In February 2019, I sat down with Spribam’s Benjamin Jones at the Miami Rum Congress to talk about all manner of wonky rum topics. Jones has been essential to bringing rhum agricole to the North American market over the past fifteen years – specifically the Rhum Clement and Rhum J.M brands. More recently, he’s spent a lot of time integrating St. Lucia distillers into Spiribam’s portfolio. Although not as omnipresent on social media as some rum industry luminaries, he’s deeply knowledgeable about today’s rum industry.
My recent Bevvy “Ruminations” column shares his thoughts about the revamped St. Lucia Distillers product lineup, including the new (outside of St. Lucia) Bounty offerings. However, we talked about many more topics that didn’t fit within the Bevvy interview: behind-the-scenes takes on the St. Lucia Distillers distillery upgrades; innovating within and outside the Martinique AOC regulations; the structure of Spiribam and parent company GBH; the influence of Richard Seale; sugar cane availability; how the Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai competition came about; his own family connection to the Rhum Clement family. Lots of interesting information to be found in Ben’s answers, so rather than leaving his insights on the cutting room floor, I present it here.
Matt Pietrek: Since acquiring St. Lucia Distillers, it seems like Spiribam has streamlined certain things, yet still has a broad spectrum of rums for all purposes—and, in some cases, expanded a product line. Tell us your thoughts about the evolution of St. Lucia Distiller’s brands.
Benjamin Jones: Our focus is still Bounty and Chairman’s. Admiral Rodney
is our complimentary product to Chairman’s and Bounty.
I admire what Richard Seale has done in this space, because he also produces a lot of different rum labels. Over the years Foursquare has become a brand. We don’t have any plans to mimic that, though. Richard trail-blazed for us a little bit, such that if we do our job with Bounty and Chairman’s and Admiral, hopefully St. Lucia Distillers can become a brand on its own, even if we won’t do a St. Lucia Distillers branded rum, like Foursquare’s. Richard is one of the strong guiding lights within our industry. He’s an authority, for sure, and I admire him for his staunch position on defending quality and authenticity.
Matt Pietrek: What are some of the major areas of investment Spiribam has made at St. Lucia distillers?
Benjamin Jones: I break it down into three phases. Last week I was in St.
Lucia for the groundbreaking of our two new aging cellars. Currently we have
more barrels outside under the sun than we have under a roof. So that was our
first, huge priority.
Next, while the distillery itself functions very well, it needs a lot of extra support. We’re investing into upgrades within the fermentation area and the yeast propagator.
So, aging cellars, distillery improvement, and production efficiencies. There’s a lot of investment going into the distillery: upkeep, maintenance, cleaning the vats, making everything easier to get to, and so forth.
The third part is tourist activities. St. Lucia distillers is the only distillery on the island. A lot of people coming to the Caribbean would really love to see a rum distillery, whether they’re really into rum or don’t care at all–it’s something to do.
Matt Pietrek: What’s Spiribam’s approach to rum tourism in Martinique vs. St. Lucia?
Benjamin Jones: St. Lucia and Martinique are very different. Whereas Martinique has eight smoking [operating] distilleries to go to see, and ten or eleven that you can visit when you count ones that aren’t active. There’s a tremendous amount of competition in Martinique to capture the tourists.
That is not the case in St. Lucia. The culture is more open to a stronger tourist-driven economy. The island is littered with a variety of all-inclusive resort experiences, for one example. If you go there for a week and want to slap a wristband on your wrist, eat all you can eat and drink all you can drink and lie on the beach, go nuts! But if you want to take a time out from all that and visit a genuine rum distillery, one of the best in the world is down the street.
During the high season, between three and four cruise ships a day come to St. Lucia. And by accident, with no real planned out rum tour, we were still seeing between 40,000 and 45,000 tourists at St. Lucia Distillers.
To put that in perspective, in Martinique where there are eight distilleries to visit with organized rum tours, Rhum Clément is the number one most visited tourist destination on the island with around 200,000 visitors per year. We have far less tourists coming to Martinique, and we have a much more competitive market share for rum tourism.
In St. Lucia, the tourist economy is so much stronger, and we have this one great distillery. All the tools are there. We have an opportunity to welcome visitors for an educational rum experience, with the rich historical backbone of the rum and sugar industries of St. Lucia. The plans are in the works!
Even many locals in St. Lucia don’t know much about what’s going on at this distillery. I hope it helps them take national pride in their distillery and the local rum industry. I think it will be a home run when we get this finished– but it’s like a long-term project.
I hope by 2024, we’ll see a hundred thousand people come through St. Lucia Distillers. The island has the visitors and we have the rum.
Matt Pietrek: Are the AOC and EU labeling rulings too restrictive in your opinion? We’ve seen at least one non-AOC labeled rhum from Clément.
Benjamin Jones: There are many non-AOC rum labels and you will see many more. Look, all of the producers in Martinique–and of course Clement and J.M–respect and cherish what it means to have the AOC badge on our bottles. But speaking for our brands, sometimes we stretch our legs and see what other great rums we can make that may not fit the profile of the Martinique AOC. Many other producers in Martinique also release a diversity of non-AOC products. For us, we may determine that the AOC approval is irrelevant for the product, mainly because we feel that we can sell it just as well, based upon the strength of the brand or concept, such as the Armagnac, Calvados, and Cognac J.M cask finishes. We know the customer who will buy this product because they are our fans. It’s a unique product and extremely limited!
Matt Pietrek: Thinking about the AOC and its production constraints, where do you see the next wave of innovation in the French West Indies coming from?
Benjamin Jones: Outside of the AOC–Rhum Arrangé! But that’s a whole different conversation and a more infant segment in the rum universe than Rhum Agricole. But within the AOC, that really depends upon the producer. What’s fascinating is how all these trends happening in the United States have already penetrated Martinique, including small micro-craft distilleries. We have one now in Martinique. Do you know that?
Matt Pietrek: You mean A1710?
Benjamin Jones: Exactly. That would be a perfect example of a huge
innovation that is completely outside of the AOC. Double distillation, pot and
column, the cane they’re cutting and how. They decided to totally scrap working
within the AOC and they want to make their own rum their way. And you see what HSE
is doing with all their cask finishes?
We’ve seen now that the AOC has modified the regulations. You’ve seen Claudine Neisson-Vernant, the former head of the AOC, leading that charge. Recently we have seen changes such as increased diversity of variety of sugar cane varieties and more land has been allocated for sugarcane for AOC rhum. Demand is growing for Martinique Rhum, but the island’s production capabilities can’t stay in step.
There’s a lot of discussion about some of these restrictions. But I think where the barrier to that is when certain producers want to do something that’s more unique to their own brand profile, i.e. a portfolio of cask finishes. Or the craft distillery that wants to do different types of distillation. Then it’s like, “Well, this is the way we do this. This is tradition.”
It’s not a question of a way of life. It’s just something unique to you. You made a decision, an exceptional one, to do something for your brand. That’s fine, but it’s not AOC.
Matt Pietrek: There’s been some confusion when looking at the AOC and the EU regulations about whether sugar is allowed in Martinique rhums. What’s your take? Is sugar legal in an AOC rhum?
Benjamin Jones: No, it’s not. Scant amounts of natural caramel for color can be allowed for the sake of color consistency in a blend, but this is caramel without sugar.
Matt Pietrek: Are Rhum Clément and J.M constrained by cane availability?
Benjamin Jones: We are deeply involved with the development of our brands. To support our passionate ambitions, we have purchased more efficient equipment and secured surrounding land to cultivate more sugarcane to meet our needs. Having our own sugarcane, and the means to make the rum even better, only makes our future brighter.
Matt Pietrek: It’s business.
Benjamin Jones: Business is business, and that’s what it is.
Matt Pietrek: Does all the J.M and Clément distillate go to the brand? Is any rhum sold in bulk?
Benjamin Jones: No bulk. Nothing. Not even from St. Lucia. St. Lucia used to do some bulk rum. We don’t do bulk for the sake that we need the liquids and we keep our brand equity. This is a strong “no” for me.
Matt Pietrek: Do you think a blend of Martinique and St. Lucia rum could be acceptable and viable?
Benjamin Jones: Yes. I do believe that would be delicious. However, we have no plans to do any inter-island collaboration. St. Lucia is already doing some stuff with sugar cane rum. You’ve had the new 1931, and there’s cane juice rum in that. Just from tasting that part, I think it’s totally viable.
Matt Pietrek: Can you explain briefly how Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH) and Spiribam are related? People know about Clément and J.M, or they may even have heard of Spiribam, but they don’t know what Spiribam is. Is Spiribam its own thing or part of a bigger corporate structure?
Benjamin Jones: Clément makes rum and J.M makes rum. Spiribam is simply
our own intermediary that takes the rum to market. Previously, the Spiribam
name didn’t mean anything to many people. I had opened Clément USA as a
subsidiary to Spiribam, and at that time Rhum Clément was the only brand we had
in the market. We had always used Clément USA in dealing with our partners.
However now that we have more brands and another island, the Spiribam name has become
Spiribam functions as the sales, marketing, and distribution unit for the GBH spirit brands. GBH has become relevant in the rum industry with its recent developments in the category. Therefore, the name Spiribam I guess has become more meaningful.
Matt Pietrek: How did the Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai challenge competition come about? St. Lucia rum hadn’t been associated with the Mai Tai. What was the thinking?
Benjamin Jones: I have always
understood the Mai Tai to be a misunderstood cocktail, but also one of the most
popular rum drinks. I became more fascinated as I began to pal around with my
peers and developed friendships with people like Jeff Berry.
