A Chat With Dead Reckoning's Justin Boseley - Australia's OG Sailor-Turned-Rum Ambassador
The rum scene has been proliferating all around the world, with many new distillers taking up the challenge of producing not just good rums, but defining their own style. One of the regions with the hottest activity is Australia - a country that finds within itself areas that hold the unique ability to make ABV go up with maturation, not down.
Today, we have the fortune to get hold of Justin Boseley - the man behind the up and coming Dead Reckoning independent rum bottler, as well as rum distributor in Australia, La Rumbla.
We'll get him to share with us more on his time at sea that often inspires the hit bottlings we see from Dead Reckoning, that mystical "Australian Dry Ageing" phenomenon, as well as how he sees the brand he created evolving.
88B: Hi Justin! Thanks so much for doing this with us! You’ve been the captain of mega yachts, started your own distribution company La Rumbla, a combination of Rum and Barcelona’s famous La Rambla district where you had a real lightbulb moment, and now you’ve gone on to become a frontier Australian independent bottler of rums.
In this interview, we would love to introduce you to our readers, your philosophy to being an independent bottler, delve into the Australian palate and what makes it so unique, and of course, what Dead Reckoning has in the works for us. Let's get started!
Before committing himself to a life of rum, Justin worked aboard mega yachts which brought him to the Caribbeans, which as it turns out to no one's surprise held tons of great rum.
88B: Let’s start by telling us alittle about yourself and how you got yourself into the rum business, from billionaire mega yachts to La Rumbla and then Dead Reckoning.
Justin Boseley (JB): When I look back into how I got into yachting, this is not something I had set out to do, it was more of a in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time opportunity when I was visiting friends in southern France. Back in 2000, I had left Australia on a one-way ticket and had no real game plan other than to head over to Europe and see what happens.
Whilst living in Antibes on the French Riviera, luckily for me, after proving myself by working hard and getting the job done, I was offered a deckhand job on a privately-owned 60-meter mega yacht. I spent a brief period of my first yachting season working in southern France and Spain, which then culminated into doing an Atlantic Crossing and heading over to the Caribbean.
We would spend six months a year, every year, in these beautiful waters, usually with a few charters and the owner coming on board, but also with many months of downtime. In our downtime, we did what sailors do best - frequent bars and drink rum.
Unbeknown to myself, the 10 years that I spent in the yachting industry became my "Rum University". Drink by drink, bottle by bottle, Distillery by distillery, I was studying and learning everything there was to know about rum.
Justin's wife, Camilla, in a barrel ageing warehouse in the Dominican Republican, whilst on the hunt for more rum.
In 2006, my partner, at the time who is now my wife, and I were back in Europe and sitting in a bar in Barcelona on La Rambla Street - it was my lightbulb moment of “when I leave yachting, I’m going to become a rum importer”.
From 2010 till today, this is exactly what I have done, becoming one the largest rum importers and distributors in Australia.
The rum importing and distributing journey, led to me wanting more out of my chosen profession, so in 2020 I set out to create my own independent rum brand, Dead Reckoning Rum - "Dead Reckoning" being named after a navigation term used whilst working at sea.
88B: How would you describe yourself and what do you want to be most remembered for?
JB: I’d like to think that because of my extensive global travels, first hand and extensive knowledge of rum, and also the unique experience of working for the world's quirky yet extravagant billionaires, that I hold a very unique skill set.
Having seen firsthand what fame and fortune can do to people, I would like to think if I ever did reach the lofty heights of rum fame and riches, that I would never change from the grounded person that I currently am.
When I was on charter with rockstars, movie stars, Russian mafia and billionaires, I have all too often witnessed that money can buy you a mountain of rum but certainly doesn’t buy you happiness or friends.
88B: Being probably the only Australian independent bottler of rum, you’re the best positioned to tell us what the Australian palate is like, what flavors and profiles is most enjoyed in Australia and how has that been expressed in the rums produced and consumed in Australia?
