Don’t Call Foursquare Experimental: A Word With Richard Seale, Barbados’ Hottest Rum Maker
“The challenge is to push the boundaries, and stay true to the style of Foursquare, and the style of Barbados…Change for change’s sake, is meaningless.”
– Richard Seale, Master Distiller & Owner of Foursquare Rum Distillery
Here's a man who almost needs no introduction: Richard Seale, the owner and distiller at Barbados' renowned Foursquare Rum Distillery.
Foursquare has a special place in the hearts of rum lovers, serious and casual. Unlike closed rum distilleries that posthumously enjoyed cult followings, Foursquare stands out as one of the very few operationally active rum distilleries that consistently draw admiration from rum lovers by virtue of its quality and consistency over the years.
There is no question that Richard's work at Foursquare restored Barbados' place in the modern rum scene. Yet he is also widely regarded as a pivotal figure in challenging the wider rum industry's status quo. Popularly perceived as a purist with a forthright, no-nonsense attitude, he never shies away from confrontation, calling out major rum producers for misleading practices, like the addition of sugars or flavourings without disclosure — all too common in some modern rums.
Richard is also widely respected for his extensive knowledge on all matters pertaining to rum, its history, and the technicalities of rum production. Just think of him as a walking encyclopaedia of rums with a dose of dry wit.
Last November, I had the immensely special opportunity to speak with Richard Seale at Whisky Live Singapore 2023. The man is surprisingly unassuming but just as incisive and candid as I hoped for. We sat down with Richard and had an interesting chat about the common misconceptions about rums, current consumer trends in the rum world and Foursquare Rum's direction. And in true Richard Seale style, I was taken down a fascinating rabbit hole of rum history that I wasn't quite expecting.
I'll let you hear it from Richard himself.
“As we say, we don't like the word experiment. We're gonna continue to invest in the core principles. We're going to continue to stay true to our style, but we're going to invest in more rum, more aged rum, the best cask we can find.”
[88 Bamboo]: What’s a big misconception about rums that you’d like to correct? And is there an underrated rum fact or aspect of rum history you think deserves more attention or awareness?
[Richard Seale]: Well, in 1983, Anton Massel, a wine specialist who founded the IWSC, wrote what was I think the first full length book on rum in English . And he said in the preface, one of the things he wanted to do was to correct existing misconceptions about rum. 40 years later, we're still trying to correct misconceptions about rum! So, your question, there is a lot that we could talk about.
I think people don't realise that much of the perception of rum as kind of a low-end party drink – it's really created in recent years. So we hear, for example, very stupid comments, like, “when is rum going to premiumise?” – this kind of nonsense. I mean, if you visited Jamaica in the 1950s, you would have been able to drink 30-year-old Myers. There've given prizes to rums in the 19th century. So, this notion that rum was a kind of low-end drink or that it needs to figure out how to premiumise is one of the greatest misconceptions.
The perception of any spirit is largely what's been done in the last couple of years. So, there's obviously been some high-profile brands, and I try not to mention any names [*Smiles*], that obviously have shaped the image of rum for a broad range of people. So, I think that one of the misconceptions is that rum as a top-end spirit is something new. It’s not new at all.
For example, you can find ads in the early 18th century where people were advertising Scotch whisky as something as good as rum. And of course, you can go back in the early 18th century and discover that rum was [even] replacing brandy and punch. You have to understand the context of that, because punches only been drunk by the extremely wealthy – punches drunk by the extremely wealthy who can afford the sugar and spices and citrus juices.
People assume that today's image, or the image of rums in the 70s’, 80s’ and 1990s was kind of how it was in the Caribbean. As I said, it leads to stupid comments like “what's rum got to do to premiumise?” – this kind of nonsense, as if, there never was an old rum before, you know?
“One of the misconceptions is that rum as a top-end spirit is something new. It’s not new at all.”
