Luca Gargano and Jamaica, a true romance

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If there is a key figure in the rum world, that person is Luca “Ruruki” Gargano! The introduction into the French and European markets of new Yardies bottled by the Genoa-based company has given us an opportunity to find out more about the love affair Ruruki has had with one of the most beautiful Caribean islands…

Luca Gargano

Damien Sagnier: Hello Luca. In terms of rums, the Velier company has made a name for itself by selecting DDL (Demerara Distillers Limited) rums. A little later you went to Trinidad to embark on the much-talked-about Caroni adventure, then to Marie-Galante for Rhum Rhum, to Haiti for Clairin rums, and now it’s Jamaica! As a matter of fact, you often compare those last two islands. Tell us about your first trip to the land of reggae.

Luca Gargano: First of all, I should like to point out that I am not just an independent bottler. I’ve always worked towards adding value to products made by distilleries ever since I started in 1991, when we bottled the Bally 1970 Reserve Cantarelli with Bally, or when I discovered the Damoiseau 1980 in 2000. And then I continued when I did all my selections of single mark Demeraras.

I was the first to have single cask rums and single mark rums bottled, often at cask strength, after a number of years of tropical ageing. My approach is therefore the complete opposite of that adopted by traditional independent bottlers, some of whom have never set foot in the Caribbean and have always ordered their products by email from Europe. I have created a completely different relationship with producers, who have learnt over the years to know me and appreciate the way I work to add value to their products.

I’ve been going to the Caribbean for 40 years, and it’s been a privilege to do my job and discover talents by visiting warehouses to find unique products. It’s been a pleasure, or even a duty, to bottle such eaux de vie, helping people understand that pure single rums and single blendeds are handcrafted treasures that easily compare with the best distillates.

Jamaica is the last island I’ve discovered, visited and explored on my “journey among barrels”. When I acquired a stake in Velier in 1983, the only Jamaican rum that was sold in Italy was Appleton – Worthy Park had temporarily shut down, and Long Pond, Monymusk and Hampden only sold in bulk.

Historically, Appleton had been imported by Soffiantino, an import company based in Genoa that was later bought up by Wax & Vitale. My family was on friendly terms with Soffiantino, so I had no reason to go and trespass on their market in Jamaica. I only set foot on this superb island in the early 2000s and, in 2005, when Worthy Park resumed distillation, I immediately entered into a correspondence with them.

It was only after 2010 that I started travelling often to Jamaica. I have to say that, if you go to off-touristic places, you’ll find an island that’s still authentic, with its own culture, and where, therefore, as is the case with Haiti, you can still feel that you’re really in the Caribbean. 

Luca Gargano
Photo © Luca Gargano

D.S.: What was the first Jamaican rum that made an impression on you?

L.G.: I’ve had the opportunity to savour a 1970 Wray & Nephew… Few cases had been imported into Italy and that’s when I realised that rums, like dogs, can take after their masters. If I had to describe this rum today, I’d say it’s a hybrid of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt.

D.S.: In the late XIXth century, there were about 148 distilleries in Jamaica. Unfortunately, very few archives exist and nobody really knows the highest number of distilleries there can have been on the island. Currently, there are only 6 distilleries left: Long Pond, Clarendon/Monymusk, Worthy Park, Appleton, New Yarmouth and, finally, Hampden, which is your particular favourite. Why do you think Hampden could become a similar phenomenon to Caroni?

L.G.: You have to bear in mind that there are two types of Jamaican rum. The first is continental flavoured rum, also known as Trelawny rum (ed. note: it owes its name to Trelawny Parish, an area where the sugar industry was historically very present), and it’s long boasted the highest amount of esters in the world. There are only two active distilleries left in that area: Hampden and Longpond.

The second type of rum is lighter, and Common Cleans, Wedderburns and Plummers pertain to that category. The incredible thing is that Trelawny rums have always been considered as the best rums in the world but, so far, they’ve never been bottled officially by their distilleries! They’re like truffles that haven’t been served yet. That being said, I want to point out that Hampden is not my particular favourite: I love all kinds of pure single rums from Jamaica.