JB: Whilst we have a small yet very dedicated hardcore rum geek group or society in Australia. Unfortunately, the vast majority of rum drinkers are many many years behind what would you would experience in Europe. When I say behind, I’m referring to their palates, which are still being educated. Molasses-based rums are by far the most popular in Australia, but SLOWLY they are warming to being introduced to cane juice-based or Agricole style rums.
88B: What would you say is the distinctive Australian rum essence?
JB: I think if we were to look back 25 years ago, there was a very well-defined flavour profile that you could quintessentially call "Australian". There were two main rum brands in Australia that ruled the roost - Bundaberg and Beenleigh, both located in Queensland. In a blind tasting you could pick them 10 times out of 10.
Fast forward to 2023, Australia has over 600 distilleries, many of which now distil rum and are reshaping and redefining what you would call an "Australian rum". Like our diverse and ever-changing cultural diversity, the same can be said for the types of rum that are being distilled here.
We are fortunate enough to have some extremely passionate and dedicated distillers that are replicating and experimenting with different methods from all over the world - cane juice-based, molasses-based , open-air wild fermentation, long fermentation, dunder pits, groundbreaking vacuum distillation,... the list goes on.
So with the diversity that we have, I think we are in a transition phase in Australia where you can no longer sip a rum and say yes, that is quintessentially Australian.
88B: Australia is a burgeoning scene that the rest of the world is just learning about. If you could segment the Australian rum scene, how would you segment it for a person who knows nothing about Australian rums? Could you tell us which local distilleries would fall under which segment?
JB: As mentioned, the evolving Australian rum scene means that currently, there isn't quite a distinct flavor identity.
In terms of production techniques, we very much still follow the roots of our British colonial ties with influences from Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Antigua...so forth.
Killik Distillery in Victoria stands out from the crowd in my eyes, not because of their distillation techniques, but rather their fermentation and end product. Taking a page out of the the Jamaican handbook, they use wild yeast, with a longer fermentation period, as well as dunder/muck pits and so their finished result is the high ester, super funky unaged sort of rum. Whilst they aren’t the only distillery in Australia that follows this method, I believe they are ahead of the pack. Nil Desperandum and Soltera rums follow suit in the use of long ferments, wild yeast, muck and dunder.
Killik applies Jamaican rum techniques such as the use of dunder, much and long fermentation. (Image Source: Killik)
Another distillery worth mentioning as a result of their distillation techniques is Bingil Bay Distillery in tropical North Queensland. They use a term coined as "sub-atmospheric distillation", otherwise known as vacuum distillation. To my knowledge, there are only three dedicated rum distilleries around the world using this in a commercial pot still operation - Foursquare's vacuum pot still being one, and the other is hidden away in the South Westerly Pacific Ocean.
Taking a page from gin distillers, Bingil Bay Distillery is applying some unique techniques to coaxing out gentler flavors in their rum. (Image Source: The Shout)
Vacuum distillation is a more gentle process, performed under reduced pressure and temperature, which allows the purification of compounds not readily distilled at ambient pressures. Well known to retain delicate flavours in gin, it is now emerging in rum distillation where it is proving to reduce the risk of caramelization while preserving the delicate flavours, complexity and aromas of the rum.
Put simply, it reduces the high temperature stewing effects. These new vacuum products are proving to be much smoother and cleaner than their counterparts. Further advantages include energy savings leading to environmental sustainability, and safer operations due to the low temperatures.
88B: You’ve spent years travelling around the world as a chief officer of mega yachts, what’s been the most interesting place you’ve been to?
JB: Without a doubt hands-down, my favourite place to revisit every year was the Caribbean. Its culture, flavours, sounds and tastes, people and beautiful locations will rival anything else you can compare it with. That feeling of being at sea for 14 days navigating a 300 foot megayacht from Europe, not seeing land or sometimes another soul other than your crew, arriving in a location such as English Harbour in Antigua - nothing can come close. You dock the boat, deal with the customs formalities, then head straight to a bar for a rum or three, like many seafaring generations had done before us.
