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Rum Renegade Mark Reynier: On the Record (IPA)

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In January 2020 I visited the island of Grenada as a guest of Renegade Rum. Originally an independent bottler of rums, Renegade made a hard-left turn recently, building the first brand new, large scale Caribbean rum distillery in over 15 years. (I’ll have much more to say about this in a future story.)

Leading Renegade’s charge is Mark Reynier, the iconoclastic Englishman who’s shaken up the distilled spirits world with his quest for extreme terroir. Without going too deep into his extensive biography, in 2000 Reynier and his investor group purchased the shuttered Bruichladdich Scotch whisky distillery on Islay. With a limited budget, the team patched up the neglected distillery and soon had highly acclaimed whisky flowing from its copper pot stills.

It was within Bruichladdich’s aging warehouses that Renegade Rum started. Reynier’s team purchased rum from a variety of distilleries and brought them to Islay for further aging. They weren’t the first or last company to age rum alongside whisky in Scotland.

In 2012, Remy Cointreau purchased Bruichladdich, a move Reynier opposed, but could not prevent. Not one to stay at home and count his profits, Reynier and his team purchased Diageo’s surplus Waterford brewery in Ireland in 2015, turning it into the Waterford Irish Whiskey distillery. As I type this, the first bottles are about to come off Waterford’s bottling line

The enormous effort to bring Waterford online didn’t push Reynier’s passion for rum to the side, however. In 2018, after failing to find a Caribbean rum distillery he wanted to invest in, he and his investor group set their sights on building a state-of-the-art rum distillery on Grenada.

The Renegade Rum distillery utilizes just about every imaginable technology to make rums with extreme terroir while being environmentally friendly. The distillery has brand new pot and column stills from Forsyths in Scotland and will only distill fermented juice from Grenada-grown cane. Again, I’ll have much more to say about the distillery in a future story.

I was fortunate to have several hours of 1-on-1 time with Reynier during my visit, and he graciously agreed to the interview that follows.

Matt Pietrek: What stoked your initial interest in rum?

Mark Reynier: I was getting bored of independent whisky bottlings. The stocks were drying up. All the good stuff had gone, quality had gone downhill and you were left with inferior whiskies. The glory days had gone. Scraping a barrel, basically.

Rum seemed to offer interesting alternatives. Similar age, obscure distilleries, many which had shut down. It was an exciting replacement.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that rum was in an even worse position. It was like Scotch whisky in the ’70s. There were even fewer barrels. The age statements were suspicious. The quality even more so. The availability was less. It was just the same thing, but in poorer condition.

But I realized that it was quite fun playing around with these older distilleries. It was quite romantic and exciting. You learn a bit about them. You realize there’s not much information out there. It’s hard to find any reliable facts, but it was intriguing.

The majority of these European aged rums were molasses in origin, but there was enough there to think, “Let’s have some fun with this.” But then realizing that there weren’t enough stocks. Ultimately you have to do something else.

Matt Pietrek: Cane juice rum from the British Caribbean is a rarity these days. How do you think people will respond to Renegade’s rum?

Mark Reynier: I have no idea!

To me, cane is where you get more individuality. What’s the point in building a distillery to deal with the same raw ingredients that everybody else has? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

We knew that the island [Grenada] had produced pretty good cane in the past. A very interesting variety of soils. The aim is to produce a rum that’s intriguing, compelling, profound. Not the sort of corner shop rum for getting sloshed. It’s a rum to appreciate.

Can you make a single malt equivalent rum? I mean that in quality, complexity, and everything that stands for: Authority. Originality. So, that’s the academic challenge. I hope there’ll be people that like it.

Matt Pietrek: Since sugar cane is a seasonal crop, do you expect there will be extended periods where the distillery isn’t producing in some way? I’m thinking of Martinique distilleries that only distill part of the year.

Mark Reynier: Yes and no. Sugar cane isn’t seasonal; that’s the first thing. It’s not seasonal.

Also, you could throw in other things, like the changing climate. We can look at other aspects: Different varieties, different altitudes, different areas that we can grow it, different humidity levels, drought zones….

Sugar cane can be harvested pretty much year-round. The reason it wasn’t is that in sugar refining you need the high brix [sugar content]. But for distillation, you don’t.

