An Interview with Nikos Arvanitis – Rum Traveller

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

Nikos Arvanitis will be familiar to most of my Facebook Rum forum frequenting audience. He’ll also be more than familiar to Rum Festival attendees throughout Europe. In fact his biography reads very well:

Nikos Arvanitis has been working as a bartender since 2006. Rum is his passion and his desire to understand it led him to the Caribbean. Living in Barbados and using this island as his base, he has visited 30 islands of the tropical zone of the “West Indies” and over 45 distilleries and sugarcane fields, both active and inactive. His journey is still on, it will soon be reflected on paper and he has named it “From the West Indies to the World”.

Nikos Arvanitis through his travels and speeches is trying to spread the traditional production process of Rum and the culture of the Caribbean people.

He is a member in the jury panel and an instructor in rum presentation, in several European Rum Festivals (Berlin, Paris, Poland, Greece, Spain etc.) and bar shows.

Instructor of Rum in Bar Academy Hellas

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On a personal level, I have known Nikos for around three years and during that time we have conversed a lot about life, Rum and everything in between. During our period of friendship I have seen Nikos grow into a very well-respected spokesman for Rum and an evangelist for the history and tradition that exists within the Caribbean. More recently he has become a very active independent spokesperson for the Gargano / Seale Classification and a campaigner and activist for Pure Rum and raising the category in general.

I was fortunate enough to meet Nikos earlier this year in his natural habitat….a Rum distillery. The distillery in question was Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados and it was also my first Rum Distillery visit. We chatted for a while, walked through the distillery with Richard and sampled untold delights in the Foursquare Tasting Room. We also shared a pretty eventful taxi ride with him.

Open and honest is all that I have known from Nikos and I’m giving his full, unedited responses to my questions. No cutting, snipping or leaving out of any detail. Hopefully you’ll see that his responses relay the passion that he has and the high regard in which he holds Rum as the true essence of the Caribbean and its people.

1 – For those that may not already be familiar with you and your work, explain to them what your project “From the West Indies to the World” is about.

From the West Indies to the World

It’s a personal project including photos, thoughts and notes for the real side of Caribbean islands and the connection between the locals and the Rum, through the eyes of the unknown reality.

Sugar cane fields, unknown dead estates, Rum Distilleries and traditional Rums.

In short, it’s my lonely trip-wandering in the tropic zone of the West Indies. Personal experiences, emotionally charged stories, culture, people. I don’t travel the easy way. I’m visiting places that they are really inaccessible to many white people and also I organized the 95% from all these trips myself, without sponsors, companies etc. The final collection of these experiences is the reason that this project is born, and due to that, I don’t focus only the to rum and the production process..

I’m not an author / writer and I do not even want to be. I just have the feeling and the belief that the experiences created to share. This project is an extension of me and the opposite.

The ultimate goal of my project is to make as many people as possible respect and fall in love with the Caribbean, the local culture, the people and finally the distilleries that are keeping alive and  unchanged the traditional production process of the spirit we love the most.

2 – Your travels are followed by and envied by many people….including me. One thing that often gets said to people like me is that to truly understand Rum and all that it is, you have to visit distilleries. Just how many countries and distilleries have you visited?

I would like to speak on a personal level without meaning that it’s either wrong or right. Yes, I clearly believe that if you don’t visit the Caribbean by yourself and the distilleries as well, it’s really difficult to understand rum. There’s a huge difference between the word ‘knowledge‘ and the word ‘understanding‘. Countless sites on the Internet with completely different opinions and misleading information, distributors, companies and ambassadors talk about rum and they’ve never touched sugarcane in their life. So there is misinformation and false information about rum. When I visited the distilleries I acquired a complete image, totally different to the one I had before. And yes, I was reading and attending seminars. But I figured that it wasn’t enough. It was like I was going inside the glass and becoming one with rum. Of course, it is important that the people of the distilleries are also honest with you. I was lucky (and a pain in the ass for them)

I have visited in total 30 islands of the Caribbean tropic zone. The number of distilleries is 45 out of 50. My last trip was in Haiti and trust me, Haiti is a unique situation. It’s a category by itself.

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

3 – I personally see you as a direct link to Rum producers that are not active on social media and have little to no online presence. Do you think that your relationship with these Rum producers is vital in bringing the plight of forgotten and overlooked distilleries such as the Callwood Distillery in the BVI and River Antoine in Grenada into the spotlight?