The 115-meter mega yacht Justin sailed across the world.
88B: Most of us will never get to see behind the curtains, do tell us about a crazy experience onboard a billionaire’s mega yacht! Craziest experience out at sea?
JB: Each charter was like a day in a James Bond movie set, you never knew what you would see. I would love to be able to share some stories about some of our charter guests, but spreading rumours about the Russian mafia would not be a good career move of mine so I will focus the attention on something I can.
In 2005, I was working on a 52-meter motor yacht travelling from Miami back to Majorca in Spain. We hit a rather vicious low-pressure cold front system across the Atlantic which saw us battling Force-10 conditions, 100 km/hr winds and 50-foot waves.
The front of the vessel was disappearing, deep into crashing waves over the bow. With each wave we had a metre deep of green water passing over the bridge windscreen for 24 hours. This continuous battering ended up smashing the GPS aerials off the roof of the bridge, which normally sits 2 1/2 stories off water levels.
The yacht's bridge before all hell broke loose.
Without any modern form of navigation equipment in the bridge, we had to revert back to a compass and dead reckoning navigation.
The scene inside the bridge looked somewhat like a Chinese kitchen during a rushed dinner service.
Inside the bridge, we had gallons of water pouring out of the deck heads, all over millions of dollars worth of electronics. The call went out to the chefs in the galley and all available crew to bring pots and pans up to start collecting the water. The scene inside the bridge looked somewhat like a Chinese kitchen during a rushed dinner service.
It was decided that myself and a deck hand would climb up onto the bridge roof with climbing harness on and wet weather jackets, life jackets, and a small gas operated soldering iron.
The deck hand proceeded to wrap his legs around my waist and hold on to some stainless steel stanchions, whilst I soldered on a new GPS aerial onto the cable that was hanging out of the roof. In the conditions that we were experiencing, if either of us went overboard, the vessel would not have been able to turn around in the swell to perform a rescue.
"...if either of us went overboard, the vessel would not have been able to turn around in the swell to perform a rescue."
I managed to get the aerial soldered onto the cable, and I taped the aerial onto a broomstick wedged into a hole in the bridge roof. We now had modern navigation and continued on our chosen passage plan to safe and calmer waters.
Crazy times at sea calls for a healthy tip.
88B: Please teach us some navy slang that we can use during our drinking sessions!
JB: These are some of my favourites:
"Devil to pay" - Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with pay or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of ‘paying the devil’ (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was one of the worst and most difficult jobs onboard.
The term has come to mean a difficult, seemingly impossible task. ‘The devil to pay and no pitch hot’. Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to Satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.
"No room to swing a cat" - The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails.
*No cats were harmed, just humans.
"Slush fund" - A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called “slush” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.
"Son of a gun" - When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”. Probably a sanitised version of “son of a bitch”, despite the various folk etymologies.
Naval history plays a big role in Dead Reckoning's theme, not simply because of Justin's time chartering yachts, but even his grandpa had served time in the navy.
88B: A big theme for the Aussie spirits scene is the use of high quality wine casks that’s available given the major Aussie wine industry, you see spirits matured in all sorts of Australian wine or apera casks. How do you see this shaping the rum scene in Australia and do you think it’s what Australian spirits will be known for?
JB: Over the years, I have seen a greater use of maturation techniques using Australian wine, tawny and apera barrels. As you mentioned with hundreds of wineries in Australia, you would be foolish not to capitalise on this amazing resource.
Personally, I believe all rum should spend some time of its life in a bourbon cask, it is its foundation, but the use of secondary maturation and casks from wineries, gives you a greater flavour profile. If this becomes a growing trend amongst [Australian] rum distilleries, I think this may give us a defined edge and a sense of geographical identification in the global rum market.
Dead Reckoning has taken the liberty to capitalise on being in the vicinity of some great local Australian casks such as Apera casks for its Mutiny - South Pacific bottling.
88B: You’re in proximity of hundreds of wineries, what are you looking for when you’re going around choosing wine casks? How do we test for a good barrel?
