TBY talks to Winston Harrison, CEO of National Rums of Jamaica, on its iconic distilleries, changes in strategy, and opportunities for the sector.

National Rums of Jamaica owns iconic distilleries in Jamaica; how do you plan to leverage these assets?

National Rums of Jamaica comprises the Long Pond Distillery, which has been in operation for over 250 years, the Clarendon Distillery, which has been in operation for over 100 years, and Innswood Distillers Limited an aging and barreling facility. Among those three facilities, we make some of the finest rums, for which we have won several awards. Many people from across the globe come to tour the distilleries to document our rum-making process, which is published in various magazines. The rum fermentation process is unique and cannot be replicated due to the local environment and many other indigenous properties such as yeast, water, wood, materials, and so we are unique in each facility. We produce some of the finest and most exotic rums in this hemisphere and recently started a more precise marketing drive in Europe and Canada, and are working to establish ourselves in the USA. We are also in conversations with potential customers in the Caribbean, Latin America and China. The bulk rum also makes us unique and bulk rum represents around 90% of our business. We produce rum and ship the product in containers to other major distilleries, where it is re-blended and bottled. We are in the process of moving our business more in that direction to capture a piece of that higher-value market.

What changes in strategy are you implementing as the head of National Rums of Jamaica?

I joined the business in 2017 and part of my mandate is to take us along the branded route in a more substantial way, widening our footprint in Jamaica and internationally. We want to prove to our customers that we also have an excellent finished product they can enjoy. We have five expressions; top-of-the-line Special Reserve, around 10-12 year old rums; Classic Gold rum, which is lower priced; Special Gold rum, which is a bit further down the market; White Over proof White rum, which is 63% and very strong; and Whispering Breeze, a flavored rum, which is coconut based and has gotten great reviews from a taste perspective. We also have aged stock up to 15 years old, as markets are changing and people place great value in aged premium rum. The idea is to expand even further and create more blends. I keep referencing to the quality of the rum that we produce and we recently had additional proof of this. We decided to take part in the annual Miami rum festival, which takes place during summer. We took the Special Reserve and the Classic Gold Rum to the festival among around 110 competitors and we won gold awards to our two products. I was attending the festival with one of my colleagues and because it was our first time, we did not even have a booth to display our products. This event attracted a lot of attention to our products and we are thinking about including the gold medals on the label of our products. One of our major achievements this year was to re-open the Long Pond distillery after a four-year closure; in the Clarendon distillery, we can process 12 million liters per annum whilst in Long Pond we can produce 1.0 million liters of alcohol per annum. We have worked hard with the regulators and stakeholders to ensure that the Long Pond distillery could be re-opened in July and it has allowed us to re-engage customers in Germany and other parts of the world. We are already well known in Canada and are working to get into the US and UK markets. Jamaica is world renowned because of its rum and from the days of the pirates of the Caribbean, we have been a rum nation.

What are the challenges and opportunities of producing rum in Jamaica?

One major challenge, one could argue, is the issue of authenticity; companies place a little rum in a final product and claim it is from Jamaica. We are a part of the Spirits Pool Association and the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Organization, and they assist in classifying what is called rum, from all perspectives, including a geographic value indicator. A beverage cannot be called rum if it does not have certain components. Rum has evolved into a real industry and certain rules and regulations have to be placed around the industry to protect it. We get around 60% of our molasses supply locally while the other 40% is imported. We do not want to import but there is not enough sugar being produced locally. While it is not directly a rum challenge, it affects us. A local company, Caribbean Molasses Company, centrally buys the molasses from sugar factories and imports if necessary, and different rum companies pull their allotment from the pool. It ensures that each of us does not have to make individual negotiations. It has its benefits; however, there are more opportunities than there are challenges and that is a good place to be. Jamaican rums are essentially sought after in international markets, and there is an opportunity as a country to establish ourselves in a more macroeconomic way, enlisting government support in terms of simplifying tariffs, duty structure, and how rum is dealt with in general. The rum industry does create foreign reserves given that a large part of our business is exported, and we are constantly bringing foreign exchange reserves into our economy. We do not sell so much of our products locally because we are only 3 million people and there are several billion consumers across the globe and that is the market we should be looking at, rather than focusing on the local market. I am positive and upbeat about the future and I would like for all of this to be underscored by responsible drinking.

What are your goals and objectives for the coming year?

If I can achieve an increase in our branded rum business from 10 to 20%, then half of my job is done, because it is a higher value chain. That is one of our main goals for the coming year. Currently, we outsource our bottling, and the plan is for us to do that in-housein a few years' time when we reach the right critical mass. That would mean an expansion and hiring more staff. We as a team need our excellence to permeate every aspect of our business and we encourage that sentiment in the company.