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Inside The Most Important Rum House You’ve Never Heard Of: Main Rum’s Ian Hoyles Tells Us About Cult Rums And How To Spot Them

 

Amateurs seek the sun. Get eaten. Power stays in the shadows.

This chilling line, spoken by the character of Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the recent blockbuster Oppenheimer, echoes a sentiment amongst the wise in various contexts throughout history. The discerning would know that true influence is wielded discreetly, behind the scenes, away from the public eye.

Interestingly, it seems that this applies to the world of fine spirits too. The Main Rum Company, perhaps one of the most influential premium rum entities in the world when taken together with its sister company E&A Scheer, embodies this philosophy.

While largely unknown to the average consumer, Main Rum is revered among industry insiders. Rum brands, both large and small, source their high-quality rums from this powerhouse. Main Rum's expertise spans a wide array of rum styles, from the fiery Jamaican pot stills to the grassy agricoles of Martinique. They aren't just middlemen with a vast inventory. Their mastery of blending and the aging process is equally impressive, arming it with a stock of aged rums with exceptional depth and complexity. To rum enthusiasts in the know, its vast selection - said to the world's largest store of rare rums - is a treasure trove.

 

 

What sets Main Rum apart is their counterintuitive approach to business. They operate with a high level of discretion, choosing not to sell consumers. Instead, they work with brands and independent bottlers, providing them with the rums they need to create their products. Many of these brands are among the most respected names in the rum world. While I won't name names, it suffices to say that the usual suspects are there. The famously particular Richard Seale of the renowned Foursquare Distillery only agrees to sell his rums to E&A Scheer.

When one of the main guys behind Main Rum, Operations & Cask Manager Ian Hoyles recently came to Singapore, I had the opportunity to sit down with him for an in-depth interview.

 

 

Our discussion covered a wide range of topics that would make any rum geek's heart race. We delved into why Main Rum Company prefers to stay in the shadows and the rum brands who purchase its rums get all the limelight. We explored the amusing dilemma they often face when deciding whether to sell their rums or continue aging them to make them even better. We also asked about the possibility of Main Rum one day moving into distilling rums themselves.

So, without further ado, let's dive into the interview and uncover the secrets of this elusive rum company.

Follow Main Rum Company and E&A Scheer: @mainrumcompany | @eascheeramsterdam | Official Website

Follow Main Rum's Ian Hoyles' rum journey: Linkedin

"The hardest part of our job is to not sell. There are lots of great rums we would love to sell, but we can't always sell them all because then we wouldn't have any left [for posterity]."

[88B]: For starters, Main Rum has spent most of its history shunning the spotlight, yet more recently, it seems like the company’s position on that has changed, with more interviews being done and even a video taking viewers (probably for the first time ever) into the behind-the-scenes of one of the world’s most important rum companies. Simply put, what’s changed and how has Main Rum’s perspective on itself and its place in the rum world evolved? Could you guide us a little bit more on that?

[Ian]: I think it's just opening up a little bit to shed some light on the actual company itself, how we operate, how we work with our clients , which will hopefully give a bit more credence to the industry itself and maybe sort of widen it a little bit more, make it a little bit more of a smaller world, but then generally expanding the industry as a whole, hopefully in a positive way. However, we always believe that our clients should be in the spotlight. That's why we've been in the background for so long. It's not for us to shine, essentially. It's for our clients to shine.

So, we try to broaden our client base a little bit by doing promotional videos like we've done and doing interviews like this as well, to give people a little bit more information about how we do things. We basically decided as a company to get a little bit more of a spread of the word of rum around the world and about the quality of distillates that are available and the amount of different varieties that you can find in the marketplace. Basically, the rum category has got a lot of headspace, particularly in the premiumization side of rum. I think there's a lot more headspace to grow and educate and show people how much quality there is. So, yeah, that's kind of why we've come out a little bit more.

 

 

"For E&A Scheer, they cover the full range of rums, which can be blended, reproducible, and can be produced on a mass scale with really great consistency… At the Main Rum Company, we are a little bit more on the exclusive side. So we have all of the single cask, single origin, and single mark rums that we put into cask."

[88B]: Beyond what most folks would know Main Rum for – that is being primarily a cask broker – are there other aspects of value that MRC offers and provides that perhaps more people should know about?

[Ian]: Well, we kind of, as a group of companies, focus on slightly different sectors. So for E&A Scheer, they cover the full range of rums, which can be blended, reproducible, and can be produced on a mass scale with really great consistency. This consistency and really short ordering times make it really great for people who are trying to do scalable projects.

At the Main Rum Company, I guess we are a little bit on the other end, as we're a bit more on the exclusive side. So we have all of the single cask, single origin, and single mark rums that we put into cask. We look after them for periods of time and slowly release them into the market. We also do some age blends as well, believe it or not, some of which we have in cask and have been maturing for ten years plus for various different reasons. But yeah, we have a really rare collection of rums from an extremely wide variety of origins, which we try to explore more and more every year.

"We always believe that our clients should be in the spotlight. That's why we've been in the background for so long. It's not for us to shine, essentially. It's for our clients to shine."

