The concept of American-based independent bottlers (IBs) of spirits is, I think, a fairly new concept, at least when compared to the centuries of tradition in the EU.
As Maltsters, you all will most likely have a notion of IBs through various well-known and long-lived companies like Cadenheads (1842), Berry Brothers & Rudd (1698) and Gordon & Macphail (1895). Despite providing a UK-centric list, this tradition isn’t exclusive there; the practice is in France as well. French brandy companies like Darroze(Armagnac) and Hine Cognac (1763) exist. Of course, various companies have also been bottling rum for centuries. The best example would be the British Navy. They used to source rum from countries they used to run, like British Guyana and Jamaica for their navy’s rum. The Royal Navy ended this on the 31st of July 1970. Its remnants are now being sold under Black Tot’s Last Consignment.
The growth and rising awareness of the spirits industry has left Americans wanting. Though I will admit that my perspective of the US market mostly relies on New York and California, I think they are a good gauge. These are the US markets that brands usually target first. It’s frequently said by small brands that America’s laws regarding alcohol—mainly, their requirement of 750ml bottles, although 700ml has recently been allowed, and each state being like its own country serve as a great barrier.
So if some larger and better-known American markets have trouble getting access to niche brands like IBs, what more for the smaller US markets? Luckily, some of these Scotch IBs have made it to the US—yet sadly, the majority of the rum IBs haven’t yet arrived in the US. I can only think of Habitation Velier, Transcontinental Rum Line and Plantation as the present brands. This lack of IB rum presence paired with its rising tides led to one person starting his own indie rum bottler operation called Holmes Cay.
The owner and founder of Holmes Cay (Cay is pronounced as key) is Eric Kaye. He founded the company in 2019. For 25 years, he composed and produced music used for TV, films and commercials. However, with technology being more advanced, the strong barriers the industry used to have are nearly gone. Before, one had to own or rent expensive studios to produce and compose music. These days, you can work on your own music on your laptop for a fraction of the cost. This change in the industry made him look for something else to do—and he loves rum. (I’ll disclose that I got to know Eric better last year as everyone had to stay home. This resulted in sections of the rum community getting closer.)
He has been traveling and drinking rum for 30 years. He’s said to have been to almost every island in the Caribbean, which shows, as he’s been a rum lover even before this rum movement started.
With the growth of the online rum community, it’s easier to be aware of other brands in the market. But since the EU has had a longer tradition of drinking rum, almost all of the brands focus there before the USA. The UK had it with their Navy rum ration and former colonies in the Caribbean. The French have been drinking agricole since its inception due to the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s and after the World Wars, as a lot of their brandy producers’ lands were affected. They still have rum-producing provinces in the Caribbean and in Africa (Reunion). The Dutch found Batavia Arrack in Indonesia and created the punch craze in the EU. They also brought sugarcane to Barbados, which eventually led to Caribbean rum. Germany has always had a thing for Jamaican rum (Rum Verschnitt) since the early 1900s. In short, a lot of the rum Eric and other US-based rum geeks want to try aren’t in the US. They’d have to visit the EU to buy them or order them online and incur heavy shipping fees plus tax.
As a result of these challenges, he decided to start Holmes Cay. The ideals and practices he put in the brand are similar to Foursquare’s Richard Seale’s and Velier’s Luca Gargano’s in its use of real age statements and no adulteration. Of course, being a new IB, he doesn’t have a ton of stocks for blending. For now, he’s mainly bottling rum via single barrel and cask strength or slightly diluted, although he recently worked with the Rumcast podcast and released a blend of Fiji rums sourced from E&A Scheer. The blend is bottled at 46% and comes in a different bottle. With his company, he can choose casks of rum from brokers or the distillers he wants. Some casks, he aged further in New York to add certain oak influence, such as the Barbados (Foursquare) 2009 Port cask, where he put the rum in an ex-port cask for an additional year.
At the moment, he has seven releases from distilleries like Barbados’ Foursquare, Guyana’s Diamond Distillery, Belize’s Travellers Liquors Ltd. and Fiji’s South Pacific Distilleries (SPD). But it doesn’t mean he’s only released rum from seven casks. Some of these releases are multiple casks from one distillery, one vintage and with a similar profile. For example, this Fiji 2004 cask #9 has a sibling cask #4 that is younger by 5 months.