JB: When I’m on the hunt for new barrels, I spend my weekends travelling to wineries. First sampling their wares, and then the conversation leads to "do you have any spare barrels that I can purchase? - namely the barrels that this wine came from."
There is no better way to see what flavour profile you might potentially get out of a barrel than tasting the wine that once occupied it.
"Barrels are like people, that all have their individual identity."
Another consideration is, where did the oak come from. Each oak will give off a different flavour profile and character, which may or may not suit the rum that you are intending to use it for.
Barrels are like people, that all have their individual identity. You can make 10 barrels cut from the same oak tree, and each of them will give you a slightly different end result.
I also check its stave joins and heads; the cooper’s craftsmanship, making sure all looks in order. Smelling the inside of the barrel will also give you a good indication of what flavour you’re likely to get out of it.
Beyond toying around with various blending dimensions, South Australia has been increasingly intriguing to rum fans for a phenomenon known as "Australian Dry Ageing" where the ABV of a rum can actually go up with age.
88B: Aside from wine casks unique to Australia, perhaps another point of differentiation is the climate in areas of Australia where, as spirits mature, the ABV can actually go up rather than down. Beenleigh was probably the first to use the term “desert ageing”. Do you think that should be a category of its own, on the same level as “tropical” or “continental” ageing?
JB: "Australian Dry Aged" - I'm often asked what is this that I put on my label. South Australia is one of the “very few“ geographical locations in Australia where upon ageing your rum you have a rapidly increasing ABV. The water molecules evaporate faster than your alcohol and you are left with a pure and intense flavour profile.
The angel's share losses alter congener levels and will also rise over the aging process due to the dry ageing. This gives more weight, richness and aged dried tropical fruit notes with great cuts and great oak.
Not only is Australian dry ageing a South Australian phenomenon, it is even postcode specific. Several distilleries located in the Adelaide Hills, only 30 km away from where I age my rum, do not experience a rising ABV.
"Not only is Australian dry ageing a South Australian phenomenon, it is even postcode specific."
South Australia’s climate can see 50 degrees Celsius in summer, all the way down to negative temperatures in winter, as well as a volatile yet low humidity rum-shaping climate. South Australia‘s wine regions have long known this fact and yet continue to produce some of the most highly awarded and sought after wines in the world. The flavour profile of Dead Reckoning's Australian dry aged rum is testament to this fortuitous phenomenon.
Coober Pedy exhibits the extreme climate conditions that South Australia holds. (Image Source: ABC)
Here’s an interesting fact: The world's lowest recorded relative humidity value occurred at Coober Pedy in the South Australian desert when the temperature was 93 degrees (33 degrees Celsius) and the dew point was -21 degrees, producing a relative humidity of 1%.
When I introduced a very well-known award-winning Barbados rum (Foursquare) to an ex-Seppletsfield tawny (port) cask at 50% abv, I had a 6% increase in ABV over 18 months.
With the evidence and information on hand, I definitely think there should be a ageing term called "Australian Dry Aged".
88B: You’ve previously talked about how in Australia, there's a 2-year rule that rums must be 2 years aged to be labelled as such, otherwise they are known as cane spirit. Yet, globally unaged rums are having a real moment, in particular high ester ones or Haiti’s Clairins. Do you think Australia will see a rise in appreciation for unaged rum produced locally, never mind what it is labelled as?
JB: The two year minimum age law came into affect in 1906, created to protect the local rum industry and hinder cheap imports namely rum verschnitt coming in and undercutting them [Australian rum] in costs. As I previously mentioned the hardcore rum geeks of Australia are very much enjoying the Australian distilled un-aged cane spirit that is currently on offer, as well as imports such as Clarins, [Hampden's] DOK, Sampan and Mhoba.
I still think it will be quite sometime before the bulk of the rum drinking population follow suit. It’s not a question of its name "cane spirit" vs "rum", I think it’s a gentle and progressive education of Australian rum drinking palates that is required before it becomes mainstream.
