Once upon a time in Trinidad

The old Caroni sugar factory was never intended to make rum history. The workers there first distilled molasses over a century ago — likely in the 1910s but records are patchy. At that point it became one of a dozen or more sites in Trinidad making rum as an adjunct to the local sugar industry. As the decades passed, Caroni distillery enjoyed relative success and expanded operations with new pot and column stills. Its rums even gained some repute among blenders, most notably those with the Royal Navy who favoured heavy marques for the daily tot. Caroni rum was sold on the open market during its lifetime under unassuming names like ‘Special Old Cask’ and ‘Superb White Magic’.

The sugar industry of Trinidad and Tobago limped into the new millennium on good will and favourable subsidies, but by that point it was ready to collapse. Predicting the worst, the government sold its stake in Caroni Ltd. and in 2002 the distillery was shuttered for good. Though it was a great loss to the local economy, few in the spirits world noted its passing. The remaining stocks were locked in the warehouses and nature quickly moved to reclaim the distillery buildings.

The Lost Casks

For years, the fate of those final casks hung in the balance as liquidators struggled to determine their true value. Was it not for a few happy twists of fate, what remained of Caroni might have been totally lost – sold as bulk stock and blended away into anonymity. But what those who sampled those final vintages quickly realised, was that the staff at Caroni had for decades, without any recognition, been producing truly remarkable rum. In that boarded up distillery, potential buyers like Luca Gargano of Italian bottler Habitation Velier and John Barret of Bristol Spirits saw an incredible opportunity.

There were different marques among what remained, but what interested them most was the heavy style that had leant essential ballast to old Navy Blends. Hallmarks of this style include aromas of petrol, diesel, plastic, rubber, and other industrial notes. Acquired tastes, certainly, but undeniably compelling. Also common to these casks are notes of orange, liquorice, olives, and smoke. Over the next couple of years these final casks were sold in bits and pieces. Some were sent to Angostura – Trinidad’s last remaining distillery – while others were exported to the UK by Bristol Spirits. What Velier could acquire was shipped to Guyana for further maturation in the tropics. It was becoming clear Caroni had the two essential qualities of a collectable spirit; it was totally atypical and there would never, ever be any more of it. As new bottlings appeared on the market and buzz around them grew, the rum world started to change rapidly.

Adventures in the Rum Trade

Isabel Graham-Yooll, director of online auction house Whisky.Auction, has witnessed first-hand the impact Caroni has had on the category.

“A lot of our most active clients have come via the whisky route. The way they look at rum is informed by that: they look for high quality, high spec rums, they look for rarity and individuality of style. Luca Gargano has located and bottled wildly different limited releases and small batches of casks that each have a strong sense of place. These have captured the imagination of collectors like no rums we’ve seen before. Caroni is just one of those but it’s a closed distillery that was overlooked in its lifetime. While some casks are still cropping up it remains very much a finite commodity. It’s a textbook example for collectability.”

The story of Caroni echoes that of Karuizawa distillery in Japan which was likewise overlooked in its lifetime and whose whiskies now fetch five figure sums at auction. Caroni has been called the Port Ellen of the Caribbean – including by such influential figures as Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun.com – a reference to the Islay workhorse distillery that was similarly elevated to superstardom after its demise. Examples like these ignited interest in whisky collecting by promising enthusiasts a chance to own spirits that are unusual, rare, and ripe for speculation. Caroni would go on to have the same effect of the world of rum. Its emergence on the world stage inspired many to think about the category in a new way and ask what other great rums were out there.

In 2019 a bottle of J. Wray & Nephew bottled in 1982 to honour President Ronald Reagan on his first and only visit to Jamaica earned a hammer price of £31,500 in an online auction. At the time, news site Spirits Business reported that another of the edition of 20 bottles had sold at Bonhams in New York six years earlier for just £1,213. An incredible testament to how much the category has changed in a few short years.

It’s All About the Liquid

Though Caroni looms large over rum collecting, sales like this show that it by no means defines the emerging scene. For Isabel at Whisky.Auction one of the things that makes rum so appealing is the variety it represents. “There are many ways to get into rum collecting. Some collectors focus on a particular distillery or era, others are loyal to one bottler, and yet others stick to closed distilleries and limited editions. You might be surprised how many sub genres of rum there are.” High-ester pot still rums from Jamaica, marques made using the famous wooden stills of Guyana, and vintage single cask releases form Barbados all have their fans.

With such variety available, would-be collectors might feel spoilt for choice. For Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of The Whisky Exchange, picking what to collect should always come down to quality. “I am a liquid person and as such I don’t look at country, age, vintage, or bottler. Any rum that is small batch or a single cask that is good liquid will prove itself over time.” Though prices are slowly rising, and competition for new releases is growing, there’s a sense with rum that there are still discoveries to be made and bargains to be had. Getting into rum collecting now could well mean picking up that bottle— perhaps something overlooked or underappreciated — that proves itself in the future. There are no guarantees, of course, but what is certain is that it’s an exciting time to get into rum.

Bacardi Santiago De Cuba

“There are Bacardi collectors who like to track down every historic variant. The multi-national brand has been produced in so many countries over so many decades for different markets, through changing fashions, not to mention politics. I want to taste them all! I’d love to trace 150 years of rum history through just one brand.” – Isabel Graham-Yooll

Lemon Hart & Sons Rums circa 1940s

In 2019 wine critic and collector Charles Metcalfe discovered a parcel of Jamaican rum bottled by Lemon Hart & Sons in the 1940s in his cellar. The collection of 11 bottles was acquired by his late father during his employment with the company following the Second Word War. “We’ve seen a lot of interesting rums at Whisky.Auction but my personal favourite was this one,” Says Isabel Graham-Yool. “I love the back stories about the provenance of bottles almost as much as I love tasting them.”

Black Tot 50th Anniversary

Bottled to commemorate the day in 1970 when the Royal Navy issued its last rum ration, this edition of Black Tot comprises aged rums from around the Caribbean. “Some collectors believe that blended rums are less collectible than bottlings from a single distillery, but I don’t agree with that” says Sukhinder. “As I said previously, liquid is the most important thing. This will be remembered long into the future. I am extremely proud of the team that created Black Tot 50th Anniversary.”

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