Vaughn Renwick, CEO of WIRSPA : “We are stronger together”

Vaughn Renwick is the CEO of WIRSPA wich stands for West Indies Rum Producers Association. This organization promotes the West indies rums through the ACR (Authentic Caribbean Rum) label but also coordinates the implementation of quality and environmental friendly standards throughout the region. Vaughn gives us here an insight view of this key player in the rum world.

Vaughn Renwick, WIRSPA CEO

Rumporter :  Vaughn, do sometimes people misplace the h in your name 🙂 ?

Vaughn Renwick: Ha! Indeed, all sorts of things happen in the (mis) spelling. In Barbados, where WIRSPA is based, ‘Vaughn’ is a common surname. After many years of living here I’m still listed as Renwick Vaughn in many official documents.

Rumporter : You are the appointed CEO? Director? of WIRSPA?

VR:  I’m the CEO. I came to WIRSPA in 2003 after a career working for the government of Grenada and in the regional secretariats. They wanted me to run a big investment project whereby rum companies matched grant funds to upgrade equipment and systems. The grant scheme was part of a larger program that included promotional support to build brands and the development of the Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque. Its objective was to strengthen brands and reduce reliance on bulk commodity rum.

WIRSPA Technical Conference /LBDS Alcohol School, Dominican Republic 2019

This program was a step change for the industry, under it new fermentation systems, pot and column stills were installed, and in one case a complete new distillery. Many new ageing warehouses were built as well as bottling lines and associated services.

There was also a big emphasis on better environmental management, including waste treatment, and better energy utilisation – like co-gen turbines. Over the 7-year life of the project we supported over 300 projects in virtually all the rum companies.

Rumporter: WIRSPA which is one of these organizations that public hardly know but that are important for rum. What is WIRSPA?

VR: Essentially WIRSPA brings together the rum distillers in the independent Caribbean. From Suriname and Guyana on the South America continent, through the independent island states in between (Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts, Antigua, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Haiti) up to Belize in Central America.

Each country gets its representative on the board of directors, but also every single producer gets to participate in all our board meetings. So it’s very open. We take all decisions by consensus – I don’t think WIRSPA has ever had to vote on anything. We meet as producers generally twice per year, rotating meetings amongst members.

As CEO I report to a board of directors through an executive committee. At this moment the representatives on the executive committee are the heads of Demerara Distillers, Appleton, Mount Gay, St Lucia Distilleries and the Rum Association of the Dominican Republic. Of course, the executive committee meets more often.

WIRSPA Technical Conference /LBDS Alcohol School, Jamaica 2018: [L-R] Vaughn Renwick – WIRSPA CEO; Graeme Walker – Scientific Director, Ethanol Technology Institute; Evon Brown – former Director of WIRSPA and former Head of the Jamaica Spirits Pool and Spirits Trade Association (retired); Angus Ballard – President and General Manager, Lallemand Biofuels & Distilled Spirits (LBDS); The Hon. Audley Shaw – Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries in Jamaica
Rumporter: When was WIRSPA created?

VR: The first formalization took place in 1971, so we’re 50 next year. But even before that the large distillers in Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad were working together to open markets for Caribbean rum. It’s down to these early efforts that our iconic distilleries in these countries survived and prospered to become well-known brands. In the early days there were many tariffs and quotas on our rum entering Europe, the US and Canada, making it very difficult to build brands. The rum market is now reaping the benefit of the hard work of our representatives in those early days. Markets are now open to our brands, and all others.

“An early goal (of Wirspa) for us was to ensure that all products known as rum were the product of sugarcane distillation”

Rumporter: What is the main goal of this organization and where do you operate daily? What is the rhythm of meetings between members?

VR: An early goal for us was to ensure that all products known as rum were the product of sugarcane distillation. For instance, in those days there were all sorts of products in Europe called rum but coming from potato alcohol. From sugar beet. We lobbied hard in those early days of the EU, working closely with the producers in Martinique and Guadeloupe to have rum standards that respected the raw material and the origin. We have a long history of collaboration with the French producers.

Now these challenges are no longer such an issue but we’re still very concerned about authentic origin and transparency in labelling, especially in relation to age claims and flavouring. We’ve been lobbying the EU on these issues long before they came to the attention of the public.

We also have a strong program of technical exchange. We have at least one technical meeting per year, and a technical committee that addresses things like our common standard. This is an important forum for sharing best practice and experiences.