[88B]: The past several years has seen a sharp and marked appreciation for premium rums. What has that meant for Main Rum, and how has your team perhaps changed certain practices or adjusted to cater to that demand? Certainly customer requests must have increased but also probably have become more intricate and complex.

[Ian]: I think obviously one of the biggest questions that we always get from people is , "What can we have that's different?" So, in that sense, we always try to broaden our range of availability from different origins and different styles of rum. And that could mean different countries that have just started producing, new countries that are just producing now, unheard-of countries, smaller islands, and craft distilleries. But then, as for our teams, we spread out into a bit more experimentation in terms of the maturation process. So we try to use a variety of different cask types to help build complex flavour profiles through maturation processes. There has been a lot of experimentation work, but this has been done through many decades. It's not just something that we're new to now. We've done experiments that are 20 and 30 years old now , which we use a lot of as a basis to work forward with new cask types that we find today, or secondary use casks that have been pre-seasoned with other liquids.

 

A blender preparing old rum samples.

 

But because we've done the experimentations nearly 20 years ago on some things, we can gauge the extractives and how they're going to work with the particular distillates that we've used them with , and then broaden that range in terms of the new distillates that we find similar profiles in flavour and distillation process , which helps us form a bit more of a rounded idea of how the maturation is going to form and work over long periods of time. But that's something that we have to do as a 10, 15, 20, or 30-year-old project. We have to think 30 years ahead of ourselves sometimes. And predicting a market is really difficult, but it's been really good steady growth over the last eight years. So I think I probably started in 2015, and that's when it just started really sort of getting into heavily premiumised, and then really, you know, a lot of sales coming on the back of that in the concurrent years.

"I often tell people who say they don't like rum, 'Yes, you do. You just haven't found the right rum.' There's such a wide scope in rum that there's likely a perfect rum for everyone. It's about finding the right one."

[88B]: It's interesting you mentioned that experimentation has a 10, 20 year window. So the natural question would be, how do you develop that foresight to anticipate the market demand? As you mentioned, it's difficult to predict the market, but are there any ways you could sort of see that perhaps this is the direction we will go towards?

[Ian]: I think, given the spirits that my predecessors have put down in casks, you know, 20, 30 years ago, it gives us an indication of the flavour profiles that can be developed in those types of periods of time. But I think if you look in the marketplace now, you see a lot of innovation in terms of different cask finishings and things like that. But we know that we can take it a step further because it's been done before with different distillates. We can take it that extra step further and really take the extractives to the next level in terms of maturing them for decades at a time, if needed. By having a fully homogenized liquid that is taking the extractives of a secondary spirit, and really incorporating it into the original distillate , we maintain a lot of the distillery character as we go through these processes, which is also a fine balance to achieve.

We do that through monitoring, which can be weekly for the first four weeks that you start, depending on what kind of project you're working on. But then it could be every month after that, or it could be every six months, and then maybe every year. So, as a rule, we generally check most of our rums, if not all of them, annually. So every year, I think I've got an order for about just over a thousand samples, which is to basically track the maturation process of freshly filled rums so that we understand how it works on the continent as well as aged rums that we buy and what the differences are between those as well. So it's a fairly in-depth process.

 

Did you know: the rum warehouse featured in The Peaky Blinders is the same one owned by Main Rum Company in Liverpool?

 

[88B]: And given the numerous parameters along which you could offer a unique rum, whether from unusual countries, unusual rum styles, different cask cast types such as ex-bourbon, ex-Madeira, ex-malt whisky, how do you decide how to allocate your stocks?

[Ian]: Well, it's basically, it's all done through personal work experience, so we can go back and reference samples that we've done, you know, from the mid-90s all the way up to the present day, which could be anywhere between 25 years to 2, 3, 5 years old and different styles that we've been working on. And you can rate your extraction rates, but then how the flavour profile develops within particular distillates.

So if you understand your distillates and then you understand the pre-seasoned casks, you understand the flavour profiles, you can kind of marry them together. So you can take one distillate that you can develop through another maturation process and build a layer of complexity now that can change over time.

 

One of Ian's favourite past times seems to be flogging the bung of a rum cask.

 

There are certain points in time when you first put distillates into secondary use maturation casks, where the flavour profiles will start to develop and change. You get it firstly on the nose, then you get it on the palate, which generally on the nose, you could be anywhere between four to six weeks just getting it on the nose, depending on what the previous season distillate was or the spirit and what spirit you're working with.

Like you say, there's so many different parameters and different factors that you have to incorporate. But essentially, understanding your distillates that you're working with, how heavy they are, what characters they have, and then matching them together with other characteristics from either different species of oak or different secondary maturation liquids.

"One example that comes to mind is the Hampden style rums – these highly funky, pungent, and flavourful rums that were initially used only as blending components in industries like confectionery and tobacco... Looking back, you kind of kick yourself. If we had kept those rums for 20 or 30 years, people would be snapping them up now."

[88B]: Are there any emerging trends your team is seeing, aside from premiumisation of rums?