The first time I saw distilleries like the ones you mentioned, I said to myself, “I will spread all over the world about these distilleries-Caribbean’s heritage”.
I saw this subject in a very romantic tone. It is truly a shame that 90% of the whole world does not even know the existence of wonderful rums like these. But the most important thing is that they do not know the passion, the love and respect that the people who surround distilleries have for their rums. Their existence is the link between the past and the present. And if you do forget the past, the heritage and the history, the future is cloudy and uncertain…

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

4 – Apart from your project and the Rum, what continues to drive you to travel to these places?

People. Certainly people. The human relationships that I created there are by far the most important school of my life. They changed my worldview. I’m not the same person as I used to be before. At least I do not act and think the same way.

I adore the warm climate. I don’ really like the cold and I am freezing really quick and easy. I am not really sure if I will survive this winter in Paris. Hahahaha. Yeah, Paris is going to be my base for the following year(s)…

Finally, the word “vibe“. I can’t explain this feeling in a few words. It’s something much deeper. The vibe in the tropic zone makes me happy and above all, I’m 100% myself. Something I have never experienced before in the big European countries even in my own country, where the friendship and human relationships are in the second or even third fate. Unfortunately…

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

5 – You’re a firm advocate of the proposed Gargano / Seale Classification. Explain the classification for those that may not be aware of it. Why you feel that it is so important?

Usually, my presentations for this matter last like 4 hours…..So I believe it’s a little bit difficult to explain in a few words.

Yes, I am a 100% supporter of this wonderful classification. It was the middle of 2014 I think when Richard (Seale) firstly introduced me to this classification in one of my weekly visits to Foursquare distillery. When I saw the classification I told to myself: “Yes, this is the only way to have a better and promised future for the category of Rum, to put things in a row and first of all to give Rum the respect it deserves”. Two years later I found Luca (Gargano) in one of his trips in Barbados. He also helped me understand the classification. So, my communication with the two most influential persons of the Rum world plus my personal research was the common link for the final result…..to spread this classification all over the world.

This Classification focuses to the type of the producer, the type of the still and of course at the distillery statement. I believe that this last thing is the biggest problem in Rum. The 70% of rums of the global market haven’t got a distillery statement. This is really bad.

This classification it’s not about what’s good and what’s bad. Tasty or not. Originally, it’s a chronological order of the history of distillation and is based on facts. There is a separation between the traditional production process and the modern.  This doesn’t mean that tradition overtakes modern methods, but we surely have to have a different approach to an original artisanal Rum from an industrial one.

Finally, some people say that this classification is a copy of the Whisky’s classification. This is not true, not at all and please if you don’t understand the role of the classification, don’t judge. Open your mind and be more Caribbean…I am always open for conversations about this subject, contact me and it would be my pleasure to help you have better understanding about the classification.

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

6 – Your time spent with Rum producers has seen you spearheading the important job of communicating the classification through your interactions on social media and your presentations to industry and consumers. Do you see knowledge of the classification spreading throughout the community to the point that there is a basic understanding already when you talk to the industry and consumers?

First of all I really need to share with you that NONE of the producers ever told me what to say in my presentations or to promote specific Rums (I am not a f****n promoter or brand ambassador and I will never be). I was In Berlin some weeks ago and someone came to me and said that: “You promote the rums of your friends distilleries”. This is not true. I love to promote the Rums I love and the distilleries who still respect the Caribbean’s heritage and tradition. It’s true that I have a personal connection with many distilleries like Worthy Park, Foursquare and others but this connection is more a friendship and match to our beliefs than a business. The people out there who know me personally, know this much better than anyone. The situation with the association is something new but all of us used to fight about the traditional production process of the Rum many years ago, but our voice is heard by a lot of people only in the last 2-3 years. The customers really want to know more about the Rum and this is wonderful. The promise I am giving is that I will always act 100% as Nick and I will do the best to raise the category of the Rum.

7 – A large proportion of the Rum producers appear to fear the classification. Why do you think that is?

From my point of view, the main reason is that they initially believe that if they accept this sort of classification, it is like neglecting what they say so many years about their products on the market. I think that they are only interested in the rise of their own label and not rum as a spirit. We all have to understand that sales cannot go up in a particular bottle if the category is not developed in general. You cannot deny that tradition, not least the complicated production process of rum, should not go into the same sink as modern industrial products. They cannot have the same prices and above all the word “artisanal” on their bottle. So yes, I think they initially think of their sales which is not true because if the rum is classified and developed in general, this will be a good thing for everyone. Speaking so much time for the world market, I will give a personal example from my own country that reflects what I have said. See it as a miniature of the market.