[88B]: Foursquare has a really special place in the hearts of rum lovers. Few distilleries that remain operationally active can command such a fanfare. Arguably this has been a result of the distinctness and sheer consistency of Foursquare’s rums. As people say, you can recognise the work of a great artist from their signature style in their work.
So, does this reputation create a pressure to keep Foursquare’s flavour profile familiar and within the same ballpark?
[Richard]: Yeah, absolutely! Because to make something different is very easy. To make something different is trite. The challenge is to push the boundaries, and stay true to the style of Foursquare, and the style of Barbados. That's the challenge. Even when we produce something like Foursquare LFTs, just six hundred bottles of unaged rum.
So of course, on the face of it, 100% pot still on the face of it is very different from the rums that Foursquare is famous for. Still, many people who drink this rum basically said, “we can tell this is Foursquare”, or “this is exactly how we thought Foursquare would do this style of rum.” And this is very important to us. This is the most fundamental challenge. You must stay true.
“Maybe there's a misconception that I'm a very public person, and anyone who knows me knows I'm the very opposite – I keep a very low profile at home.”
[88B]: Could you elaborate more about how it's easy to do to produce something different all the time?
[Richard]: Yeah, it's change, it's easy. You could change anything: raw material, how you distill, your barrel. Change for change’s sake, is meaningless.
[88B]: So like the Foursquare LFT – what sort of changes, with that being one example, would you be generally pursuing to push the boundaries?
[Richard]: It's not so much a change when we do something like LFT. Because it's based on very old principles. What we're able to do today is to release something like LFT. Whereas 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, it's not that we didn't have the ability to do these kinds of rums, but probably that there was no market, so you didn't really conceive it.
Whereas, even something as basic as cask strength – we first released cask strength rums around 2015 I think. Obviously, we could have released a cask strength rum before that, but you can't do it unless you know there's an audience. A rum like Foursquare LFT, we know there's a rum enthusiast audience. So, we are able to make this rum, which ordinarily, like it's 100% pot still. Generally, we don't release 100% pot still because we only use it in blending. There's nothing new about us making 100% pot still rum, what's new is to release it. And that's really because the audience has changed, not so much we have changed.
“We don't want to change things. We want to stick to our principles and stick to our style, but execute it really well. So, what we constantly strive to do, is to do every step as well as we can.”
[88B]: You mentioned experimentation and pushing the boundaries slightly. So, along what dimensions do you think you could do so, while still preserving this signature Foursquare style? What are the dimensions along which we can explore?
[Richard]: One of the things we do, is we would never describe what we do as ‘experimenting.’ If you are experimenting, it’s because you want to change things, and we don't want to change things. We want to stick to our principles and stick to our style, but execute it really well. So, what we constantly strive to do, is to do every step as well as we can.
When we bring in a new pot still, people think we were trying to make something different. We aren’t trying to make something different – what we were trying to do is to have a still that executed more perfectly, more consistently. And again, when we use the different casks, it's the same principle, you're searching for the best casks. And when you're aging longer, you are not ‘experimenting’ in aging longer, as I mentioned to you – people have been aging rum for many years, for a long time. So what we're doing there is just following tried and true principles.
And the purpose of say, searching out regular Sherry casks and aging rum for 20 years – is all about doing what we do and trying to execute it at the very highest level. So that's why I would never describe what we do as ‘experimenting.’
“There are certain casks categories we would never use, because we're not interested in novelties, we're not interested in marketing. We would only choose a cask based on the quality.”
[88B]: While many of us bookmark Foursquare as this rum distillery that offers rums that you can’t go wrong with, some observers have pointed out that you have been making strides and pushing your rums that, like you mentioned, age well beyond known territory. You've been starting to use more eclectic casks types, like ex-Calvados casks with your Equipoise ECS, which will be coming soon.
Could you give us an insight into what you're aiming to achieve with this?
[Richard]: It's all about searching for the best casks. There are certain casks categories we would never use, because we're not interested in novelties, we're not interested in marketing. We would only choose a cask based on the quality.