Australia's minimum 2-year rule means that unaged rum must be labelled "cane spirit". Yet, it's catching on with local rum fans. (Image Source: Husk)
There are a handful of Australian distilleries that are making some fine examples of un-aged rum, such as Husk, Devil's Thumb, Killik, Bingil Bay, Winding Road, Soltera, Jimmy Rum, Lord Byron and Cavu.
I think it’s a gentle and progressive education of Australian rum drinking palates that is required before it becomes mainstream.
88B: Let’s turn our attention to Dead Reckoning which you started during the pandemic. What do you enjoy most about being an independent bottler and what is the philosophy that guides your releases?
JB: What I enjoy is having the opportunity to source and scour the world for the world's best rums. Not only am I looking for finished products that I could bottle and label, I also have the luxury of finding rums that show potential. I know when marrying them with the correct barrels and ageing techniques, namely Australian dry ageing, that they will transform into highly sought after world-class rums.
My job also involves doing what I love most - sipping on and sampling rums and travelling the world finding new products.
In search of rum.
I also have to mention the global rum community that exists; the amount of friends you meet through this spirit category is phenomenal. Reaching out to people that have more knowledge or experience than yourself - they are always happy to offer an educated hand and point you in the right direction.
Let’s not forget rum is fun, and so are the personalities connected with it!
My philosophy is easy, I only release rum that I would be happy sipping on at home. I am my harshest critic. If it’s not up to standard, it won’t be going out in a bottle with my name associated with it. Unlike large companies, I only answer to myself. So I don’t have a board of directors or an accounting [team], or an uneducated marketing team screaming "make more profits".
88B: Could you lead us through how you’re thinking about growing Dead Reckoning? What’s the trajectory and the thread with which it’s taken from?
JB: The speed of and popularity of Dead Reckonings' rise continues to surprise me. Not only do releases in Australia via the Rum Tribe sell out in 24 hours, in 2022 I took on a distributor in Europe which will continue its distribution in 10 countries, and later this year towards the end of March it will be distributed in the US out of New York to anything up to 12 states. The brand's growth has come through demand from consumers, creating the need to fill shelves in bottle shops rather than flashy marketing campaigns and wishy-washy monsters-from-the-deep stories.
Justin tasting - I mean testing - rum in his backyard. His philosophy is simple, put out rum that he would be happy drinking.
Rum has such an amazing and colourful history; I see no need for brands to invent fictitious stories rather than presenting full transparency and truth as to what additives, such as sugar, is in their rum.
88B: I’m sure you have some exciting things in the works for 2023, could you let us in on them and what we should be expecting?
JB: When Covid hit in early 2020, I did what was at the time a crazy move to many people - I bought as much rum as I could possibly afford, importing it from multiple bulk rum distributors (E & A Scheer in Amsterdam and Main Rum Company from Liverpool) and distilleries from around the world, such as South Africa's Mhoba Distillery.
Now three years later, that investment in rum that has been sitting in barrels is coming to maturation and ready for release. This year, we will see no less than 10 different releases spread out in multiple markets, namely Australia, Europe and the US.
Dead Reckoning's Mhoba has been a fan favorite.
[You can expect] releases from distilleries in Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Australia, Venezuela, Guyana and the South Pacific. As well as interesting blends of multiple geographical locations will be thrown in the mix.
88B: Is there a distinctive Dead Reckoning profile that you’re trying to achieve or that is taking shape?
JB: Every Dead Reckoning release is completely unique and unlike any of the previous, so a defined flavour profile isn’t something that I’m chasing.
"What I am chasing is diversity, quality, innovation, ingenuity, and having a world-class crack at it."
88B: Any experiments that you’re doing that you’re keen to share with us?
JB: Australian dry ageing is now no secret. This phenomenon creates nothing but world-class spirits.
One thing I’ve started playing around with now is blending my own rums for future releases. I have a very interesting release which will be called Dead Reckoning "TCB", or "Three Continents Blend". It is a pot still Guyanese molasses rum, a column still cane juice rum from from Vietnam, and a pot still cane juice rum from South Africa. The combination of molasses and cane juice-based [rums] as well as high ester and funk, pot and column stills has given this a truly multidimensional, layered flavour profile.