[Ian]: I think it's almost a little bit regional since different countries or different marketplaces enjoy different types of cask finishing. You see it a lot in the whisky industry. There seems to be a lot of interest in ex-sherry and maybe ex-Sauternes casks. Sherry is probably one of the most prominent that's been around for quite a while. But yeah, I think there's a lot to explore.

Like I say, I think different areas have different preferences. So, you know, maybe the UK would prefer something like an ex-sherry cask because they're more in tune with Sherry. Or it could be the country of origin where the sherry comes from. Maybe they would be a little bit more in tune because it's already sort of incorporated into their lifestyle and culture.

 

Ex-Sherry cask matured rums have been something of a hit with whisky lovers (Source: Velier)

 

We have a lot of our clients who are whisky-based, so we mature some of our rums in ex-Scottish malt whisky casks. You can almost bridge different spirit genres by using secondary maturation casks, by almost adding some of the flavours of the previous distillates to the rum distillates to give it a very small signature note of, say, malt whisky or Pedro Ximenez, whichever cask you use, for instance. So there's lots of bridging that way that you can work.

But yeah, I think it seems to be a very prominent innovation at the moment. There's a lot of people doing it. I like to think we take a lot more time with it. You see, people would do finishing for maybe three to six months or something like that, whereas we take it really to the next level. But we know we can do that because we understand it seems to work really well in our climate as well in Europe.

"We've done experiments that are 20 and 30 years old now, which we use a lot of as a basis to work forward with new cask types that we find today, or secondary use casks that have been pre-seasoned with other liquids... We have to think 30 years ahead of ourselves sometimes."

[88B]: We know that Main Rum has generally preferred to take more of a backseat role wherein your team will aim to provide a canvas for bottlers and brands to themselves go ahead and differentiate however they like, but from your unique vantage point, we wanted to gather your thoughts on some of the more recently trendy themes such as high ester marques, a greater demand for high quality premium white rums, more interest in agricultural rums, single marque expressions, non-traditional casks used for maturation – how are you thinking about these trends?

And with so much behind-the-scenes information, is there a desire for Main Rum to play a bigger role in tapping into these trends, for example working with producers to create specific rum styles or more of certain uncommon marques based on Main Rum’s request?

[Ian]: In terms of specific styles, I think that could definitely be explored if that was something that was interesting. But really, we want our suppliers, or essentially just the distillers themselves, to produce products that they really like and that they enjoy, that’svery indicative of their particular culture and their ideal signature of how they want their rums to be. That's what we try to celebrate as much as we can. Not everybody can like every rum. I'm pretty close, but, you know, you have to have that wide selection for everybody because one rum that one person likes will be something that somebody else doesn't like. So that's why it's good to have a really wide range and to understand different profiles.

 

The surprisingly picturesque Flor de Caña Distillery lies near the foot one of Nicaragua's most active volcanos.

 

In relation to trends, again, I think that goes down to different markets, so different marketplaces will enjoy different rums. South America and Spain love the Spanish-style rums from Belize, but then if you go to somewhere like the US, maybe they like something which is heavy on the ester side of things. To be honest, high ester is pretty favorable in most places. I'm not quite sure if it's in this region, if it's really the type of rum that would be celebrated here. I don't really know enough yet.

I think the British-style rums are really quite popular everywhere. You do see a lot more now of agricultural-style rums. So, you know, agricultural-style cane juice rums are a lot more prominent now, I think, due to the molasses market and the way that things are at the moment, which is pretty fraught and pretty difficult to get hold of molasses. And it's, you know, the prices of molasses have gone up three times, maybe last year or the year before, so it's three times as much to buy molasses. And again, the grade of molasses is not always as good as it was previously. So, you know, your yields are affected massively if you're a distiller, which has knock-on effects to everything else. But also, your quality through fermentation will be affected if your molasses doesn't stay the same.

 

 

You see a lot with British producers at the moment, which is another common trend at the moment. There seems to be a lot of British producers starting small distilleries, which is really intriguing because they use pretty much the same base of molasses from the same companies but produce really different liquids. So it just shows you the types of signatures that people can make using different yeasts or different fermentation processes or distillation methods. So, yeah, that's a bit of a growing trend at the moment.

The rums that are agricultural from places like Mauritius seem to be coming out a lot more, and small distilleries from Haiti. Yeah, that seems to be a really good growing trend at the moment. And it's an extremely different profile from what you would find in the standard marketplace. You see a bit more as well of the blended molasses and cane juice. That seems to be a little bit more prominent, which again is, if you get that right, it really greatly balances the rums.

"[Apart from 4 warehouses in Europe,] we also age in Jamaica, Vietnam, and various other places. We've started programs to mature at origin." 

[88B]: You mentioned rum premiumisation. I’m just curious whether this upswing of interest in premium rum has deepened Main Rum's relationship with the rum producers in any way? Are there any different collaborations or ways of working with rum producers that has developed more recently because of this trend?