Luca Gargano
Photo © Luca Gargano

D.S.: One of the commonalities between Guyanese rums and Yardies is the existence of many different “marks”, i.e. symbols that were each specific to a certain distillery and period, the meaning of which distilleries themselves sometimes ignore for lack of archives… You recently made discoveries regarding this, right?

L.G.: Yes, this is true. And all the credit goes to Haroon Chisti, an amateur historian who’s based in New York but has Jamaican roots. He’s the most passionate person I’ve ever met when it comes to Jamaican rums and their history! He’s granted me the privilege to have access to his research concerning marks used by Jamaican distilleries from 1885 to the present day. This is a gigantic body of work, and a truly enriching, fascinating database.

D.S.: Another commonality with Demerara rums is that, when a distillery shut down, the distillation equipment was taken to pieces and then reassembled at other distilleries. Similarly to what you did with marks, you carried out research into these transfers, I think?

L.G.: Correct. In fact, in the colonial era, the influence of which is still felt today, rum was always dealt in by European traders, who sold it to blenders who, in turn, made their own brands. Back then, rum was sold by the barrel, not by the bottle, and you could tell different barrels and different types of rum by their “mark”, a signature printed at the bottom of the barrel. Traders and blenders could recognise a rum by its aromatic profile and, therefore, by its mark.

But the interesting thing is that they could be unaware that the PM mark, for example, came from Port Mourant. They could perfectly recognise the aromatic profile of a PM and know for each mark the number of barrels they wanted to import to make their blends and, at the same time, not know exactly where it came from. When distilleries started closing down in the first half of the XXth century, this clearly became a problem, because there was a risk of not being able to fill blenders’ orders.

If active distilleries had the same distillation equipment as the ones that had shut down and knew about their production methods (must density, fermentation type, distillation time, etc.), they could also reproduce their marks! If the mark had been used by a distillery that had unique stills such as Port Mourant, Versailles or Enmore, the only way to reproduce the mark was to come by their still.

The history of marks in Demerara is fairly well known nowadays, but that of marks in Jamaica much less so, although it is just as eventful. Over the past years I have dedicated myself to a historical account of the reproduction of Jamaican marks. For example, many of the recent marks used by Monymusk and Longpond are in fact reproduced marks that were used by former distilleries. In the coming years, many marks from distilleries that have shut down will be made available in the market in limited edition, and I can’t wait to implement this project, in the same way as what we did for Guyanese rum in the early 2000s.

D.S.: Since 2015, your Habitation Velier line showcased on several occasions rums distilled by Hampden (LROK, HLCF, LFCH) and Worthy Park (WP, WPM, and various Forsyths). I suppose your name and background can open a few doors when it comes to visiting storehouses and negotiating. What was the selection process like with these distilleries?

L.G.: For sure, my background allows me to have access to things that others don’t. But repute or money aren’t everything. You also need knowledge, a good assessment of the market, a bit of luck, time for tasting and, most of all, audacity! Things don’t just fall into your lap: it may look commonplace but it’s not, far from it. Beyond that, my process is fairly simple: I make my selections by physically going to distilleries, forming relationships with distillators and tasting samples directly from the barrel.

D.S.: On Velier’s 70th anniversary, your company and LMDW released the Hampden, a blend of five 7-year-old barrels dating back to 2010. But this event also allowed you to bottle the extraordinary R.A.S.C. 1954 in collaboration with Giuseppe Begnoni. What’s the story behind this variety?

L.G.: In 1980, the British Royal Navy sold their stock of flagons (ed. note: stoneware vessels with wicker casing) to raise funds for the Sailor’s Fund. Giuseppe Begnoni, one of the most serious whisky collectors in the world, acquired a few flagons, and I also had some in my private collection.

To celebrate Velier’s anniversary, we thought it would be a good idea to combine our stocks and bottle this very good Jamaican rum from the 1950s. Subsequently we shared all 58 of the produced bottles, which resulted in the RASC batch as a tribute to the Royal Army Service Corps.