I have nothing against Tequila, for example, but we would never choose a Tequila cask because Tequila is not famous for its casks. This is not what makes Tequila famous. They use refill casts. So, there is no way I would be searching, or going to a Tequila producer to find a good quality American oak cask – it wouldn't make any sense. This is also why we don't do finishes. If we search and invest in a very good cask, we want the rum to mature in that cask, we want the rum to mature for a long time in that cask. You'll never see us do some novelty cask, with Tequila or beer or some six-months-finish, etc. I mean, this is not something we have any interest to do at all.
[88B]: That's a fantastic answer to why you wouldn't be using a Tequila cask. But if you're going into Calvados cask, our question is, do you have a particular profile that you have in mind, or that you're trying to achieve?
[Richard]: No, it's really about searching for very good casks. When we get the cask, we will have a program for the cask: the type of rum we put in it, the type of rum we put in when we refill it. What we want to do when you take a release like Foursquare Raconteur – it’s a Sherry cask – none of those casks that produce Raconteur were first-fill Sherry casks. When the rum went into them for Raconteur, these Sherry cask are infused with rum. What we had done over the years, is to source very good Sherry casks, then use them for rum for many years, and basically create a cask that's unique to Foursquare.
Another cask, you could go and buy from some from Sherry producer because it had been seasoned with rum for many years. And so we created a cask, which we then put a rum like Raconteur in and age, and really aim to have a really excellent rum, because one of the foundations of Raconteur is a very good cask. But it's not a first-fill, it’s not a cask you could simply go and buy – it’s a cask that we have basically developed at Foursquare.
“With the nature of Calvados casks, we find that the wood is very synergistic with the rum. What we found is a rum that is very, very balanced, really beautifully integrated and very balanced. So, it inspired the name Equipoise, which means a state of balance.”
[88B]: Moving on to your ECS releases, every time there's a new ECS release, we've come to expect to new vocabulary and to learn new words that are not commonly used. Could you take us through your creative process? How are you and your team coming up with these distinct names?
[Richard]: The names can reflect the rum, sometimes the name will inspire the rum. Other times the rum will inspire the name – that's usually the way. If you take something like Triptych ECS, we did three vintages, did three types of oak. So that naturally made me think of a triptych, which is a painting with, you know, three sections to it.
Or even Equipoise. One of the things we find with Equipoise, we find the Calvados barrels, because Calvados uses refill barrels, they're very old barrels, and probably of all, Calvados is a spirit not a wine. So, once you're dealing with a spirit cask, you're dealing with something closer, because rum is a spirit as opposed to a wine cask. With the nature of Calvados casks, we find that the wood is very synergistic with the rum. What we found is a rum that is very, very balanced, really beautifully integrated and very balanced. So, it inspired the name Equipoise, which means a state of balance.
“When I first visited Singapore to find our rum here… this is a kind of a feeling that never gets old. My grandfather would never have believed it was possible to export his rum all over the world. For us coming here… this is a very, very significant event for us.”
[88B]: There’s been a trend towards exploring high ester white rums. And you have shared your thoughts with us about the coining of the term, LFT. So, in a sense, we have shifted the conversation away from the ester count but towards the process of engaging and extended fermentation periods.
[Richard]: I would just like to clarify the misconception on the term ‘high ester.’ There’re high ester rums that would go up to 600, the old school Plummers and Wedderburns, which are made in the traditional way, and have a relatively higher ester count compared to what was classed in Jamaica's Common Clean rums that go up to 300.
This is not to be confused with another category of high ester rum that was developed much more recently, which was developed in the late 19th century. These rums you will see very commonly, the marks use the words “Continental” and the use of words “Flavoured”. The word “Flavored” was because of the method that was being used, not flavour as in added flavouring. But the use of mature dunder which they would add to the fermentation at the end - they sort of considered that as adding flavour. "Continental" meant actually export to Europe as opposed to export to the UK. And these rums are really developed for blending.