[Ian]: I think it would just be buying more to put down for the future. Particularly with Main Rum and E&A Scheer, the relationships with the distilleries have been established over long periods, decades, with different people at the helm throughout different distilleries and at Main Rum Company as well. These are long-standing relationships. They stand the test of time. So it's equally reciprocal for all parties. We work closely with them under non-disclosure agreements and such. This ensures we always stay on the right side of things and can advise our clients properly on how to present the rums in a certain way. So, yeah, it's long-lasting.

 
Equal part man and animal are put to work in making Haiti's Clairin, each sugarcane plantation the backyard of the guildive. Micro-terroir at its finest. (Image Source: Wine Enthusiast Magazine)

 

And then obviously, we get to start lots of new relationships with distillers as well, particularly some of the newer producers in the UK. We probably have a little bit more of an angle to maybe look at something that could be specifically produced for, say, Main Rum Company or Scheer, and have that somewhat as a signature. It's something that could be explored for sure, but it's not something that's been done yet.

[88B]: And then on the side of brands who retail and bottle rums procured from Main Rum, how has their behaviour evolved? Have they shifted their focus or interest to specific styles due to how the market has developed?

[Ian]: I think people have really broadened their horizons. And this is the great thing about rum—the variety and diversity within this particular industry. Because so many countries produce rum, there are potentially so many different options and blends that you can make. People create blends from the Indian Ocean, for instance, or Asian Pacific blends, or your traditional Spanish style, British style. These can be combinations of two or three different origins blended together, almost forming a region-specific profile to create a broad spectrum of flavours.

So you do see that people are a lot more adventurous in trying new things. For the last couple of years, we've been purchasing rum from a distillery in Ghana, which has an extremely unique profile. It's very well received and well produced, but it's very different from anything you might find elsewhere. People appreciate those unique profiles because they offer something different.

[88B]: How would you describe Ghanaian rum? And what are some new producers that you are excited about?

[Ian]:It's very fresh and clean. It has a lot of similar aromatics to cane juice styles, such as agricole rhum. It's very crisp on the palate. We've been storing it for nearly four years now, and it matures extremely well in our current climate. So, it’s a very interesting quality rum. We're really glad to have it in our inventories.

There are so many new places. For example, Liberia is new. That rum has a very unique flavour and is extremely different from most things I've tried. Even in the UK, there are distilleries like Outlier (Isle of Man), DropWorks (Worksop, England), Sugar House (Glasgow), and Matugga (Livingston, Scotland). They all produce very distinctive spirits and are different from each other. They all know each other and use the same supply of molasses, I think. But it's just amazing how they can create such different flavour profiles. Each one is unique.

 

Going a full circle, rum is now made in England too with DropWorks being one of the largest operations.

 

[88B]: Main Rum has historically worked closely with Caribbean distilleries but more recently you have begin venturing to Australia, and even Asia and Africa - such as Liberia and Ghana as you mentioned.

What’s been the shift in composition in terms of where MRC is mainly getting its rum? Is it still Caribbean-centred or has it begun to shift more towards newer regions?

[Ian]: Well, I think it’s not necessarily a split. It's just incorporating new origins into the portfolio that can be used in different ways. They're all really exciting and new, and obviously things we haven't tried before, which work great for E&A Scheer in terms of blending operations to create new flavour profiles and new origins. For Main Rum Company, it's another interesting prospect because some of these rums haven't been aged for long periods. It's a new exploratory adventure to take a rum that hasn't been aged for ten years and start its journey now.

Like many things at Main Rum Company, everything is at different stages. Rums that we've acquired from all these different origins over different periods will all be at different ages and stages in the maturation curve. That's the exciting part—watching these rums round off in casks and take on the extractives. Different origins and styles of rum take on the extractives differently. We use our standard ex-bourbon casks and a variety of other cask types. The possibilities are quite extensive. You can have many different ratios and even mature one liquid in two or three different cask types. Some rums are even in their fourth cask type now. It's about building complex flavour profiles through the maturation processes, which is really exciting.

 

Vietnam's Sampan is one of the Southeast Asian nation's most prominent producers known internationally. 

 

[88B]: It's been pretty clear that unlike other suppliers of rum, Main Rum takes maturation seriously, and you guys will only make things available when you feel that they’re ready to be consumed or ready to be bottled. This places you guys in a position to decide when a rum is ready.

What is Main Rum’s approach and philosophy to determining what the ideal profile of a rum is?

[Ian]: Even in cask-aged rums, we do sell at young ages as well, so some of the agricole styles we would release younger. A lot of it depends on how well the spirit interacts with the wood and how much concentration you can get through different processes. Generally, everything comes down to taste. As we track and mature these different rums, we monitor the taste and flavour profiles and write notes year on year to compare against previous years. It's always subjective, and the rums themselves will reach different points.

It really depends on what the client wants. If the client wants something really fresh and indicative of its origin and style, then you would buy something younger. If you're looking for something more concentrated with more extractive flavour from the oak, then you’d choose something older. Flavour profiles change over different timelines, so it's down to the client's preference. Some rums take longer than others for various reasons, such as wood types, maturation processes, or the environments where the rums are kept.

 

 

In particular, one of the environments we have in Liverpool, where we store a lot of our rums, is a really cold, temperate cellar. The maturation process is extremely slow there, so it takes longer for the extractives to work. That could mean leaving the rum for a little longer to ensure more flavour from the cask comes through. There’s always a fine balance between cask character and distillery character.

There are also factors like cost-effectiveness and creating something premium while maintaining the original distillate's character. That’s why we have the process we do. When we buy rums, we aim to have them reach 8 years old, 10 years old, 12, and 15 years old. People want to buy and bottle rums at these ages. It’s about creating a diverse portfolio with different age ranges because preferences vary. Some people might want a 5-year-old, while others prefer a 15-year-old because they like it better, or their brand is associated with "15." There are many factors in what people want and like, so we cater to everyone. Fortunately, we have the stock to do that.

"It's important to understand that we don't want to compete with our clients. We also don't want to compete with our suppliers. We're firmly in the middle, taking supply from one side and providing it to the other. We wouldn't want to broach into either of those categories… We know our place." 

[88B]: Could you give us a behind-the-scenes look at how Main Rum decides to acquire a batch of rum, and how do you segment it? How do you decide on which batch would be aged for say 5 years, and which would be aged for 30? Is there any general approach to that?

[Ian]: Yeah, there's always a methodology to the madness. We have different departments working between E&A Scheer and Main Rum Company. Our purchasing team goes out to find the rums. They investigate distilleries, talk to the distillers, and bring back samples. These samples are then evaluated by a panel who taste them and provide feedback. We get a general consensus from team members on both sides of the company, and then base our decisions on that.

For purchasing, we decide what would be interesting for blending and what would be suitable for maturation processes. We focus on raw distillates, especially new ones which are a bit of an unknown variable. We compare them to other previous rums, using chemical data to understand the properties of the distillates at the time. We rely on our accumulated knowledge and experience over 40 years to decide what type of casks these rums will go into and how we think they will develop. And then, we just do constant monitoring to understand how the extractors work in different liquids at different times, and then keep developing those processes as we go along.

 

 

[88B]: It sounds like you have a process, but it's also a very flexible one.

[Ian]: Yeah, flexibility is crucial because cask or distillate maturation is highly variable. For instance, we have four different sites in Europe, all configured differently, yet we have similar rums maturing in the same casks across three different warehouses.

Each warehouse has different variables due to the environments they provide. For example, in the cellars in Liverpool, there is no airflow at all. This leads to evaporation and a saturated alcohol environment, which has its pros and cons depending on how you look at it. However, it works really well for us and the rums we mature there.

And in Scotland, we have these prefabricated steel rickhouses, which are very large, half-brick buildings with plenty of airflow. So, there are many factors to consider, including temperature. In Liverpool, the temperature is extremely constant throughout the year, but in the cellars upstairs, you get more heat and humidity in the summers, which changes and develops the liquids differently.

In Scotland, it's much colder and wetter, creating small but significant nuances in the distillates. Each environment has its benefits. Aging in tropical climates, for example, happens very quickly with rapid interaction and extraction. Personally, I prefer a bit of both. I believe it's important to age the rums at their origin to capture the local environment's essence, incorporating it into the liquid.

"We're extremely traditional in our maturation processes. We follow a straightforward method: distillate off the still, reduced to 70% cask strength. It sounds simple, but we believe in keeping things as simple and traditional as possible… maintaining simplicity and tradition gives us credibility in the market."

[88B]: Could you tell me about your aging warehouses in Europe? Have you moved into tropical aging?

[Ian]: There're four different places that we use at the moment. So there's two in Scotland, there's one in Liverpool, and there's one in Amsterdam. And yes, we do buy rums that are previously aged at origin.

And yes, we do buy rums that are previously aged at origin. That's a really good part of what we do: we buy directly from origin with different age ranges. This is great because when we bring them over to the continental climate, we slow the maturation process down. We also age in Jamaica, Vietnam, and various other places. We've started programs to mature at origin, which is great. It helps with the interaction between the wood and the liquid and captures a lot of the natural environment in which it's produced.

People often ask how the rums are aged. Clients will ask, "How many years tropical age? How many years continental? Do you have 100% tropical, or do you have 100% continental?" It's always quite interesting and diverse. I think a bit of both is the best of both worlds, really.

[88B]: Another question on our mind is, will Main Rum or E&A Scheer ever create their own brand of rum to be retailed, as opposed to supplying bottlers?

[Ian]: No, it's not something that we would do. We supply the brands. Our mission statement, if you like, is to get our liquid into everybody else's brands. That's our main goal, to help support the industry in that way.

"It's fascinating to think that I’ll probably be retired and someone else will take over, looking after what we’re putting down in wood now. We think 30 years ahead to ensure the market has highly premiumized rums with excellent depth of complexity and flavour. This is why it's crucial to get things right now and stick to our traditional processes."

[88B]: But I think you did mention Main Rum Company having your own blends?

[Ian]: Yes, that's correct. There is potential for that. There's definitely scope for it. It would be an exciting prospect to work directly with a distiller to create a specific profile that you would like as a rum, and then have them produce it for you.