Luca Gargano

D.S.: Your next Jamaican releases will put the spotlight on Long Pond, a distillery managed by a consortium consisting of 3 entities: the state-owned National Rum of Jamaica (NRJ), DDL’s Komal Samaroo and Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand. Can you present these rums for us?

L.G.: First of all, there will be four NRJ varieties: a Cambridge 2005 STCE (the mark stands for “Simon Thompson Cambridge Estate” and refers to Cambridge Estate, a distillery that shut down in 1948), a Long Pond 2003 TECA (the origin of this mark is unknown, although it was probably that of a former distillery in Tilston, in Trelawny Parish, but nothing is certain), a Long Pond 2007 TECC (same comment as that on TECA) and a Vale Royal 2006 VRW (VRW stands for Vale Royal Wedderburn, a mark used by the Vale Royal Distillery, which shut down in 1955).

The first three rums are “High Esters” and the fourth one, as its name suggests, is a Wedderbrun. These are the first official bottlings of rums distilled by Long Pond and aged at the distillery! Later there will be a fifth variety, a Long Pond White labelled “Habitation Velier”, distilled at 87.7% and bottled at 62.5% with 674 g/hlpa esters. All of this will normally become available as early as this September…

D.S.: Last year, you reportedly bought from Hampden their entire stock of ageing rum, which represented a little over 2500 barrels… And we know how much you love tropical ageing! The question is: Will these barrels stay in Jamaica, at Hampden or Innswood (a former distillery converted into a gigantic storehouse) for example? Or will they be sent to La Providence, your new storehouse in Haiti?

L.G.: I must clarify matters concerning Hampden. The rumours that have been circulating haven’t all been accurate. It wasn’t me personally who bought Hampden’s stock, but LM&V (a joint venture between La Maison du Whisky and Velier) that bought the global distribution rights for Hampden. This puts an end to the colonial era and, for the first time in 265 years, Hampden will sell its aged rums. The distillery itself and the “Hampden” brand still belong to the Hussey family and their company, Everglades Farm Ltd. Of course, all barrels will age in storehouses at the distillery in Trelawny. We have other projects in mind for La Providence…

 

D.S.: Do you already have an idea of how you’re going to bottle these Hampden rums: single cask, vintage blend, full proof…? Or maybe nothing’s been decided yet and you’ll just follow your instinct judging by how each barrel has evolved?

L.G.: For the time being, Hampden has decided to sell two versions of the same product, that is, a 7-year-old High Esters, which will respectively be bottled at 46% ABV and 60% ABV (ed. note: the much-talked-about Hampden Estate bottles that have recently appeared on the Web, with a green label for the reduced version, a yellow label for the full version, and a crocodile on both). A Distillery Edition will also be produced, using a different blend with different marks. It will only be sold at the distillery and on special occasions in Europe. In the near future, single cask rums will likely be introduced, and each will have its own country of distribution.

D.S.: According to you, can production units be in a strong enough position to offer tropical ageing in the near future? Or do they have to, at least for now, sell their stocks via independent bottlers?

L.G.: I think that the colonial era has come to an end. Scotch whisky, cognac and mezcal brands would never allow people to use their designations for products that haven’t been aged and/or bottled at their place of birth. I can’t see why things should be different with rum! Now, there’s an economic situation to deal with, and not everybody will be able to establish their own network.

D.S.: Because of its history, process, reputation, myths and legends, character and mode of distribution, Jamaican rum has its own specific style in the rum world. Although it’s been acclaimed over the past years by many connoisseurs, things are still fairly abstract and vague in people’s minds, as is evidenced every day by posts in Facebook groups, whether French-speaking or English-speaking. Do you plan to release a book similar to your Atlas du Rhum but devoted only to stinking rums?

L.G.: It is true that Jamaican rums have been on a roll! My new book entitled My Rum should be released by the end of the year. It’s a sort of autobiography detailing my journey among barrels, and obviously there will be a section devoted to Jamaican rums. But the idea of a book exclusively devoted to Yardies can’t be dismissed, because this is a wide-ranging subject and a significant chapter in rum’s global history.

 

 

 

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