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

Copyright Rum Diaries Blog

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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Foursquare Triptych Single Blended Rum

I’d hate to think what street value my bottle of Triptych has at the time of compiling this article. I am recently back from an astonishing visit to Barbados and my first visit to a Caribbean Rum Distillery just had to be a trip to Foursquare……in fact it was so much fun, we did it twice within 10 days. Just the ability to get such a first hand, up close and personal experience was amazing….and best of all…..given the open and honest policy that Foursquare Rum Distillery has (albeit adhering to the ‘no go’ signs which are there for your own safety), you can also experience this. I wholeheartedly suggest that you do. Just to share the room with the stills that produce these Rums is worth the trip alone. But lets just take a moment to look at the glorious black bottle, the striking label and that glass of majestic dark amber liquid…..

My first opportunity to try Triptych came at last years UK RumFest and even with a certain amount of palate fatigue, it was impressive……Now getting to try it again in its actual release blend format, whilst in the Foursquare Rum Distillery tasting room was the thing of dreams. I was sat next to Barnali, right opposite my good friend Nikos and I had Richard to my right. Glasses were duly prepared and Triptych was poured. The next five minutes were spent in silence, nosing the glass and grinning from ear to ear. As far as experiences go, this was by far one of the finest……but Triptych wasn’t the only thing that we got to try that day….and we tried even more when we returned for our second visit with Ivar and Mariangela….On that visit we were also fortunate enough to be joined by Gayle….but had the setting, the excitement of being in the room that I’d only previously seen pictures of, the sun of Barbados and the amazing company influenced my opinion of this Rum? Fortunately I have spent the last 5 weeks or so dipping into my available supply to compile my notes….

Foursquare Triptych – Single Blended Rum – 56% abv

You’ll know all about Foursquare Rum Distillery if you’ve been here before and a few of their more recent releases can be found here and here.

A little more about this release then. The name gives up a lot….Triptych…..We automatically assume that it has three components. The bottle label details that there are three single blended vintages each with a different oak maturation. A 2004 ex-Bourbon, a 2005 ex-Madeira and a 2007 Virgin Oak. Virgin Oak for me (based on my reading, not on experience) has always been synonymous with Bourbon given its distillation method. Where a distiller can make their cuts with a Pot still or choose a specific plate on a Coffey still, a Single Column still allows the good, the bad and the ugly to pass over into the distillate. Virgin Oak I have read is used as it has an initial aggressive effect on the distillate, calming the rough edges in a short space of time. That has always led me to view its use as something that wouldn’t necessarily be used for the maturation of Rum from a Pot Still or Coffey Still…..But this is Foursquare….and they thrive on this type of innovation. I posed a couple of questions to Richard regarding the make up of the blend and the differing barrels. Firstly, this Single Blended Rum is made up of three other Single Blended Rums. I was asked via Instagram whether the blend is a collaboration between Foursquare and Velier. I can report that the blend is entirely developed by Foursquare Rum Distillery, with samples being shared with the Velier Group for their comment and observations.  The ex-Bourbon barrels were utilised for the 2004 Single Blended Rum up until bottling in November 2016. The same goes from 2005 for the ex-Madeira barrels. I did however ask a few more questions about the Virgin Oak. Firstly I wondered if the aggressive character of the barrels led to them being monitored more closely than usual during the process and whether Virgin Oak was chosen to accelerate the maturation process over a shorter period…..I received some real insight into the use of these barrels. Virgin Oak requires sufficient air seasoning to allow it to become easier to work with….and the cask choice was perhaps one of necessity. With the reported stock shortages of ex-Bourbon barrels at the time (2007), Foursquare took the opportunity to experiment and familiarise themselves with the more expensive Virgin Oak barrels (Virgin Oak is twice the cost of ex-Bourbon). Monitoring of these barrels occurs more closely due to the aggressive effects of the oak and light blends will typically spend no more than 6 months in new oak. Based on the fact that the blend spent 6 years in Virgin Oak prior to transfer into older barrels for the remainder of its maturation period (approx. 3 years), I asked the obvious follow on question of whether this Single Blended Rum was particularly Pot still heavy to cope with the effects of the Virgin Oak. This was confirmed. An excellent and open insight into the constituents of this super complex Single Blended Rum. I also managed to grab a few (hundred) photographs on our visits and below are the two stills that created this Rum.