In fact, we already have specific blends that we buy from suppliers, which are made just for us. So, in some ways, it's already happening to a certain extent. It's not on a massive scale, but it has been happening for a long time. It's a continuation of what we've already got and what we supply to people.

These blends might be parts of larger blends that E&A Scheer does. For instance, we might have a specific blend from a particular distillery to supply a specific brand or to maintain a particular profile of an origin that they use for blends. We also age it in cask as well. So, yes, it's kind of there, but not extensively.

 

A peek inside the Company's Blending Room.

 

[88B]: And any interest in moving upstream and becoming a distiller?

[Ian]: I don't think so. *Laughs* I don't think we would buy a distillery or create a distillery or anything like that. I think our job is difficult enough as it is. We don't need a distillery to make it harder.

[88B]: Granted that Main Rum has remained rather elusive for many years and has been quite the if-you-know-you-know sort of figure in the rum world. Are there any myths or misconceptions you would like to take the chance to dispel?

[Ian]: I don't think I have much to dispel, apart from the common misconception that we have a brand, like a bottled brand. When I speak to people, they're often surprised: "Oh, so what's your brand?" And when I tell them we don't have one, they're like, "You have a lot of rum, but you don't have a brand?"

It's important to understand that we don't want to compete with our clients. Going back to your distillery question, we also don't want to compete with our suppliers. We're firmly in the middle, taking supply from one side and providing it to the other. We wouldn't want to broach into either of those categories. We remain completely neutral in that respect. We know our place.

"Rum has so much variety and complexity. There are so many different aspects to consider, from maturation techniques to the wide range of sipping rums, mixers, and blends... Even after nine years of working at the Main Rum Company, I still learn new things every day."

[88B]: That makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, what are some of the more unusual experiences that you’ve had, or unusual things you have seen in your time working at Main Rum?

[Ian]: Japanese rum was a new experience for me. I actually tried some last night from a new craft distiller who brought his product to an event. It was great. The distiller uses locally sourced cane that he crushes himself to produce his own distillate, which is really exciting.

There's also a significant movement with British distillers at the moment, and you see a lot of it in the US as well. I've tried many new makes being produced in the US. There are these new origins and interesting products you don't typically see, like rums from Hawaii, Tahiti, or various parts of the USA. While Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Massachusetts is known, there's much more out there. When you start exploring and traveling to rum festivals, you discover many new and exciting innovations.

 

 

There are some really unique approaches as well. For instance, people are using advanced techniques to speed up the aging process. These methods have existed for a while, but technology is progressing quickly. Some are using methods like agitation or pressurization through specific pieces of wood and staves to force extraction. These innovations are fascinating to learn about.

For us, we're extremely traditional in our maturation processes. We follow a straightforward method: distillate off the still, reduced to 70% cask strength. It sounds simple, but we believe in keeping things as simple and traditional as possible. While there's a lot that goes into the maturation process and how we monetize it, maintaining simplicity and tradition gives us credibility in the market. This is what we understand, what we know, and what we've done for many years. We like to follow tradition.

"We buy as much as we can to store and keep, knowing that various rums will become popular for different reasons over time."

[88B]: And what’s the most out of this world expression you’ve gotten to taste yet that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?

[Ian]:The 1976 MLC (Marque Light Continental, Hampden Estate) stands out. It was one of the rums we had in stock. There's only one left. Another remarkable one was a blend of 1982 HGML (Hampden Great Marque Light, Hampden Estate) and 1983 C-Diamond-H (C <> H, Hampden Estate). This blend was essentially a remnant parcel left at Scheer, aging in oak vats. About 15-20 years ago, Main Rum Company acquired it. The way it developed over such a long period is amazing. It's almost like liquid candy, with a concentration of flavours, oakiness, and vanilla extracted over time. The lower volatiles evaporate and dissipate, concentrating the original distillate with all those lovely compounds from the oak, creating a fantastically rounded rum. It's extremely rare and probably won't be found again. We could reproduce it, but it won't be the same rum for another 20 or 30 years.

 

An overview of Hampden Estate’s most prominent marks.

 

Thinking about our long-term maturation programs is interesting. We plan for the next 20 or 30 years, considering how much we release each year. It's fascinating to think that I’ll probably be retired and someone else will take over, looking after what we’re putting down in wood now. We think 30 years ahead to ensure the market has highly premiumized rums with excellent depth of complexity and flavour. This is why it's crucial to get things right now and stick to our traditional processes.

[88B]: Being in this industry, it must be a challenge to be a steward for your aging stock and plan for say the next two or three decades. It's a very different approach compared to typical businesses that have a shorter horizon.

[Ian]: Yeah, the hardest part of our job is to not sell. There are lots of great rums we would love to sell, but we can't always sell them all because then we wouldn't have any left. Depending on how the market goes and our supply chain, we have to act accordingly. We always aim to age our rums as long as possible to offer those really long age statements. Our oldest rum is a 50-year-old Ecuador rum, which is surprisingly amazing for its age, having undergone a lot of tropical aging.

[88B]: That is really well said – that the hardest part is to not sell.