The upcoming TCB will prove to be quite the interesting experiment.
88B: You’ve mostly bottled molasses-based rums, would you consider rhum agricoles?
JB: The majority of the rums to date have been molasses based, although my last release was Dead Reckoning Mhoba - a South African cane juice-based rum aged in a red wine cask. Now that I will be concentrating on multiple markets, two of these being big fans of agricole style rums, you will see more cane juice-based style rums from Dead Reckoning.
88B: Some of the biggest trends in rums right now are high ester rums, single mark rums, and unaged rums. How does that play into what Dead Reckoning is doing, or do you prefer to simply ignore the noise and go with your gut? What are the most exciting trends that you think people should instead be focusing on?
JB: The thing with rum is that as a distiller you need to think 5-10 years ahead of the curve. As an indie bottler, this timeline is reduced to half that time because you ride on the back of the distillers' hard work.
Luckily, three years ago, having kept a close eye on rum trends, my purchases were high ester and single marque rums, several of which having been aged in South Australia will be released this year.
One thing that we are seeing a shift towards in a global sense is the consumer's desire for 100% transparency as to what has been added to their rum. There’s been a long, raging debate in the industry regarding additives, namely, sugar and caramel. A sub-standard lesser aged product can have sugars and caramel added to it to deceive drinkers, making it taste smoother, and by making it darker, giving off the impression that it has been aged longer .
Whilst I’m not a fan of this, I think if you are going to alter a pure rum, this needs to be declared on your label.
Justin and his wife, Camilla, whilst on charter, and now one sipping on rum.
88B: You’ve gone from distributor to independent bottler, it almost seems like the next most natural progression is to become a distiller yourself. With quite a handful of distilleries that have popped up in Australia, have you ever considered it? And if so, guide us through your thinking!
JB: If I had my time again, I might have looked at going down this route. But I believe you should concentrate on one thing and do it very well, instead of attempting too many jobs and doing these poorly.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to spend more time in distilleries learning what these skilled distillers perform on a daily basis, or coming up with a collaboration project with a distiller.
Rum Bar Airlie Beach - Justin's tip is to find bars where bartenders are able to tell you everything you need to know and some you don't about the rum you're sipping. (Image Source: Rum Bar AU)
88B: Tell us three of the best bars to drinks rums at in Australia!
JB: Rum Bar Airlie Beach, Hains & Co in Adelaide, Lobo Plantation in Sydney.
The reason I’ve chosen these bars is that when you sit down and ask for a drink, you get more than you ask for. The person serving you from behind the bar is extremely well-educated, they will tell you about the distillery, the distillation techniques - if it is a pot or column still, or a blend of the two, the ageing process, barrels used, previous releases from this distillery, and cocktails it would go well with.
When asked which distillery he would spend a week at, Justin's going with Hampden. As if there could be a different answer! (Image Source: TripAdvisor)
88B: If you had to spend a week working in any distillery, which would it be?
JB: I would have to say, because of my deep love for funk and flavour, it would be Hampden or Worthy Park in Jamaica. I would like to think after my week at the distillery, the smell of muck, dunder and super long fermentation was on my skin, on my clothes, in my hair.
88B: You can only drink three rums for the rest of your life. What are they?
JB: This is an extremely hard answer, but if I was marooned on a desert island, these are the three that I would choose, they are all quite diverse and unlike each other:
Foursquare, Clarin, any high ester and funky rum out of Jamaica.
88B: Well, it has been a real pleasure speaking to you Justin! Thank you for that, we really appreciate your thoughts from deep within the heart of Australia's rum scene, and we're sure our readers are now alittle more familiar with what's going on over there, and more importantly have learnt alittle more about you and are keeping their eyes peeled for Dead Reckoning's moves!
If you're keen on getting your hands on some of Dead Reckoning's bottles, check these places out: