Talking Rum with DDL’s Sharon Sue-Hang

In September 2019, Demerara Distillers Ltd (aka DDL) brought me to Guyana to tour their facilities and meet key members of their staff. I came away with many things to share, which I’ll spread out over several stories. While there, I conducted several interviews. The first one was with Sharon Sue-Hang, Director of Quality Assurance at DDL. Among Sharon’s many tasks is overseeing the blending for DDL’s many rums.

We talked about the challenges of managing so many different distillates for a wide product line, how limited releases impact things, DDL’s use of caramel over the years, her personal preferences in rum, and many other topics.

Matt Pietrek:  Rums from countries like Jamaica and Martinique are known for their distinctive flavor profile. For you, what are the defining characteristics of Demerara rums?

Sharon Sue Hang: The defining characteristic of Demerara Rum is its fruity floral notes. I call them estery aromatic. Those are the kinds of notes that are known for Demerara rums. We feature quite a diverse range of rums, from light to medium to heavy bodied.

Matt Pietrek:  What are some of the innovations you would like to bring to DDL’s rum making?

Sharon Sue Hang: In the last four or five years we began producing special cask finish rums, here we store our rums in select wine casks to see how it would impact the flavor of the rum. We’ve done this for our El Dorado 12 Year Old and our El Dorado 15 Year Old. We’ve even done some for our single cask, Single Still Rums. These are the kinds of innovations that we’re doing, and we hope to look at new blends in the future.

Matt Pietrek:  In the enthusiast community, there is a lot of love for the distillates from DDL’s vintage still. Independently bottled versions of rums from the Port Mourant and the Versailles stills are quickly snapped up. Also, the El Dorado 12, 15 and 21 are recognized as having great component rums from your heritage stills. However, many enthusiasts wish for versions that are less sweet. Do you see value in this and a way to cater to those preferences over time?

Sharon Sue Hang: It depends on the person that is enjoying the rum. Some people like more fruity, aromatic flavors, estery, and that’s present in some of our rums; whereas other persons prefer more pot-still, robust, sort of peaty, tarry kind of notes. It depends on the audience. El Dorado is fortunate enough to have a wide range of rums to choose from that can appeal to many taste profiles.

Matt Pietrek:  Historically, some Demerara rums are believed to contain a fair amount of caramel, which in turn imparts a distinctive flavor. For instance, the old British Navy rums. However, in modern times, we’re told that a little bit of E150 goes a long way and has a minimal impact on flavor. What are your thoughts on caramel in Demerara Rum, both in the past and currently?

Sharon Sue Hang: The tradition goes back two hundred years. Historically, our rums were aged with caramel which was made by us here in Demerara.

Matt Pietrek:  Would you say that caramel has been historically been part of the Demerara flavor profile

Sharon Sue Hang: Yes. We produce a wide range of rums for different purposes and in the past, our caramels did add to the flavour.

Matt Pietrek:  Among enthusiasts there’s a trend for pushing towards nothing other than barrel aging. No other flavor influence other than what the barrel itself adds.

Sharon Sue Hang: Yes, we recognize that trend and specifically for our El Dorado rums we have made a change to the way we use caramel in aging. Traditionally our rums were aged with caramel.  We no longer age with caramels for our Eldorado blends. Caramel is now used specifically for coloring

Matt Pietrek:  As a blender you have a vast palette of rums to work from. You’re charged with making a wide range of products, from El Dorado three year, up to very limited expressions like the El Dorado 50 and single still releases.

How do you manage your stock to ensure that you can make your current releases, but allow future improvisations and expressions?

Sharon Sue Hang: We have a very strict system of managing stock. We actually do a 25 to 30 year projection. It’s amazing that we’re trying to project what’s going to happen 25 years from now. We age based on that projection for that specific marque, but we also age the marque separately. If there’s a change, we can use that same marque on something else. It gives us flexibility. But projections are always long term.

Matt Pietrek:  Is the idea that you could project “We’ll have this much ten-year Port Mourant in 2025”?

Sharon Sue Hang: There’s forecasting in a way. We might say “There seems to be a growth of the 12-year product.” Then you put down the marques to make that quantity, plus 10 percent more.

You might not be 100% accurate, but it gives you a pretty decent idea of what’s going to happen. Then you keep adjusting as the years go by. If you know you’re using more, you need to replace more.

Matt Pietrek:  Do the special, limited releases impact your planning? Or are they so small that they don’t matter much?

Sharon Sue Hang: No. They’re very small. If we cannot afford it, we won’t do it. They don’t have an impact at this moment.

Matt Pietrek:  The most important directive is to preserve your mainstream products?

Sharon Sue Hang: Yes, that’s the idea. The core product line is the priority. Anything that you do limited would be for instance, some excess. Maybe your projection for a third party didn’t pan out; perhaps they over-projected and now you have extra rum. So, you might have ten or fifteen barrels that we could do something different with.

Matt Pietrek:  How much do you personally participate in the aging process management? Are you in the warehouse every day sampling barrels alongside that?

Sharon Sue Hang: I won’t say every day. But I do have a role to play in overseeing what goes into the warehouses, because I handle all of the distillates. Then I check periodically on the actual process. We also take samples from the barrels to make sure they’re going in the right direction. I’m quite involved in the sampling and the actual testing of products.

But if you don’t need to use it then you don’t just go and pull a cask down.

Matt Pietrek:  Would it be fair to say that over the span of fifteen years in a cask, you evaluate the rum within multiple times?

Sharon Sue Hang: Oh, yes. Multiple times.

Matt Pietrek:  Do you decide what type of cask a particular batch of rums goes in? And are these decisions made right after distillation? Where you might say “This rum should go in a more neutral cask” or “That rum should go in a younger cask.”

Sharon Sue Hang: I do have some say in that, but we have this down to a science, to some extent. We have a barrel policy. We know that for a given marque and the intended product, that we want it to go into a brand new, first use barrel, for instance. Then there are certain marques that we put in second or third use barrels. Our policy dictates pretty well how much product will come out at the end of the aging period.

Matt Pietrek:  How intensely do you monitor very old expressions, like the El Dorado 50 that has very old rum?

Sharon Sue Hang: First, if we feel that rum could go too long, and maybe lose a lot of it, you keep checking on it. The 50th anniversary is a blend of 33 to 50 years. We didn’t have enough 50-year rum to do the entire blend with it. But we would have had a talk; that we wanted to do something for the jubilee. We kept some of those old rums to see what would happen.

Matt Pietrek:  A special trophy casks set aside, in a way?

Sharon Sue Hang: In a way. Not from the minute it was put down. No one said “Oh, I want to use it 50 years from now.” But we had this rum, and we said, “Hey, let’s not use this cask anymore; just keep it and see what happens.”

Matt Pietrek:  How many different marques do you typically work with on a daily basis?

Sharon Sue Hang: Roughly ten to twelve for the El Dorado range.

Matt Pietrek:  If you were to make one rum for yourself to take to a desert island, and drink only that rum forevermore, what would the specifics be?

Sharon Sue Hang: I’ll have to cheat a little bit here; it would be mimicking our El Dorado 15 Year Old. It’s a rum that really represents rum. It’s special, with the notes present. I like the peaty-ness, the tarry-ness, the robust oakiness; the whole combination of flavors.

Matt Pietrek:  Would you change it in any way? Or would you want to leave it?

Sharon Sue Hang: I don’t think I would want to change it. If I have to be critical, maybe make it a little more pot-forward.

Matt Pietrek:  If you’re drinking El Dorado rums by yourself, do you prefer the higher proof cask strength versions or the lower ABV rums?

Sharon Sue Hang: I prefer the 40 percent. I find that the higher profile always has its own audience and its own occasion. I would still have to dilute it.

Matt Pietrek:  Similar to the prior question, Desert Island rum. If you could take only one distillate from one of the heritage stills, aged 10 or 15 years. What would it be?

Sharon Sue Hang: I would have to say the Port Mourant.

Matt Pietrek:  Who are some of the rum master blenders whose approach you particularly admire?

Sharon Sue Hang: Well, there are quite a few, but from Appleton, Joy Spence. She was the first woman there. Never met her personally, but based on my readings about her, I admire her ways and the product that she produced and innovated. I’ve read about some of the whiskey ones. And for Hendricks Gin, [Lesley Gracie] did a remarkable job going to the Amazon to find the special botanicals to get the Hendrick’s Gin. There are quite a few master blenders out there doing a good job.

Author: Matt Pietrek

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