I should also point out that Holmes Cay isn’t the first and only rum-focused IB based in the US; nor is he the newest. The first rum-centric IB would probably be Ed Hamilton, who owns Hamilton Rum, but aside from his now-discontinued St. Lucia bottlings (because St. Lucia Distillers stopped selling to bottlers and blenders), most of his SKUs are meant for cocktails. Eric also credits Ed for helping him and giving useful advice. There are other outfits sourcing and bottling their own rum, too, but they bottle more whisky than rum. At the top of my head, I can think of Barrell Bourbon, Rolling Fork Rum and Sazerac’s Jung and Wulff.
For some more context, Fiji rum is also rare in the US, as only three other companies make it available there. First is La Maison & Velier’s Transcontinental Rum Line. The second is Plantation. Third is from Rum Co of Fiji via their Bati and Ratu rums, but they’re only available in California.so far.
Anyone interested in Fiji rum should also note that it will be harder to acquire in the future. There is only one rum distillery in Fiji: this is the SPD mentioned above. Plantation recently made a deal with them to secure their supply. It’s not clear what exactly this deal is, as I’ve heard some inconsistencies. One is they have the right of first refusal for Fiji rum, meaning any rum Plantation likes, they get to keep. Any rum they don’t like gets to be sold to blenders and bottlers. The other is that all SPD stocks are owned by Plantation. No matter what the exact deal is, Fiji rum will be harder to get soon.
So far, Eric has also been credited with making Belize rum from the Travellers more well-known in the US. According to Eric, there are three more rum distilleries there. His 15-year 2005 Belize has only received good reviews and feedback. This has made more rum fans more open-minded to column-distilled rum from Latin America.
Holmes Cay Fiji 2004 16 Years Old – Review
Cask # 9. 58% ABV. $149.99 from K&L. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years in the tropics (Fiji) and 4 years in the UK (Main Rum).
Color: Trappistes Rochefort.
On the nose: Pretty tame at the start for a Fiji rum that’s known to be funky. The heat catches up, but it’s not much, despite the high ABV. I get a whiff of pencil graphite upon nosing this, and then it immediately vanishes. Next, medium and lasting aromas of cascara, petrol, plums, expired cherry juice, asphalt, dates and olive tapenade come through. After nosing this a few more times, I get inconsistent, light aromas of muscovado syrup, Fuji apples and fresh-cut grass.
In the mouth: Now, these are the characteristics I’d expect from a Fiji rum. The funk (and heat) immediately jumps at me. I get medium tastes of rotten bananas, muscovado syrup, dates, cascara, rotten cherries, grass jelly, petrol, plastic balloon and olive tapenade. At the end are lighter tastes of Fuji apples, fresh cut grass and medicinal acidic notes that make me think of Tina Negra Madeira.
A damn good Fiji rum in a style to which I’m not accustomed, to the point that in a blind tasting, I’d think this was a light Caroni. This probably comes from me being more used to younger rum from them, wherein the funk and distillery DNA aims to punch me in the face as soon as it gets the chance. Aside from some criticism towards the nose, this is perfect.
I like that the heat on the nose didn’t jump at me, but I’d like it better if the rum expressed itself more—if it were more intense and gave off more funk. Aside from an 18 year IB Fiji, though, this is the oldest Fiji rum I’ve had yet.
Fiji rum is not yet as well-known as Jamaican rum or Foursquare, so it’s hard to gauge what buyers of this will like. Plus the lack of availability in the US means that Eric will have a harder time having more references, but it’s safe to say that Eric did a great job choosing this cask. He knows his rum. He is getting to know his market better. This Fiji will surely be well-loved by lovers of funky rum from places like Jamaica, Caroni and St. Lucia.
Any US-based rum lovers who want a better variety of rum to be available should support Holmes Cay. It’ll allow Holmes Cay to source more rum and might even encourage US-based whisky IBs to check out the spirit, or get new folks started in sourcing and bottling their own rum. As long as they do it right and are honest, that’s great news.
Photo courtesy of K&L.