So, I never tell anyone what to drink, but I want you to understand what it is you're drinking. If someone wants to drink 1500 high ester rum, I don't care. But if you are a person and you drink 1500, you taste it, and you think is not for me, it's okay, because it's a concentrate. It's not really designed for drinking. You won't go to Jamaica and find people drinking 1500 high ester rum, you only find these strange people somewhere else in the world, who we think is, I don't know, macho or something! [*Laughs*]
I think that's important to clarify, because the rums we are making are not setting out to be a high ester rum. We're setting out to make a style of rum which naturally occurs to have a very high ester count. And that also led me to the important point of distinguishing it from Jamaica. In the past, all of these islands would have made what we would call high ester rum as in sort of Plummer and Wedderburn, and it’s really only Jamaica [today] that has preserved this process regularly, so I think they kind of have taken ownership of this term. Hence I think it's unfair to use the term high ester. It also is misleading. It's misleading in the sense that we are obviously not trying to do what our Jamaican colleagues do. And it's also misleading because, we don't want people to think that rum makers are in a kind of ester arms race, or that you can judge a rum just by the ester count.
[In Foursquare LFT] we're just making a particular style of rum which has a high ester count, but we don't really want you to focus on that. This type of rum was described described in Barbados in the past as “rums of the long fermentation type.” So this is why we use this terminology, and we sort of borrowed this description from the past. We’ve had some exceptional circumstances, but generally speaking, our high esters will be 400 to 600. So again, we're really more similar to what was done, what was called like the Plummers and Wedderburns, and not the extreme 1200, 1500 ester rums, which were made much more recently in the turn of the century. And they were made solely for blending. Nobody was drinking that.
[88B]: So what about the LFTs that will be coming from Foursquare?
[Richard]: Yeah. The Habitation Velier range was created by Luca [Gargano], to kind of have not just a commercial role, but also an educational role. It was nice for us, while we're developing these types of rums, which we know we're going to age and they're going to be part of releases in the future. And we also know that there are a lot of enthusiasts out there who really want to understand every aspect of rum making. So having a Habitation Velier range allows us to make a kind of fun educational release in LFT. We have plans for the next LFT, we're going to do a little bigger run.
That's the beauty and was the motivation for creating this Habitation Velier range. We want to make wonderful old rums, but we also want you to have an education as to what was the rum when it was immediately out of the still, when the only flavour was from the sugar cane and nothing else – no maturation, no wood. This is the mission behind these kinds of releases, there’re as much drinking experience as an educational experience.
[88B]: Another topic of interest is the increasing consumer desire for distilleries to sort of break down, as you mentioned, what would otherwise have been standard process blends into single mark expressions, single still expressions. And we know that Foursquare has been known to eschew this marked expression, usually focused on delivering blended rum. So, would the Foursquare LFT be the exception?
[Richard]: Exactly. The beauty of the Habitation Velier range allows us to kind of do something that we wouldn't do as part of our core range. I wouldn't say that we would release a single mark, but it certainly allowed us to release 100% pot still. It certainly allowed us to do this kind of thing. I would never say never, but it would never be part of our core range.
For example, I don't think you would have in the future a Velier Foursquare that is a single mark, I don't think so. Because we are looking to make a blend which is better than the sum of any individual part. But again, the Habitation Velier range allows us to have a bit of fun and to produce something a little different. Again, for education and understanding, because there's no substitute for tasting that spirit straight from the still and really understanding fundamental building block of rum.
“So, you know, if Doorly’sXO is not successful, nothing else comes, nothing else. There's no Raconteur, there's no Covenant, nothing else happens.”
[88B]: On to a question more personal to you. There have been many fables about you from the fact that you have been running around, in the early years, using a hydrometer to test rums at festivals. You’re also known for calling out misleading practices, and rallying people to work towards GI protection for the Barbados rum.
Given this larger-than-life persona you have in the rum scene, are there any misconceptions or myths about yourself that you would like to address with the rum scene?
