Rum

Richard Seale’s vision of affordably priced, “honest rum” has created a frenzy within the spirits world.
story: Matt Pietrek
photo: Gayle Seale

As Peak Bourbon rolls on and Johnny-come-latelies hurl themselves at the latest Pappy and W.L. Weller releases, another ultra-premium spirit category has sprung to life. Dismissed as unworthy of serious attention by most spirit aficionados even five years ago, rum now finds itself increasingly targeted by hardcore collectors as well as “flippers”—speculators who snap up multiple bottles of bespoke rums to sell in the aftermarket at a significant profit.

With the recent arrival of rum books by noted bourbon author Fred Minnick and Scotch whisky expert Dave Broom, the bourbon and single malt crowd have been signaled that rum—or at least the right rum—is worthy of their attention.

Sensing a trend, some of the larger rum brands have recently created a number of limited releases with various spins, targeted at the educated collector. But Foursquare Rum Distillery, with its outspoken master distiller, Richard Seale, has quickly vaulted to the forefront, having been dubbed the “Pappy of Rum” in a nod to the hysteria surrounding it.

In 1926, the Seale family began buying rum from Barbados distilleries, blending and selling it under the R. L. Seale name, eventually acquiring other brands like Doorly’s (one of the cornerstone brands of the family’s rum business to this day). Then, in the mid-1990s, Richard Seale, the fifth generation in the family business, worked with his father to renovate a shuttered sugar factory into a modern Bajan distillery. Today, the Foursquare Rum Distillery’s capacity rivals that of Mount Gay, its island neighbour.

Although Richard Seale was the first in his family to distil rather than purchase rum, he had the advantage of learning in an environment exceptionally well-versed in how great rum should taste. As both master distiller and master blender, Seale sets forth a vision of honest rum—distilled in pot and traditional column stills and unadulterated with any added sugar or sweet wines.

“In the early days […] lots of additives were in play for local brands,” he says. “When we acquired the Doorly’s brand and learned the formulas, I was very influenced by the discovery that Doorly’s was pure.”

Seale’s rise to prominence began a handful of years ago with strategic missives posted in Facebook forums, like the Ministry of Rum and Global Rum Club, calling out the widespread practice of brands spiking their rums with sweeteners. He went on to cement his notoriety (or infamy, if you ask some show organizers) by his visiting rum festivals with his digital density meter in hand, taking ABV measurements of competitors’ spirits on the fly from the show floor. (One can make a reasonably accurate assessment of how much sweetening was added post-distillation by comparing the metered versus label-stated ABV.) Enthusiasts soon followed his lead, compiling their own lists of estimated sugar levels for popular rums.

Seale was also the first producer to take a page from the European independent bottlers such as Velier and Samaroli, who’d been making hay with cask-strength, single-distillery rums in the European market for years. (In fact, Seale has collaborated on several limited bottlings, such as 2006 and Triptych, with Velier, both of which Seale considers “pivotal” in the European market.) But whereas Velier rums have sold in an ever-escalating aftermarket in Europe, Foursquare is still emerging as a collectable brand.

The first Foursquare-branded Exceptional Cask Series release, 1998, landed in the market in 2009. The pipeline began to spin up with the 2014 release of the Port Cask Finish and Zinfandel Cask Finish expressions, which were well received by rum insiders. However, it wasn’t until his full-proof, ex-bourbon 2004 bottling, released in 2016, that he began to convert bourbon fans.

Daniel Walbrun, a Los Angeles bourbon collector, cites that bottling as a “gateway to rum for the uninitiated.” Florida-based bourbon collector Steve Leukanech echoes the appeal, also calling out the subsequent Criterion and Triptych releases. “The grip, depth, wood influence and higher proof of Foursquare’s limited-release rums are familiar ground for bourbon enthusiasts,” he says.

Another thing setting Foursquare’s branded releases apart from those of the independent bottlers is pricing, which thus far has been about one-half to two-thirds less than Velier or Samaroli. “I like to think we are giving the much-needed confidence to the buyer,” says Seale. “We’re trying not to overprice because we want to improve the image of rum.”

But the approachable price point has only added to the frenzy. While the rum market is far from high-end bourbon levels of insanity, the fuse is clearly burning. Collectors will often buy multiple bottles of a Foursquare release with the expectation that they can drink one and sell the others later at a substantial premium. Bottles are now showing up on the secondary market, with prices on Facebook and eBay at double or triple the list price. (Sellers are currently asking between $300 and $350 for Foursquare’s Triptych bottling, and up to $500 for 2006.)

“Buy it now and get extras for later or never experience them,” says Leukanech. “Now-or-never fever sets in.”

Still, this hasn’t led Seale to alter his pricing. “We certainly gain nothing by it,” he says. “The best way to counter [speculators] is to create mechanisms so that the genuine fans can get it at the official price.” To that end, Seale and his emissaries have personally hand-delivered bottles to rum aficionados around the globe.

Other brands have certainly tried to capitalize on Foursquare’s momentum. However, with few a exceptions (notably Appleton’s Joy bottling), enthusiast response has been lukewarm. “Mount Gay, Demerara Distillers Limited, Don Q and others have released either special or vintage-dated releases attempting to get in on the enthusiasm,” says Leukanech. “[They] have missed the mark because of proof, pricing—or the juice wasn’t really anything special.”

For experienced rum drinkers, spirits spending an extra year in a wine cask only goes so far in commanding an elevated price. Likewise, charging three times the normal price for a cask-strength version of a beloved rum leaves a bad taste with buyers who’d ordinarily snap it up at a reasonable premium. Foursquare laps the field by pairing quality with extreme transparency, reasonable pricing and a perceived personal connection to the distiller.

Enthusiasts are now primed to expect a steady stream of new high-end releases, both from Foursquare directly and through Velier. This year, buyers are already snapping up Prinicipia and Destino from Velier and anxiously awaiting Dominus, 2005 and Premise in the Foursquare Exceptional Cask Series. With Seale’s propensity to experiment and his vast supply of rum-filled barrels ageing in the Bajan heat, the future pipeline of collectable Foursquare releases seems assured.

“When you mix collectability with names like Foursquare and Velier and drop one of the best bottles of rum ever made, it’s inevitable,” says Walbrun. “The bourbon crowd is prone to jump toward limited availability, even if the underlying product is not great. But when the product is truly transcendent, you’ve got a perfect storm.”

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