[Ian]: *Laughs* Well, that's what the founder of the company, Ben Cross de Chavannes, told us once. He used to work for Booker Sugar and founded the Main Rum Company in 1984. He brokered rum for Demerara Distillers and bought casks from them, even taking casks as payment at one point. He was a real advocate for rum, saying for decades that rum would be really big one day. Personally, I think it is. There's still lots of space to explore, many markets to develop, and much to educate people about.

 

 

Rum has so much variety and complexity. There are so many different aspects to consider, from maturation techniques to the wide range of sipping rums, mixers, and blends. It's a vast field with a lot going on, and it's hard to learn it all. Even after nine years of working at the Main Rum Company, I still learn new things every day. It's truly amazing.

[88B]: You mentioned there are situations where you have to decide whether to sell now or to keep it and continue aging the rum for another 20, 30, 50 years later. Could you describe one instance of a dilemma that you guys have faced with a batch of rum that you’re wondering whether to sell or not?

[Ian]: One example that comes to mind is the Hampden style rums. These highly funky, pungent, and flavourful rums were initially used only as blending components in industries like confectionery and tobacco. They were never meant to be single cask sipping rums. About 20 years ago, there were lots of stocks of these rums because people bought them as components but never used them. Brands got mothballed, and the rums were left unused.

Over time, we've acquired stock and sold it as blending components or used it in blends for E&A Scheer. Looking back, you kind of kick yourself. If we had kept those rums for 20 or 30 years, people would be snapping them up now.

 

High ester Hampden rums from the 1983 are some of the oldest and rarest batches of high ester Hampden rums still available in the market. They're also rare precisely because they weren't bottled to be consumed singularly in the past. Read our contributor's review of the Hampden HGML 1983 (Source: Weixiang Liu)

 

Just a couple of years after I started at Main Rum, there was a belief that people wouldn't buy such rums. But they tasted great. For instance, we had a 1990 Hampden DOK rum that had developed such punchy flavours and complex depth from the oak. The freshness and fruitiness were beautiful. We started offering it, and people loved it.

It's one of those moments where you wish you had the foresight to keep more stock. My boss probably kicks himself now, knowing how popular those rums have become. That's why we're more strict about ensuring we have enough stocks to keep our portfolio varied and dynamic. We buy as much as we can to store and keep, knowing that various rums will become popular for different reasons over time.

I often tell people who say they don't like rum, "Yes, you do. You just haven't found the right rum." There's such a wide scope in rum that there's likely a perfect rum for everyone. It's about finding the right one.

[88B]: After this experience, is there now an impulse to just squirrel away a small parcel of every rum that you encounter, so that in future you may have access to stocks of a cult rum?

[Ian]: We're kind of doing a bit of that. We project 10, 15, and 20 years into the future with our stocks. This way, we can allocate what we sell per year to potentially reach 30 or 40-year-old rums. It’s a good way to assess inventories and keep track of them. If a rum is developing really well over a long period, then it's definitely something we can employ to reach those targets.

If you had something like a 50 or 60-year-old rum that was extremely palatable because it had been matured in second or third use casks in a really cold climate for a long period, then why not? That's part of the wonder of it all.

[88B]: So we know that a good number of folks who are going to be most interested in this interview are probably prospective customers of yours, are there some tips you can offer up to them? Before stepping into your rum warehouses, is there anything that they ought to come into your fabled warehouses armed with? What are some questions or opinions you’d like more customers to come to you with that can allow Main Rum to best help them achieve their outcomes?

[Ian]: Absolutely. We welcome a lot of different business-to-business folks to our offices to talk about rum, and we often visit the warehouses as well. My advice is to keep an open mind. Don't be fixated on one distillate, origin, distillation style, raw material, or method. When you come to our office or warehouse, focus on seeking flavours that you like and then taste your way through what you find. That's generally how we like to work with people.

 

 

We get clients with varying levels of experience and different palates, and we have a wide range to offer. The key is to understand our clients' palates and their projects as much as possible so we can provide the right products for their needs. We also aim to educate them. For example, they might come in wanting rums from Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad—some of the most popular origins. But we encourage them to try something different without initially telling them what it is. They might discover that they love a Mauritius agricultural-style rum made from cane juice, which has a completely different profile.

It's about expanding horizons and not having a polarized view of what you want. While it's great to have an idea of what you want, we always like to offer something different as well, to challenge people and their palates a little. If you don't try it, you won't know. The more you try new things and older things, the more you build up your palate and understand different profiles, the processes behind the rums, whether they're traditional or cultural, how they came into prominence and why. Each rum has a history and a story that adds to its character.

With such a wide variety and selection, we can meet people at different points and levels, making the experience more accessible and fun. The variety makes our job easier and more challenging at the same time, as we attune people to what they really want. But that's all part of the fun.

[88B]: Finally taking a more forward looking view, what’s your sense in terms of how the rum landscape will continue to evolve? What are some big trends that you’re keeping a close eye on, or anything that you’re particularly excited about?

[Ian]: Personally, I believe the market will become more differentiated as consumers start to truly understand and appreciate the product. Consumers are seeking more knowledge—they want to understand the history, the process, and why a particular rum was bottled. This curiosity leads to many questions.