Forsyths Twin Retort Pot Still

Coffey Still

Tasting Notes

Glass: Dark amber with copper flashes. Quite a lot of astringency initially. Heavy stone fruit and the acidity of fresh quince juice. A developing grape influence and acetone. Soft but growing oak. The entire opposite of what I had expected given the presence of long maturation in fresh oak. I braced for dominant oak and vanilla….it did not dominate. Such is the complexity, even the oaken influence seems to introduce itself under a series of sub-headings. Light vanilla, pencil shavings, dusty library books, cherry influence from the ex-bourbon through to damp wood. Toasted coconut, walnuts, milk chocolate and powdery cocoa have an interplay with earthy, dirty aromas and chestnut mushrooms. Light floral notes are also present right at the back end. The nose is so well balanced. Everything just works in its own way. No shoulder barging….very British….just standing in a line waiting its turn. This can’t be a fluke though. It has to be down to exemplary cask management plus a large chunk of just knowing what you’re doing. To achieve such a soft, yet powerful nose delivering an experience that is just a joy using three such different and influential cask types is no mean feat. The nose on the 2006 was beautiful. Direct, robust and holding real depth. The Triptych almost makes it seem ordinary (by Foursquare standards). Its like comparing a three-piece band to an orchestra.

Mouth: This is a real experience. Soft enveloping amber liquid that is all encompassing. It has a beautifully velvety mouth-feel. Salty, sweet liquorice and pepper both initially and on the mid-palate. Talking of the mid-palate, the edges of your tongue almost curl as the oak announces its arrival….it takes the wheel for a good few minutes but its not overly dominant. Balance is the overarching feel to Triptych. Dry, tannic fortified wine accompanied by dates. Candied fruit peels. Apricot. Pickled Ginger. Toasted coconut. A definite sappy cedar wood. Floral wildflower honey. Its wave after wave of intense flavour. There is tropical fruit….maybe pineapple and banana. At the back end there is milk chocolate. It is a beautifully savoury / sweet Rum (thats sweet, not sweetened…never confuse the two). The finish is of a medium to long length….a dry oaken start progresses to salty-sweet liquorice and a return of the tannins and stone fruit. Again, characteristic of Bajan Rum for me is the trademark apricot vapour and its here.

Each barrel has its moment in the spotlight, tells its own part of the story. Certain elements grab onto certain areas of your tongue, pinging your senses and leading you on a journey. You absolutely could not create this experience using ‘short-cuts’….and thats what it is….its an experience. It takes the near perfect 2006 and just adds layer upon layer of complexity. Its more nuanced. More light, more shade. Sweet but never as sweet as the amazing Zinfandel and Port Cask. Even now, 5 weeks in I’m discovering more. I’ve not even added water….Did I mention just how unlike a 56% spirit this feels? It carries the intensity of a higher abv Rum but its maturity and balance make it a joy to behold.

Triptych is the mark of a Master Distiller and a Distillery rooted in tradition, devoted to doing things the right way. Building upon a desire to experiment, re-invigorated by the belief that others have placed in it and reveling in the impact that it is having on the industry and consumers alike. It is entirely on top of its game. Its ‘pulling wheelies’….not to impress….but just because it can. It is also sticking a middle finger up to the ‘Bajan rum is boring’ crowd.

I’ve struggled with this over the course of the 5 week period….dwindling my stocks of both Triptych and 2006 in side by side comparisons…..But I can hand on heart say, step aside 2006….there is a new benchmark in town……for now…..The amazing thing is, this wasn’t even the best Rum that I tasted on our visits to Foursquare….