Rumporter: When it comes to the label ACR, which is highly acclaimed, could you give us the rules that its members have to respect ?

VR: We developed the Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque in 2005, as a mechanism to educate and promote the WIRSPA ‘family’ of brands. It would be a common Marque but respecting the individual brand identities and heritage story of individual brands. Complementary, not duplicative. We ran two very successful communications programs to the trade in 2008 – 2010 and 2012 – 2016 to educate persons about our proposition – authentic origin, common rum rules, and like Europe, observation of minimum age standards and no flavouring of rum permitted. We hope to restart our education project in the near future.

Essentially to be Licensed you must observe our common Caricom rum standard and have your base of operation in the region. Compliant brands are licensed, and in most cases, this would be the export brands of our member producers.

Rumporter: How do you ensure they are following the rules?

VR: When we first launched the ACR Marque we did a thorough compliance assessment of production processes and ageing practices and we also conducted some lab tests. Not all products made the grade. Since then we engage producers directly on a regular basis (we’re not a large group) and we take action when we think there are problems, or if a report is made. But we also have a tradition of customs control over our production and ageing stocks – this helps us to ensure our minimum ageing rules are followed for instance.

Rumporter: Can you be a WIRSPA member and in the same time not an ACR certified rum?

VR: By and large most of our member producers are ACR licensed, though not all. Some of our smaller producers do not export and are still progressing towards compliance with the Caricom standard.  The license is related to specific brands though, not to an entire company.

Rumporter: Is there a solidarity fund of some kind shared between your members to fight against Covid?

VR: This is a challenging time for our producers. In some countries alcohols sales were actually banned for many weeks. Nevertheless, as companies rooted in our communities, we have been able to avoid layoffs. As the pandemic spread our distilleries became key players in supplying alcohol and hand sanitizer for health and essential services, as well as consumers. In many cases our producers made substantial donations of these products to the health sectors and other workers on the front line.

Rumporter: We know WIRSPA has some small members, some more well known than others…

VR: Yes, we have a diverse group of large producers ranging down to small and artisanal producers. Most well-known perhaps might be the River Antoine Distillery in Grenada. We spend a lot of time supporting the smaller producers – particularly in the area of technical advice. We’re lucky enough to have several persons retired from the industry – master distillers, engineers and even master blenders – who can support these producers. Whether its re-building a pot still furnace stack for River Antoine, advising on the specs for a new fermentation system in Suriname and a new still in Belize, or moving rum blends into compliance with our standards – it’s an ongoing program and actually one of the most fulfilling parts of the job!

“We’re stronger together”

Rumporter: We’ve also read about your action to change labelling?

VR: Indeed – but to backtrack a bit – we have to acknowledge that in our countries we have a serious problem with non-communicable diseases – things like diabetes, heart and liver disease. These chronic diseases are having a massive impact on our people and health budgets are very strained. We also have to accept that the over-use of alcohol is a major causative factor for these diseases. All this to say that as rum producers we need to play a part in supporting a cultural change in how we use alcohol – towards responsible drinking and more moderate consumption.

This realisation has resulted in a renewed focus within our group – we developed and adopted a new code of practice for responsible marketing of our products, and we also made a commitment to upgrade our labelling in our home markets (where regulation is scant). Our home market labelling will now feature serving information (number of measures in the bottle and calories per measure) as well as advice logos warning against drink-driving, underage consumption and drinking in pregnancy.

In this we are ahead of most of the international alcohol labelling regulation and we’re happy to see some of our smallest producers (like St. Vincent Distillers and Travellers in Belize) already implementing the recommendations.

Rumporter: What is at your agenda for 2020/21?

VR: Prior to the pandemic we had some exciting plans for this year! A brands exposition in Guyana is now delayed to 2021, probably around May. All our brands should be there, and we will invite enthusiasts, influencers and potential business partners.  As you know Guyana is the home of Diamond Distillery of Demerara Distillers, it’s an iconic location. Our big technical conference, postponed in 2020, will also occur a year later in October 2021. It’s a supplier showcase and as well we have serious technical workshops which we think makes it an unmissable event! We’re also looking to expand our membership in the Caribbean. We’ll be inviting many of the rum brands from Caribbean countries not currently part of our grouping to join the family. We’re stronger together.

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