Cocktail Wonk & Luca Gargano

The Gargano Files

In September of 2018, I sat down with Luca Gargano in London immediately prior to the Rum Tasting of the Century, celebrating the launch of Hampden Estate’s aged rum.

We had a wide-ranging interview that covered many topics, resulting in far too much material for a single interview piece. In my Bevvy Ruminations column, I excerpted two portions that cover topics of broad interest to the rum audience. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

However, there was plenty of material left over that’s manna to the more hardcore rum wonks. Topics that are a bit more esoteric and inside baseball. A lengthy bonus reel, so to speak.  I’ve polished it a bit but haven’t added a ton of explanatory comments to the numerous references Luca makes. In short, this is raw, very lightly filtered Luca–and he has plenty to say.

The Interview

Matt Pietrek:    Richard Seale has stated it’s foolish to sell very high ester rum to consumers. That they’re not intended for drinking. Yet you have high ester rums you sell, like the Long Pond TECA and TECC. What’s your take on the enthusiasts’ desire to have these high ester rums?

Luca Gargano:   First of all, it depends what Richard means for high ester.

Matt Pietrek:    To the people who bottled the Hampden Estate DOK rum, he said, “Those are not for drinking. Those are for blending.”

Luca Gargano:   DOK also is used for confectionery and for other things. Anyway, it is a rum. It is a completely different expression. If somebody bottles it, it’s okay. I think that DOK is a very, very high ester rum, and it’s more of an essence.

But in rum there are so many different raw materials like molasses, syrup, sugarcane. Different fermentation, different stills, and different techniques to develop faster. So DOK exists. If somebody bottles it, I think it is nice. And I don’t say that is the best rum in the world.

Matt Pietrek:    In my own personal experience, people want to try these rums. They want to experience them, but they’re not necessarily a rum you will drink every night.

Luca Gargano:   Yes, exactly. But a main part of my job is as a talent scout or as a merchant. I own a distillery [Bielle] with Rhum Rhum. I have to take something to the people, not just to the rum lovers. Everything that is different–if it is well made and nice to taste–then it is my pleasure to give. But I would never drink DOK every day.

Gargano Categorization

Matt Pietrek:    Some critics of the Gargano Categorization say that rums in the same category can be very different in profile. For example, a very light pot-stilled American rum and a heavy Hampden Estate pot-stilled rum; they could both be pure single rums, but they’re very different in taste. What’s your response to that?

Luca Gargano:   Macallan and Ardbeg–are they similar or different? They are enormously different. If you taste a 100 ppm Ardbeg, or Lagavulin, or Port Ellen, then you’ll see that Macallan and Glenmorangie are completely different single malts. What does this mean? We hope that all products will be different. Every year is different. I don’t understand what the problem is with that.

The real problem is that rum is the only category of spirit where industrial products and artisanal products are mixed.

You can have a pure single rum, very high proof, long fermentation, high ester, and different type of stills, and not just double retort pot stills. But the only way to create a difference between the artisanal products that can reach certain levels of sipping, competing against a single malt or cognac, is to start with the distillation. You could have the best raw material and the best fermentation, but if you distill in a multi column, you lose everything.

The key point is the distillation.

I was thinking–you can drive yourself through this forest where you pass from one hundred percent ethanol to a fantastic double distillation pot-still rum. The real categorization mainly divides the artisanal rum from the industrial rum.

Industrial rum is 98 percent of the market. At midnight, I drink a Cuba Libre with Brugal and I’m very happy. But in rum, there is [also] a category of producer making such fantastic spirits that they can compete at the same level [as the best of other spirits]. If you make a blind tasting between single malt, pure single rum, cognac, many times it is the rum that wins.

But how will people recognize if Hampden Estate rum is different from a multi-column rum [without categories]?

Matt Pietrek:    Another criticism of the Gargano categories is that they rely on technical things. It’s hard for the consumers to grasp them.

Luca Gargano:   I think that everybody today knows that Macallan and Ballantine are both whiskies, but different. Nobody knows exactly how. The consumer asks, “What is Macallan?” The answer: “It’s a single malt.” But they don’t know what single malt means.

Ten years ago, I asked one of the biggest experts in the world, “What is the real difference when you call a product ‘single malt’?” He didn’t think about the pot still. He said it comes from one distillery and is made with barley. But the real difference is they are one hundred percent pot-stilled.

The consumer in the future will not know what a pure single rum is technically, but they will understand that a pure single rum is a different category than other rums.

On Rum Writing

Matt Pietrek:    For rum educators and writers like me, what would you like to see us do better?

Luca Gargano:   I don’t want to spoil you, but I think you, along with Cyrille Weglarz and few others, are among the most productive. First, you are traveling, looking with your eyes. You also do historical research. And especially, you go a little bit more deeply. When you want to know something, you go deeply inside. I would like all rum writers to have an approach of knowledge.

I was the first. I have a long history, and I started at eighteen years old. The [wider] interest in rum is now ten years old, so it’s necessary sometimes to go deeper. Little by little, people like you will understand completely. It’s very important that you speak with professionals [producers] to find the reason why something happens or why something tastes like it does.

Luca Gargano
Luca Gargano

Matt Pietrek:    When you select rums to bottle, you seem to focus on the heavier English style or the French agricole style, and not so much the Spanish style. Does the Spanish style not interest you as much?

Luca Gargano:    I invented the colonial classification in 1993:  Spanish style, French style, and English style. I added at that time Demerara style. In the last ten years, I’ve come to understand that they mean nothing. Spanish style doesn’t exist. French style doesn’t exist. Mainly the French could be agricole from the column, but there are also grand arôme molasses rums. For me, it’s not the right classification.