Ambassadors who have never touched a still, have not bitten sugar cane, have never walked in the Caribbean, have not spoken to locals and have not understood the rum, continue to promote products that are in the company’s portfolio, for which you do not know the existence of the distillery (which of course does not exist), so-called spiced easy rums and pure alcohol full of flavors and sweeteners, industrial products that have nothing to do with the history of the island are being produced. How do you orient yourself in the market by telling lies and having the main goal of selling your own only products and at the same time looking for the good for the future of rum? It can not be done. Quite simply because there is no love for rum and the Caribbean but love for your dominance in the market and the word “monopoly“.

The shawls have no pockets. What is the essence if you are not faithful to your values ​​and your beliefs as a person and you adapt to what the system imposes on you…?

8 – Do you think that the Classification will ever become industry standard?

I am very optimistic and positive as a human and yeah man, I believe that it will. Already you can see a great rise of the artisanal Rum in the global market and this is wonderful and makes me very happy. But I don’t like to use the world “industry” next to the word “Rum“. Let’s use another term: “The World of Rum” is much better I think.

From me and my team, there is a promise that we will do all we can to build strong foundations in this classification and we will fight for it through presentations, seminars, articles etc. What is the essence of human being as if you haven’t got something to fight for??

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

9 – Do you think that having a Geographical Indication for Rum production will become the natural progression?

Yes, I believe that this is the path. Jamaica for example, is fighting about this. But I would like to make a general statement on this really important subject.

In Jamaica we have distilleries that make completely different rum in a totally different way. In particular, it’s not possible to consider a pure single rum from Worthy Park or Hampden with that of Clarendon. Yes, these three distilleries take place in the same island, they are all Jamaican, but the Rums are completely different. The production process as well. In Clarendon they use a small amount of Rum from Batch distillation. The majority of the final blend is coming from distillation in Multi column ethyl alcohol plant. This does not happen in the first two distilleries I mentioned earlier. So, I say that simply saying Jamaican Rum is not enough because there is diversity within Jamaican Rum.

They all rely on some common elements in the production process, but at the end of the day the final products are completely different. So, just the world Jamaican Rum I don’t feel that it’s enough.

There must be also control to the independent bottlers with no distillery statement. I’m tasting very often rums like these, let’s say a Barbadian Rum, and this rum has nothing to do with the traditional rums of the island. The same happens also with other bottlings. Personally, I find it unacceptable to add sweeteners, aromas and other extras that literally do not respect the distillery, the history and the heritage of the island, and also the tradition, except some special situations. Of course, the majority of these independent bottles haven’t got distillery statement on the labels and at the same time they say that they choose personally the best barrels from the distilleries. They didn’t .They just bought these rums from other companies. Be careful with the false marketing terms. I really would like to see better control and balance between the distilleries and the independent bottlers in future. If the rum is not even close to the character of the distillery and the distillery bottlings, don’t give the permission to the independent companies to make the bottling. The master distiller has to taste the rum and if he agrees, enter the name of the distillery and his signature. So everyone cannot bottle whatever they want. Quite honestly, I believe this.

Copyright Nikos Arvanitis

So there we have it…..an amazing amount of passion and a completely open forum for Nikos to give his true, unedited opinions.

I’d like to personally take this opportunity to thank Nikos again for his agreement to undertake this interview and I hope that I have given him the platform which he deserves.

© Steven James and Rum Diaries Blog 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, both written and photographic without the express and written permission from this blog/sites author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Steven James and Rum Diaries Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

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Toussaint Rum Coffee Liqueur

Master logo no texture Dark and rich_v2‘Inspired by a revolutionary who changed the world’ is the line that instantly hits you when you search for information about Toussaint Rum Coffee Liqueur. The revolutionary in question is Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Independence Movement at the time of the French Civil War. A man who despite receiving no military training, drove Napoleon out of his country and led a nation to its independence.

Tousssaint LouvertureIn the 1700’s, Saint-Domingue (later to become Haiti) was a colony of slaves ruled by a very small French minority on the sugar and coffee plantations on the western side of the island of Hispaniola. The eastern half of the island was under Spanish control. Despite France declaring its own freedom in 1879, this ‘Liberte, egalite and fraternite’ did not apply to French Colonies. During this time, slave revolts were not uncommon, and they frequently ended in failure and with executions as the result. This story has a slightly different ending though.

Little is known of Toussaint L’Ouvertures early life, but he is thought to have been born into slavery on the plantation of Breda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue somewhere between 1739 and 1746. Though born a slave, Toussaint was told of Africa by his father who had been born a free man there. He was aware that he was more than a slave, he was a man with dignity and intelligence. Toussaint was also a well-educated man. He was trained as a house servant which allowed him to learn how to read and write. He read all that he could and he became fascinated by the writings of the French Enlightenment Philosophers. They spoke of the rights of the individual to equality.

