScotland
Scotch Malt Whisky SocietyScotland
Svenska EldvattenSweden
The Rum SocietySwedenAbsolut Vodka (Pernod Richard) spinoff
Secret TreasuresSwitzerland
Cave GuildiveSwitzerland
Elements 8UKMore a private label / rebottler (depending on definition)
BarrellUSA
HamiltonUSAEd Hamilton
Letters of Marque

 

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