With English style, yes, you have a lot of double retort pot still, but you also have a lot of multi-column. You have so many different things. In what is called Spanish style, there are unfortunately very few artisanal producers today. Very few.

There are some, like for instance Diplomatico, that are very nice because they have a kettle still, a pot still, a Vendome pot still, a Barbet single column. Potentially, they could do well. The problem is that in the ex-Spanish colonies, there are not a lot of artisanal producers still producing.

Matt Pietrek:    So, it may sound obvious, but when you select what you’re going to focus on, you’re really focusing on the artisanal rum?

Luca Gargano:   I try to find the quality. The quality of any spirit must first be found in the raw material. Secondly from fermentation. But then a big difference is that if it’s a batch distillation, you cut the heads and tails. Then, if it’s well aged, you can have a very good product.

But if I have a very good raw material and distill it in a multi column, I have ethanol. In my opinion, it is impossible to do a good spirit from ethanol.

Matt Pietrek:    Consider Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club, as well as Bacardi. They do a blend of a very high proof multi-column, blended with lower proof aguardiente. You would not consider that good?

Luca Gargano:   But they use mainly multi column continuous distillation. I hope they can come back [to the old ways].

I imported Caribbean Club from Cuba. The ex-Spanish colonies, they added other products. This was a tradition, so they were a bit sweeter.

Today, if you want to compete with a single malt, a top cognac, or a top Bas-Armagnac, that approach is not the right way. But they could be good rums for other purposes, understand?

If we speak for the best rums that one day can compete against single malt, I don’t think [Spanish style] approach is the right way. But that does not mean there’s no space for non-pure single rum.

Elevating Rum

Matt Pietrek:    What’s the most important thing big prestige rum brands need to do to help rum get the respect it deserves?

Luca Gargano:   First of all, I think rum is a very flexible spirit. You can cover many, many areas. Last year at U.K. RumFest I said that the seagull should not be jealous of the eagles. What I mean is that there will be space for everything. The mainstream consumption will be [just] rum.

Then there is a category of certain rums that are among the best spirits in the world. Surely the artisanal distillation is the most important thing. You can’t think to produce ethanol, and then have a great aged spirit. So first for me it is artisanal. Artisanal is also colonne creole- agricole. There are so many different alembics.

Then I must work to be honest and truthful. So no sugar. It has to be [just] rum. Fermented and distilled sugarcane, molasses, syrup.

People should understand that four years is a very good age for a rum. It’s because of tropical aging. You don’t need twelve years. It will be a very good business. I hope that next year Bacardi or Brugal will buy a nice pot still, or another type of a batch distillation, and make a good profit. In four years, you have a fantastic product to sip.

Matt Pietrek:    You said earlier that Independent bottlers should not use the distillery name on their bottles. That it muddies the waters about what is a true Caribbean rum, which includes topical aging. But people want to know where it was distilled.

Luca Gargano:   No, excuse me–It’s not possible. If I buy fresh Macallan and I age it in New York, Do you think that you can say, “Distilled at Macallan” and call it Scotch single malt? You’re going to jail. So why do you say you want this [disclosure] for rum but not for whiskey?

What is important to understand is that the AOC, which comes from the culture of wine in France and Italy, is not born to protect. It’s born to recognize a quality, a specific quality of a product. You understand?

The parmigiano reggiano regulation was not born to protect the parmigiano reggiano. The regulation was born to say: “What is parmigiano reggiano?” You must produce it in this area, in this village. You need to have to have this characteristic. This is the parmigiano reggiano.

Secondly, if somebody tried to do parmigiano reggiano elsewhere, I can protect my product. All the GIs, all the Appellation d’Origines were not born to protect. They were born to recognize a specificity.

We don’t speak about the quality, but if you age in Barbados, or you age in Argentina, or you age in Italy, the product will be completely different.

Matt Pietrek:    It’s not the same product.

Luca Gargano:   You understand! So, it’s not Barbados rum [if it’s aged outside of Barbados]. It’s so clear! I don’t understand. We have this understanding for other spirits, so why not for rum?

For me, it is because we are still at the end of the colonialist era. This is the truth.

The Velier Connection

Matt Pietrek:    How did you become associated with Velier?

Luca Gargano:   Velier was born in 1947. It was a very, very small company.

Separately, I started to work while very young, at eighteen years old, in a company named Spirit SpA. It was the biggest Italian importer, with Ballantine, Cointreau, Martell, Pernod, Jim Beam, Smirnoff, and others. The old owner, Mr. Salengo told me, “Luca, in Holland after the second world war, people started to age rum. One day rum will be an important brand.”

In that company there was Saint James Rum. He told me, “You will be the brand manager of Saint James.” I was eighteen. I said, “Okay!” I did my research, and then I organized the first sales contest in Martinique. People said, “In Martinique? Boy, you are crazy!”

The jumbo, the 747, started going to Martinique in 1974. At that time, going to Martinique was like going to Antarctica today. I doubled the sales for Saint James, and I was eighteen years old.

I arrived for the first time in the Caribbean, in Martinique, before TV and the internet. The music. The girls. The palm trees. The wind. The small frog — “Cree, cree, cree.” I fell in love. I was eighteen. You know when you’re eighteen? I had no friends in the Caribbean that were from Italy. Since that moment, I was inspired.

And then when I was twenty-six, that year I was marketing director of this company. When I arrived, I had long hair. People looked confused and said, “Where is Gargano?”

After I refused a job offer as a marketing director for Fininvest TV company, I wondered what I would do as an adult. I had foreseen that the company where I worked would be bought by a multinational.

I therefore decided to buy a small company like Velier. This is how I left Spirit SpA. I was the young marketing manager, marketing director. So, I started my adventure with Velier. It was 1983.

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