It’s then a question of whether you can actually harvest it. If the ground is too slippery or too bulky, then you can’t get to it. Then it’s a question of getting the [cut] cane off the land. It becomes a logistical and equipment issue.

Yes, there will be periods where we’re not distilling. We don’t need to be distilling all year-round volume-wise, at this stage.

Matt Pietrek: What was your strategy in purchasing both double retort and column stills for the distillery? Is there a particular profile you were targeting?

Mark Reynier: No. Pot stills are what I know so that’s where we started. The issue with cane is that you have a lot of volume in a short time. Pot stills alone wouldn’t be able to handle the volume when you’ve got a shorter harvesting window.

Whereas, a column still can handle a larger volume in a shorter time. A column would be better suited for cane, but I couldn’t resist pots because that’s what I know. This is a very modern column, and with designers Forsyths we’ve included some nifty quality enhancements so that our head distiller Devon can play some pretty funky tunes on it.

Contrary to popular belief, the difference between still types is more about the weight of the spirit rather than intrinsic flavors. Flavors, we all know come with fermentation. If you have the same ferment and distill it in both pot and column stills, you’ll get a different weight of spirit. The complexity of the flavors can be more or less the same — if you want them to be.

Matt Pietrek: Sugar cane has struggled economically in the Caribbean for many years. Even France has to subsidize sugar cane agriculture on Martinique, much of which is used for high value rum. Can you foresee a way to make sugar cane economically viable and ensure a steady supply for rum makers?

Mark Reynier: The idea coming here [to Grenada] was to get farmers to grow cane themselves. To empower farmers — provide them with the cane and the know how to do it. But entrepreneurially that just didn’t work. It was too much of an ask, so we’ve ended up being farmers ourselves. We’ve equipped ourselves to farm what is essentially what’s left of the estates from the British colonial era.

When we came here, there was no cane at all, apart from one field being used by River Antoine. We had to find land, lease it, rent it, clear it of forty years of jungle, prepare it and plant it up. That’s what we’ve done over the proceeding four years.

We’ve now got the volumes we need to do the levels of distillation we’re looking at. Initially, we will look to augment with further fields, farms, and estates as time goes by.

Matt Pietrek: Do you believe Geographical Indications (GIs) are worth the effort? Does it make sense for Grenada to have one at this point?

Mark Reynier: We just discussed that with the other producers here.

It depends. You’ve seen the hassles they’re having between two distillers on Barbados with two different commercial interests. That’s the trouble: you end up with trying to get a one size hat that fits all. Inevitably it gets diluted down for commercial interests to the point of almost meaninglessness.

On the one hand, I agree if you talk about an appellation contrôlée, which I think is more than a GI, or a GI with much more meaning. The GIs they’re talking about [in Barbados] are very loosely worded. Whereas, when you look at Martinique or Guadeloupe, that’s more what I would call an appellation contrôlée. There’s a lot of more specific rules in that. Then again, you look through it and there’s lots of loopholes which you can imagine were put in for very much the same commercial interests.

So… what do I feel about GIs? I’m not busting a gut. I know where my stuff came from. I know what I’ve done. It’s there for everybody to see. We have a policy of total transparency, and you’ll see what I mean by that when we get to bottling. Transparency like you’ve never seen. So, the authority, honesty, and integrity are there and demonstrable.

The point about real provenance is that you need a terroir that you can point to, that this is where it came from. You need the logistics and traceability to prove that it came from there. And then you have to have the transparency to show it came from there.

Real provenance, if that’s what you’re talking about with a GI, has to be supported by a real terroir, real traceability, and real transparency. You don’t need a GI for that, in my view. I can do that myself.

Matt Pietrek: Your initial foray with Renegade Rum was as an independent bottler. What were the key learnings for you? Would you do anything differently if you could do it over?

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Mark Reynier: As an independent bottler, you rely on somebody else’s spirit, that somebody else distilled and matured. It’s their techniques, their interests or lack thereof, their quality of wood, or not, as the case may be.

As we all know, in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of distillation and maturation was pretty shoddy. The reason I’m doing this myself is because I think I can do it better; because I’m in control of it all. We can use really good wood, really good raw ingredients — cane grown on different fields or different farms — different terroirs, and we can ferment it really slowly.

