Nicholas Feris is a multi-talentend man – pharmacist, photographer, blogger and barman. Along with others, he led the revolt that called for a boycott of the Nicaraguan brand in 2016.
Rumporter : Who are you? Where do you work? Personal background, etc.?
NF: My name is Dr. Nicholas Feris. I currently work as a pharmacist at Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy for my day job. I have a Doctorate of Pharmacy from the University of Washington, am residency trained at Swedish Medical Center and have 15 years’ experience in the medical/pharmacy industry.
I also started Seattle’s first rum society, The Rum Collective, the longest running in the USA. I’ve hosted over 50+ educational rum tasting events, which have been directly responsible for hastening the entrance of dozens of rums into Washington State, Michigan and Vancouver, BC. My photo-journalistic work on my websites have been featured by Forbes, NY Times and Fox News as well as in French food magazines. I regularly judge rum and rum-cocktails at international competitions and am one of the founders of the International Rum Council.
I co-authored a recent book published on rum, titled Explore Rum and do consultant work for cocktail bars & restaurants locally for my business, Rum Spoken Here, LLC. My website and social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) receive tens of thousands of visitors worldwide each month.
R: How have you heard of the Chichigalpa CKDu Epidemic?
NF: I read articles on this epidemic in the Guardian and Vice several years ago. Here are those articles:
R: There are still lots of questions on the cause of this disease and its dramatic spread in this town (région). Though no study yet has clearly connected it with sugar cane harvesting. What made you stand out against Flor de Cana? On what basis?
NF: First, your question is formulated with incorrect information and I will have to clarify your misunderstanding of the association between CKDnt and sugarcane worker conditions (see attached document from CENCAM). There actually is conclusive evidence showing a direct relationship with work conditions associated with Sugar Cane Harvesting and development of CKDnt and death. The document attached discusses exactly this, which was issued in response to the misinformation being communicated by SER/NSEL/William Grant & Sons during their USA tour.
I am passionate about rum, a promoter of quality rum and advocate for the category. Flor de Cana is made from the molasses, a direct byproduct from the refining of sugar from sugarcane harvested by workers of SER and NSEL. Flor de Cana Rum is a product which is made directly from the molasses produced from their sugar cane harvest. Many of those workers, who have harvested sugarcane, are suffering and dying from CKDnt associated with their poor work conditions & worker’s rights. Flor de Cana is a rum (which as a rum consumer and advocate, I have a certain responsibility to discuss) that happens to be directly associated with the harm and death toll in Nicaragua.
R: The company claims they have invested a lot in research toward a solution, in social welfare, in information and improvement of the workers’ labor conditions. What makes you doubt that?
NF: I highly doubt that because there is not one single independent, evidence-based, medical journal article or other publication citing a reduction in significant endpoints, specifically incidence of CKDnt and Death over any period of time that SER have made claims about improving work conditions. There is absolutely no good evidence that the money SER/NSEL are spending or the improvements in worker conditions they profess to be implementing are actually reducing harm or death.
Secondly, they have verbally denied, in person, my questions citing human right’s reports of child labor (<16yr) working in the fields, firing workers for talking with media, working conditions (little to no water or breaks, long duration of work (12 hours) or failing to document employment leading to absence of securing social security benefits). Further, they have also threatened a local Seattle publication, SIP Northwest, for an article I was interviewed in, to remove or correct my quotations and add “their side” to the story. Below is the article:
R: How did you stand out « against » Flor de Cana: social media? The press? lobby groups?
NF: I organized, promoted and directed the largest multi-site fundraiser to raise money for PASE in the USA. I have communicated directly with people from SER, William Grant & Sons (FDC’s importer in the USA), PASE, CENCAM and prominent photo journalists, such as Tom Laffay about this issue.
I have been vocal on social media to create awareness of what is happening in Nicaragua and responsibly cite Flor de Cana’s direct association with poor work conditions which are harming and killing sugarcane workers and their families in Nicaragua.
R: How have the communities around you reacted? I am thinking of your digital social network, your customers and of course the famous bartenders community.
NF: My community in Seattle, WA has responded very supportively. I had strong support from many talented, world-class bartenders, Jim Romdall, Jason Alexander, Anna Troeh, Jason Marusic, who volunteered their time for my fundraiser. I had restaurants and music venues donate their chefs and space respectively.
I had dozens of rum brands (Clément, Damoiseau, Rum Fire, Chairman’s Reserve, Ron Cartavio, Appleton Estate, Plantation, etc.) and private business donate to the fundraiser and support the idea of improving work conditions and awareness about this issue. Most everyone reacted very positively to helping the sugar cane workers get help and representation via PASE.
R: Have any officials of the Pellas Group (including brand ambassadors) contacted you after your call for a boycott? How was their approach (aggressive? educational?)? Were they convincing?
NF: I have been contacted by Charlotte Voisey, Director of Brand Advocacy at William Grant & Sons USA and Carla Palazio (Directora Ejecutiva – SER / Grupo Pellas). They were very friendly, warm and wanted me to understand what SER was/has been doing to help. I have nothing bad to say about them. However, I feel it was more of a PR mission for Flor de Cana than anything else.
R: I recently asked the question, should we boycott Flor de Cana?, to Ian Burrell. His answer was: « if we boycott A then we have to boycott B, C … D and all those who purchase molasses from Nicaragua”. What is your opinion on that assertion?
NF : I look up to Ian Burrell as far as Rum is concerned and have learned much from our brief periods of time together. However, I am surprised by and will respectfully disagree with his response. If other rum brands are buying molasses from NSEL, which is directly associated with the harm and death of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua, then those brands should be held equally accountable for supporting that silent epidemic too; those brands should be boycotted the same as Flor de Cana.
While being a representative for and supporting rum is the role of an ambassador, I feel that there needs to be an element of social responsibility involved, which brands need to be held accountable for. By addressing topics like CKDnt and sugarcane workers’ rights and their direct link to Flor de Cana, we can all help raise the category of rum, to improve work conditions and reduce harm. It is not a game of favorites or equal treatment, it is about choosing the right thing to do. Just because other brands are supposedly buying molasses, doesn’t mean we should look the other way and ignore Flor de Cana and the harm their rum is associated with in Nicaragua.
Seriously, to put this in context, if multiple people are assaulting another human being, do we ignore the abuse just because of the number of people causing the harm? Absolutely not! It doesn’t matter if it’s 1 or 20 people hurting someone else, the right thing to do is to help reduce the harm and intervene to help them out. I will state this, other brands would do well to choose a different supplier of their molasses because one, it is the right thing to do and, two, it is difficult to repair a damaged reputation.
I mean, we are talking about people’s lives here! Why support and align with a company that is responsible for so much harm? There are other sources of molasses, which rum brands should look at, that don’t have the irreversible association with death.