You can delve deeply into any of these aspects, spending weeks researching and learning, which is fantastic. As a company, we strive for transparency. When we sell a rum, we provide its complete history—from when it was distilled and put into the cask, to how long it aged, its country of origin, and the transportation method. Was it transported in a cask or a tank? Was it refilled in Liverpool or Scotland? We cover all these factors.

But again, it's not just for us to offer that to the consumer. We offer this information for our clients, who can then share it with consumers. It's about celebrating and understanding the journey of the spirit, which we believe enhances the premium market. We feel providing this level of transparency helps people appreciate rums more.

 

Serious rum producers, including Foursquare Distillery's Richard Seale, have been outspoken and adamant about rum-makers being more transparent about the origin of their rums – and Main Rum's approach is pretty much the gold standard. Read our interview with Foursquare's Richard Seale.

 

But in terms of differences, I think you might see a lot more blended, formulated ones coming into the marketplaces, heavily premiumized blends as well. You see a really good variation of maturation, cask type, which you probably already see in the market now. So there's a lot of that and then multiple maturation. So that could be double cask, triple cask, quadruple cask maturation processes, which some of that stuff is already being done at mainland company now.

In terms of market trends, we might see more blended, formulated rums entering the market, especially heavily premiumized blends. There’s already a good variation in maturation and cask types. Multiple maturation processes—double, triple, or even quadruple cask maturation—are becoming more common. At Main Rum Company, we’re already doing some of this work. For example, we have a 15-year-old rum that's in its third cask type, with multiple-origin maturation. It might be aged in Venezuela, then the Dominican Republic, and finally Scotland, going through three or four different cask types.

 

Dominican Republic's Brugal Rum (Source: Uncommon Caribbean)

 

I think you'll also see a lot of new fun innovation in label designs, packaging ideas, which you do see a lot of. That's part of the fun. A lot of our clients will share their labeling ideas or their marketing strategies, which are really fun. So some of them are really, really bespoke and a little bit more out of the box. You might also see new developments in cane cultivations as well, various yeast strains used in fermentation, and even hybrid rum styles that aren’t as common as traditional ones.

[88B]: On the personal side of things in terms of your personal preference, we have some rapid-fire questions.

First, tropical ageing or continental ageing?

[Ian]: I like a bit of both.

[88B]: Molasses rum or agricole rum?

[Ian]: Again, I think you could probably do both really well. You can do an 80 20. I've had that before. That works really well. But I like both styles.

[88B]: Pot still or column still?

[Ian]: Good question. *Laughs* I like both. They're so different. You have different rums for different occasions. Column still rums are usually easier and a bit more mellow, without as many punchy flavours. However, you can also get really heavy column stills, which are great too. So, yeah, I can't pick one. I like both, but blended rums are also really good.

[88B]: Multiple or single distillery?

[Ian]:I do like a lot of single distillery stuff, but there are some insanely good blends of origins from Jamaica and Guyana. I’ll probably go more on single distillery!

[88B]: Aged or unaged?

[Ian]: I think both for different reasons. So aged is great for just, you know, putting in a glass, leaving at room temperature as a sipping rum. Unaged is great for cocktails - I just love a rum punch. That's a fantastic drink to have, particularly when you're having a barbecue.

[88B]: High ester or moderate ester rums?

[Ian]: That probably depends on how old it is. So, if you've got an extremely high ester rum that's about 15 years old, that's probably my sweet spot for my palate. But moderate is really good as well.

So high ester if it was really aged. Like I told you about the blend I enjoyed, and they were both really high ester rums. They age extremely well and they taste really good when they're old and funky.

[88B]: Funky Jamaican rums or Demerara rums?

[Ian]: That's definitely too difficult to answer. I love them both, really. They're both really well known and well renowned types of rums, and they're just great for. They've got their own attributes and they're just great for different reasons. So, yeah, I would say both. Unfortunately, I've not really answered one of your questions here have I? *Laughs*

[88B]: Liverpool or Amsterdam?

[Ian]: I can answer the last one. Liverpool of course! Even though they lost the football match last night. A lot of my family lived in Liverpool before, so I've got quite a rich family history there. And obviously the historical importance for rums in Liverpool is really quite prominent and very interesting. I would have to go with Liverpool.

[88B]: Out of curiosity, how did you get into spirits? Did you personally begin with whisky or has it always been rums?

[Ian]: Actually, it's always been rum. My father used to work for Seagram Company, the Canadian spirits giant. We had to move to Scotland when we were babies because of his job when he moved to work with Allied Distillers and then on to Chivas. He had a career for about 35 years, working with lots of different rums and whiskies, blending, formulating whiskies and rums, RTDs, single malts, and all these types of things. So, it's somewhat in the family history already. Every during family holidays, we'd be going to wineries and distilleries, getting dragged around by my dad. I didn't really think about it back then, but I was already kind of getting an education in these things. So, yeah, it's almost becoming a family business.

[88B]: Thank you so much for this fantastically insightful interview, Ian!


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