[Richard]: Misconceptions of about myself? Well, I don't really pay too much attention out there, so I don't know what misconceptions. Maybe there's a misconception that I'm a very public person, and anyone who knows me knows I'm the very opposite – I keep a very low profile at home. But yeah, I don't really pay much attention to what's out there about me.
[88B]: So, is there any one thing or one value that you say holds the most significance for you in the realm of rums?
[Richard]: I think it for me, especially speaking to you here in Singapore, you and everyone here may not appreciate the significance to us [rum producers] to have our rums so far around the world! When I first visited Singapore to find our rum here… this is a kind of a feeling that never gets old. My grandfather would never have believed it was possible to export his rum all over the world. For us coming here… this is a very, very significant event for us.
I can remember 20 years ago, struggling in a very familiar market, like the UK market. To be coming out and selling out and selling rum in Singapore, and finding so much enthusiasm and knowledge here –this is something we could never have predicted. And I think it's something that I don't think on your side, you'll ever appreciate how significant it is for us [rum producers].
[88B]: That’s actually exactly what Grégory Vernant has also shared with us ! Just out of curiosity, what do you think your grandfather would have said if you could show him the level of appreciation of rums here?
[Richard]: I don’t - in his day, he didn't even think was possible to export [out of Jamaica]. So, impossible. Yeah, impossible [*Laughs*].
[88B]: Unfathomable for him?
[88B]: Your life's work has not only brought Foursquare to great heights, but you have also helped Barbados rum reclaim its rightful place on the world rum scene.
Could you tell us what's one or two memorable moments for you in this journey? And what keeps you going?
[Richard]: It’s really coming out here and seeing our rums out here and seeing the enthusiasm. This are the things that are really, totally unexpected and really motivational. I mean it's fantastic. You know, it never gets old. I’ve been to Singapore a few times now, but it's still exciting every time I come to see my rum, literally on the opposite side of the world from Barbados.
[88B]: We've talked about several trends that have been going on, high ester rums, single component rums, single mark rum. What do you think are the big trends that you see in rums moving forward that you think people should be paying more attention to?
[Richard]: Well, the trend for us really is to continue to invest in aging more rum, longer, in the best casks we can find.
I think maybe people don't appreciate how everything comes one step at a time, especially as every now and again, you might see some new brand that arrive immediately with a 20-year-old rum or something like this. When we first started exporting, we had just created Doorly’s XO, and it was kind of our most premium rum at the time. It was perfect timing because we just started exporting, and it did very well for us because it's good quality. It really kind of put us on the map and really gave us a lot of attention. It's that success that leads to the next step.
Without the success of Doorly’s XO, we cannot invest in the stock to create the Doorly’s 12 and Doorly’s 14. And when you invest in the stock to create Doorly’s 12 and Doorly’s 14, which use Madeira casks, and you invest in the Madeira casks, and you invest in Sherry casks, and then you have some success and then you branch out and you invest in Cognac casks – for these kind of very high quality casks, every step leads to where we are.
So, you know, if Doorly’sXO is not successful, nothing else comes, nothing else. There's no Raconteur, there's no Covenant, nothing else happens. When the first Velier Foursquare we released was very, very successful, it led to the next investment. So that's what we're going to continue doing.
As we say, we don't like the word experiment. We're gonna continue to invest in the core principles. We're going to continue to stay true to our style, but we're going to invest in more rum, more aged rum, the best cask we can find.
[88B]: Our final question is, if you have to drink three rums for the rest of your life, and these rums can’t be Foursquare’s, what would these three rums be?
[Richard]: One of them would have to be Neisson, probably Neisson Armada. One would have to be a Hampden, probably Great House, and one would probably have to be a Worthy Park, a Worthy Park 12-Year-Old. Those are my three.
[88B]: It's been a tremendous pleasure to speak with you, Richard. Thank you for sharing your passion and wisdom with us!