Jeff always used Clément VSOP as the Martinique component in his Mai Tai. I know the cocktail very well as using Martinique rhum, an English-style Jamaican rum, plus an orange liqueur. We were already in the Mai Tai conversation with the Martinique brands. Adding the English-style rum component to our portfolio was a naturally a great fit outside of the Mai Tai, and of course a perfect fit for a cocktail we already were educating people about. I like to joke that we should grow and export mint, limes, and produce an orgeat.
When we decided to give a facelift to Chairman’s and get behind it, we already had the Clément ‘Ti Punch Cup competition in our repertoire. I saw the Mai Tai as a phenomenal opportunity to attach a cocktail to Chairman’s Reserve. However, I wanted to proceed with caution because historically it was always a cocktail with Jamaican rum.
Yet I was scratching my head, thinking, “How come Appleton hasn’t done this yet?” And they’ve had the opportunity to do so. I dialed up Jeff and asked, “Am I totally out of my league to do this?” He said, “No, it’s fine. It’s similar style rum, a similar-style profile.”
So I went to St. Lucia and presented this strategy to a committee, saying “Look at this opportunity!” Nobody in St. Lucia, as well as my colleagues from Martinique, really knows very well what tiki or Mai Tais are. I had to start at the beginning and explain the whole thing.
The idea was to attach our brand to the cocktail and activate the bartending community behind Chairman’s. To really appreciate Chairman’s style and how it’s made, and to begin to help define Saint Lucian style rum. We’re not trying to reinvent the recipe from 1944 saying it must be made with Jamaica rum. But open your mind and look at it this way: It’s a natural step of tweaking and modernizing a cult classic while staying within the original DNA of the recipe.
Benjamin Jones: I was born in the United States, but my mother originates from Martinique. As an only child raised by a single mother whose family is split between Martinique and France, I spent the vacation time with my mother traveling between France and Martinique.
Martinique was always a great destination to go to and deeply rooted in my family. Both of my grandfathers came from Martinique, and then some of the family split off to France. I have a nice long lineage from Martinique that I’m very proud of. From a very young age, I appreciated this special heritage, and surely rhum agricole is part of the heritage of Martinique.
Not that I was sipping on Ti punch when I was six years old, but I was around it, and absorbed the rituals and culture of how people welcome each other into their house. Of course, it was very fascinating that my great uncle was Homère Clément [founder of Rhum Clément].
My great grandfather’s sister, Marie Mélin, married Homère Clément. So, with this lineage, my mother and uncle grew up with their cousins. This was a very close family connection in Martinique for generations.
I didn’t expect when I was going to school that I would be in the rum business. For different reasons I landed in the beverage alcohol business. First, just as a job because it was interesting, I worked for a microbrewery in Portland, Maine, as a brewer. It’s a well-known and I am proud to see the brand thrive.
But at that time it was the owner, another couple guys, and me. I really learned from a first-hand perspective. I did handcraft and saw production through A to Z. I saw a man– the owner of Allagash– who was extremely passionate with his own craft and his own product. It was very inspirational to be a part of that during the early days of that product. That experience left a very strong impression on me.
At the same time, I was bartending, working at a successful, well-known place. I had a lot of opportunities early on with the bar and the wine list. From that experience, I got a job with an Italian wine company in Italy, working for some large wine cooperatives selling bulk juice to huge brands that you see every day in the supermarket. However, these were cooperatives wanting to develop their own brands with their premium juice they kept in reserve for their local market. These wines were the great quality of their respective regions.
That was my first foray into brand management and brand development. From that, I started an importing company in the United States basically to incubate some of these premium wine brands.
After I started the importing company, I heard rumblings that Rhum Clément was trying to come into the United States. It was with a natural and organic enthusiasm to jump in and get involved. I am not sure what the GBH leadership had imagined for how Rhum Clément would come back to the USA, but I had the support and confidence of Marcel-André Clément, who encouraged me to take the familial torch and re-launch Rhum Clément in the United States, which finally came to fruition in 2005.
Matt Pietrek: Marcel-André is the relative you had mentioned who assisted you, correct?
Benjamin Jones: Marcel-André Clément is Homère Clément’s grandson and is the same generational level as my mother. He has always remained close and has always represented Rhum Clement throughout the Caribbean. Previously, when Rhum Clément was in the United States during the ’70s and early ’80s, he managed the US market.
The Hayot family and the Clément family go back multiple generations. They’re two well-known families in the Le François area of Martinique and know each other very well. There was a lot of faith and trust between them. It was a very simple and easy conclusion that it was a good idea to have someone with a Clément family bloodline driving the Clément business in the United States. Of course, I was very, very proud because this was my background that I already cherished. This was family genealogy and a great rum that I was raised already with the passion, energy, and enthusiasm for.