With their book Rum Rebels, published by Mango, Martyna Halas and René van Hoven give us the portraits and struggles of women who have become master blenders (Joy Spence for Appleton, Lorena Vasquez at Zacapa, Stéphanie Dufour, cellar master at Dillon & Depaz…).
An essential book, which shows that women are taking an increasingly important place in the world of rum, that they can be very talented producers, but that there is still a lot to do in terms of gender equality. Meet the authors of Rum Rebels.
Why did you decide to dedicate your book to rum women?
Rene van Hoven: In 2012, I published a book about Zacapa rum from Guatemala, and one of the chapters was dedicated to their master blender, Lorena Vasquez. In 2020, Mango Publishing contacted us through our website, inquiring if we’d be interested in writing a bigger story about Lorena. The concept quickly evolved to include other female master blenders that we were aware of at the time. Mango loved the idea, and the rest is history!
Martyna Halas: Women in spirits are largely underrepresented, which is why it was important for us to interview multiple female rum producers from around the world. We even branched out and included other sugarcane-based spirits like charanda and cachaça.
The stories of these women touched our hearts, and their determination, passion, and work ethics deserve to be seen. We hope to inspire other girls and women to pursue careers in rum.
Are there more and more women in positions of responsibility in the rum industry? Are there enough of them?
Rene: The number of women in the rum industry is growing, the same as in the whisky world. But is it enough? If there are 51% women on this planet, why doesn’t each job have that same percentage? Since figures tell us that women are actually better tasters than men, that number should be higher.
Martyna: Since we’ve finished our manuscript, we saw various announcements of other women getting promoted to these roles (for instance, Nancy Duarte becoming Santa Teresa’s first female master blender).
That’s excellent news, of course. However, there’s still some work to be done. It’s not just about nurturing diversity and encouraging women to pursue careers in rum; it’s also about making the workplace less hostile and more friendly for women.
What are the obstacles they face?
Martyna: Almost every woman we interviewed had a tough time proving their expertise to their male colleagues. They had to work very hard to earn their respect and go to extraordinary lengths to convince them that they were not a threat.
There are also other issues that many women struggle with in the industry, such as the lack of access to funds or even sexual harassment. At the same time, our Rebels are active champions for other women and children in their communities. They all stress that having access to mentors, positive role models, and proper education is vital in removing some of these obstacles.
How did you choose the rum professionals featured in your book?
Rene: We started with the contacts that I already had in my professional network. As an international wine and spirits judge, I already knew of a few companies with female master blenders. We also connected with others through common friends. Diversity was important to us. We wanted to feature producers from all over the world, making rum of different styles.
What is the contribution of women in the rum industry?
Rene: Like with a lot of things, women have a different approach to rum, and therefore, they may give it a feminine touch. I think female master blenders bring more balance and elegance to the product for sure. Taste is a personal preference, of course, but for me, having women involved in rum production is a huge plus.
Martyna: I think Stéphanie Dufour, cellar master of Dillon & Depaz, said it best: “Rum producers can benefit from both traits: men go for impact, and women focus on the longevity of flavor.” Every person is unique, so bringing all contributions to the table can only enrich the industry.
We can already see the legacy of our Rebels, who have completely repositioned and revamped their companies to award-winning, premium, or luxury brands. For instance, look at Lorena and her contributions to Zacapa (refinement of Solera system, moving aging facilities to the mountains, or using pineapple yeast, among others).
Is there a style that could be described as feminine in rum and cocktails? In wine, we talk (often abusively) about feminine and masculine wines, is this transposable to rum?
Rene: We discussed that with all our master blenders, and their answers were diverse. Some say rum is rum; others believe women bring more finesse to the product. Legacy products that have already existed for decades are a bit different, of course. These need to remain consistently the same, no matter who makes the rum.
I think modern creations of female rum makers indeed have a feminine twist. Every master blender wants to put their personal mark into their rum, and it’s a biological fact that men and women perceive tastes differently. Sadly, some men don’t want to drink a “female” rum because of their limitations and prejudices. That’s their problem because they miss a lot!
Martyna: It’s funny that you mention the negative connotation of feminine drinks because it can transcend into everyday culture. Miriam Paola Pacheco of Casa Tarasco in Mexico told us that her product, charanda, usually comes with the feminine gender in Spanish (la). However, the authorities and local producers prefer the masculine article (el) because it indicates better quality to them.
This limited way of thinking is precisely why we wanted to write this book. It’s part of the bigger problem in the industry that sees women as less capable. As we worked on this book, we discovered that “feminine” could describe a specific taste profile. For instance, Carmen López de Bastidas of Ron Carúpano sees tannic notes as a masculine element that she personally dislikes.
She says feminine rum is more balanced, smooth, refined, and even magical. So, perhaps we shouldn’t think about masculine vs. feminine, but yin and yang: complementary rather than opposing forces. And in the end, it’s all a matter of preference!
Tell us a little about yourself? Who are you, what is your background?
Rene: Decades ago, I started in economics and law, but working with just numbers was boring to me. Therefore, I changed my course drastically and became a fully trained chef in hotels and restaurants.
From there, I started to learn about wine, which led to spirits. Rum has always been my favorite drink, but I wanted to learn about all spirits. So, as we speak, I am a Liquorist and have a WSET diploma. In 2000, I got invited to come to Barbados to be a judge in Tim Forsyth’s rum festival, and since then, I have been a spirits judge on five continents in many competitions.
Each year I also judge wine at the Michelangelo competition in South Africa. I am proud of that since not many people can do both spirits and wine on a judging level.
Martyna: I am very new to rum, so it’s interesting how our backgrounds and passions came together to create this book. I’m a musician and freelance journalist. I love craft beer, and through Rene, I grew more and more interested in rum as it seemed a natural progression for my palate.
I also accompanied Rene to various spirits festivals, such as the German Rum Festival in Berlin or Salon du Rhum Belgique in Spa, where I helped him with his vintage rum stand (Rene’s Rarities).
I fell in love with the relaxed, happy vibe that rum brings, but I quickly noticed that you’d be more likely to meet a scantily-clad hostess than a female rum producer at these festivals. Gender diversity is something I feel passionate about as a singer and writer, so partnering up with Rene on this book was a no-brainer.
What are your tastes in rum?
Rene: My taste of rum is… rum! Daily emotions make me shift from dry to sweet; I am absolutely not restricted to one brand, country, or style. All of them have good and bad variations, which is normal.
I usually prefer still rum made of fresh sugar cane, but in my collection, I have all sorts of bottles from all over the world. If you don’t try things with an open mind (yes, I talk about the anti-sugar fanatics!), you are also not open to receiving the whole character of the drink.
Martyna: I am currently exploring rhum agricole as I love fresh sugarcane juice and its lovely, juicy aroma. And, I’m sorry to say, cachaça stole my heart (oops!). Charanda is one of my favorites as well. However, on days that I feel like something “deeper,” I gravitate towards a good Demerara.
Available on March 15th