© 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

A Potted History of the Rockley Still

This will represent the first guest post to appear on the site and in this instance it will be written by my friend Nikos Arvanitis. I am very eager for it to appear here on this site given that I am a huge fan of the medicinal elements within the Rockley Still style of Rum and I have really enjoyed communicating with Nikos on this subject during his recent Caribbean adventure. Thus far am only aware of two years of distillation for Rums purporting to be from this mythical still. The year 1986 saw a couple of Samaroli Blackrock and Bristol Classic Rockley Still Rums and the year 2000 has seen a Rum Swedes, a La Confrerie du Rhum and an Our Rum and Spirits release in the Rockley Still ‘style’ (though the latter two do not state it in the label). Both years of distillation point towards W.I.R.D (Blackrock) as a point of origin but the following potted history may expose the fact that these Rums are not actually from the Rockley Still at all, but are merely a Rockley Still ‘Style’. Delving further into it, that also may be a misleading statement as there is a high likelihood that no-one actually knows what the Rockley Still distillate tastes like, and therefore we are simply unable to replicate it truly as it could be a lost style. Anyway, without further delay I shall leave it to Nikos, who after touring the Caribbean living like a local and not a tourist is best placed to speak with some authority on the subject.

A Potted History of the Rockley Still

Rockley DocumentI always thought that in order to understand Rum, I ought to follow the path of sugarcane in the Caribbean, the history of the plantations, the habits of the slaves and others not so technically aware of the production process issues. That was basically the reason that I moved to the Caribbean for a while. By communicating with the locals and by undertaking personal research, I was able to hearken to the personality of this mythical distillate, gaining experience through peoples’ stories. I would like to share with you a short and turbulent history of Rockley Still. The Rockley Estate is located on the Southwest coast on the island of Barbados in the Christ Church Parish. Its existence stems from the early to mid-18th century. The island of Barbados was rich in sugarcane plantations, and most of these plantations distilled. This was also the case on the Rockley Plantation.

BatsonsThe nationalization of the plantations of Barbados started, and this resulted in a slowdown in sugar production. A natural extension of this slowdown spread to molasses production and therefore Rum production. A company by the name of Batson’s started collecting the machinery and stills from the plantations that were beginning to close. All of these closures took place during the late 19th and early 20th century, and the truth is that they built up a very good collection of Pot Stills. Within their collection, there were two small-capacity Pot Stills which we believe date back to 1850 that were built in London. We are still not sure if one of the two (the smallest) came from Rockley Plantation, and simply sought a new ‘home’ because it was probably well-known that the plantation would be transformed into a golf course for rich tourists.

The continuity of its existence finds it relocated to the West Indies Rum Distillery (W.I.R.D), where it was purchased in order to allow W.I.R.D to possess a Pot Still and reduce the competition with Batson’s. This happened somewhere between 1905 and 1920. After conversations with members of the distilleries where the stills were originally located, we received confirmation that they were actually used for distillation. However, it is certain that they have both been inactive for at least 50-60 years, as no member of the company, even the oldest ones, have ever seen them active. They are well maintained and are located somewhere at the W.IR.D. So if we assume that actually the smaller of the two IS the legendary Rockley Still, it is apparent that Rum distilled from this has not yet been released to the market, since it has simply been inactive for so many years. We shouldn’t forget though that the name of a dead plantation and a lot of years without distillation make a Rum a lot more interesting to the market because it is all Smart Marketing. However, this is far from true, as the history is history and we are not able to change it…

Rockley Still
My love from Greece and the Port Cask finish Foursquare Rum which accompanies me whilst I write these few words about the Rockley Still.

Cheers

May the Angels Share Return to the locals…Save the Caribbean….Bless

Bio

Nikos Arvanitis has been working as a bartender since 2006. Rum is his passion and his desire to understand it lead him to the Caribbean. Using the Island of Barbados as his base, he has visited 15 Islands in the tropical zone of the ‘West Indies’ and over 30 Rum distilleries and sugarcane fields, both active and inactive. His journey is still on and he has named it “From The West Indies to the World”

email: nikos.arvanitis.rum@gmail.com

facebook : https://www.facebook.com/nikos.arvanitis.7

© Steven James and Rum Diaries Blog 2015. 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.