In 1789, France was rocked by the French Revolution, and this had a major knock on effect throughout the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue. Early moderate revolutionaries began to seriously question slavery, and though they themselves were not willing to end it, they applied the rights of man to all Frenchmen. Plantation owners were enraged and fought the measure, eventually forcing the revolutionaries to retract the measures in 1791. News of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint-Domingue, and Toussaint L’Ouverture became the leader of the largest slave revolt in history.

Starting in 1791, 12 years of brutal fighting commenced that was to finally result in Haitian Independence in 1804. Toussaint led his army rabble to numerous victories against the French, British and Spanish. In 1793, the French Revolution was in the hands of the Jacobins, the most radical of the revolutionary groups. This group was responsible for the ‘Reign of Terror’ that was a campaign to rid France of all enemies of the revolution. Though they brought indiscriminate death in France, the Jacobins were idealists who wanted to take the revolution as far as it could possibly go. Again they considered the issue of equality and voted to end slavery in all French colonies, including what was to become Haiti. Jubilation spread through Saint-Domingue and Toussaint agreed to assist the French in removing the Spanish and British. He proved to be a brilliant general, winning 7 battles in 7 days and he became a de facto governor of the colony. The British attempted to capture Saint-Domingue but this ended in a costly and humiliating failure, forcing them to withdraw in 1798.

Meanwhile in France, the Jacobins had lost power and the people were tiring of all the blood shed and this resulted in Maximilian Robespierre, their leader, being sent  to the guillotine. This ended the reign of terror, but reaction set in. As the French people wished to get back to business, more moderate leaders came and went, and these were eventually replaced by Napoleon. He ruled France as a dictator and responded to the pleas of the plantation owners by reinstating slavery. This plunged Saint-Domingue back into war. By 1803, Napoleon wanted rid of it, and he and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognise Haitian independence in return for Toussaint agreeing to retire from public life. Months later, the French invited Toussaint to negotiating meeting, promising safe treatment. Upon arrival, the French, under Napoleons orders, betrayed Toussaint and arrested him, placing him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that he be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains and murdered by means of cold, starvation and neglect. He died in prison, but others carried on his fight for freedom. In 1804, Napoleon eventually abandoned Haiti to independence.

So that is a very brief, potted history of an amazing man.

Toussaint Rum Coffee Liqueur – 30% abv

Toussaint Bottle

Toussaint Rum Coffee Liqueur is made with aged Caribbean Rum and Arabica Coffee Beans and has been designed to give the taste of an espresso yet have reduced sugar content when compared with other liqueurs of a similar style. A three-year old rum base is blended with the Arabica coffee. Whilst developing Toussaint, the master bender selected the three-year old rum from an array of ten possibilities as they thought that it would add sweetness to the liqueur without the need for additional sugar. They also spent time choosing the specific blend of coffee to arrive at the right flavour profile. The product was developed in Haiti although is now a product made in the UK and it has gained a few awards along the way. It received a 5 Star Rating from Diffords Guide, a Gold Medal in the 2013 Drinks International Competition and a Gold Medal in the 2014 spirits Business Rum Masters. How does it taste though……..

Tasting Notes

In the glass: Toussaint is a dark mahogany with slight red flashes. It’s a little foreboding! It’s quite thick in the glass as it’s a liqueur but it’s not syrupy at all. It’s also not overly sweet which is a surprise. Dark coffee and chocolate notes jump out of the glass along with light rum elements. It’s not too complex but has a very warm and inviting character.

In the mouth: Straight away my first thought is that it is nowhere near as sweet as the two other coffee and rum based liqueurs that I own. It also dries out remarkably quickly. Dark espresso coffee hits you instantly followed by punchy heavy cocoa wrapped in a little alcohol warmth. There is no real defined rum taste to the liqueur but it’s dryness and lack of a syrupy sweetness make it very appealing to me. It has a medium finish full off coffee, chocolate and a warming spice note that is very dry. Lovely stuff.

Numerous mixed drink recipes can be found here and alongside such favourites as Espresso Martinis and White Russians, the one that jumps out at me is the Cap Haitian. This consists of 25ml Toussaint, 20ml Skipper Rum, 20ml aged Caribbean Rum and three drops of Orange Bitters. This is stirred together over ice in a rocks glass. Sounds amazing.

Toussaint retails at around £19 for a 500ml bottle. At that price it is a little more costly that its main competitor, and it is a smaller bottle…….but in MY opinion, the dryness and the fact that it carries less sweetness, makes it a far more attractive proposition. As always, feel free to pop in and try some……..

© Steven James and Rum Diaries Blog 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, both written and photographic without the express and written permission from this blog/sites author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Steven James and Rum Diaries Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

*information sources – BBC History, History Wiz Archives, Encyclopaedia Britannica*