You’ve seen our horizontal fermenters, which are temperature controlled. We can extend the fermentation to get a gentle fermentation, because we’re looking for real natural, pure flavors.

This is the combination of all that. What we’re doing has grown out of the disappointments of independent bottling, and into “I think I can do this better.”

Matt Pietrek: Before committing to build Renegade, how many existing Caribbean distilleries did you look at possibly purchasing? Are there any you particularly admire?

Mark Reynier: That’s a trick question.

Matt Pietrek: Perhaps.

Mark Reynier: I looked at quite a few over a ten-year period, initially looking for stocks, then distilleries. But the thing that kept coming home to me was that many were in a shocking state of repair. Very uneconomic in today’s world; unproductive old machinery, old equipment, poorly maintained, mostly pre-colonial era equipment that suffered from a lack of investment and maintenance. You’ve seen them; all the bits lying around the distilleries, abandoned.

None gave me a great deal of confidence, so that’s when I decided needed to build my own.

Matt Pietrek: What were the main unexpected hurdles you had in getting Renegade operational?

Mark Reynier: Where do I start? [laughs]

Finding a home for us. it took a long time till I discovered Grenada. That was a serendipitous choice. My Financial Director had a university friend who had a house here. He persuaded me to come down to have a look. I knew of Westerhall and Graham [Williams, Managing Director] from our independent bottling. I thought, “Let’s go and have a look.”

Then it’s a question of finding land. After independence [in 1974], Grenada had sort of a Marxist revolution, so a lot of land was confiscated and broken up; all those amazingly productive estates disappeared and the agriculture was dismantled. It was pretty down on itself when I came along. Trying to convince people to grow cane — that just didn’t work. So, we had to do it ourselves.

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And then the political inertia, because people hadn’t seen a project like this, and everyone was very suspicious of it. They’re suspicious because you’re from outside. You’re going against a lot of grains. It’s having the determination to keep going when all these doors keep shutting or not even opening.

Frankly, if it wasn’t for my colleague Graham’s enthusiasm and ability to pull something out of the fire every now and again, I’d have gone long ago. We wouldn’t have got past growing a few bits of cane.

And money! The cost of doing it; convincing my shareholder supporters that it was worth doing this so far away; getting all the component suppliers to believe that it made sense. It requires a lot of convincing of a lot of people to make these things happen. Then, when push came to shove, and we were three-quarters of the way through the build, we ran out of money. Having to go back and get more, that’s a tricky, tricky thing to do.

[Sighs] Emotional, physical, social, cultural, financial.

Matt Pietrek: When it comes to the Grenada local market versus the export market, how will Renegade focus its initial efforts?

Mark Reynier: This is an export brand. It’s not aimed at every Tom, Dick and Harry. It’s a sophisticated product for the cognoscenti. It’s a global brand that we’re creating for the curious consumer — somebody who wants more.

Matt Pietrek: Do you anticipate doing both unaged and aged releases?

Mark Reynier: I’m really intrigued about what these different cane fields, farms, soils, and terroirs are giving us. I’m quite excited to share that with those that are interested. Yes, we will make unaged bottlings for comparison and comparing. Not for wide availability, but for those that are interested.

Matt Pietrek: As in limited releases?

Mark Reynier: Yeah, for those that are interested to see the differences. I think that’d be quite interesting.

Matt Pietrek: For your initial releases, will you focus more on the EU, US, or a different market?

Mark Reynier: Either. Both.

Matt Pietrek: Do you think the EU market is more ready for something like Renegade?

Mark Reynier: I think it is, but I’m making a “single malt” rum, so I’m not really that fascinated at what other people are doing and where they are. I’m literally plowing my own furrow.

I think there are sophisticated consumers in the US that are single malt whisky drinkers who are increasingly looking for malternatives, as one writer calls them, and that’s what I’m hoping to provide. The same level of curiosity and intrigue for the consumers wanting to know where their drink comes from and are curious to know how it’s made and what the variables are. It really similar to a single malt whisky consumer.

Matt Pietrek: Do you have any plans to sell rum to third parties?

Mark Reynier: No.

Matt Pietrek: Are there any cross-distillery projects between Waterford and Renegade that are in place or planned?

Mark Reynier: Not specifically. I will say that at Waterford we’ve been doing a terroir proving project over the last three years. The first results are going to be published this year. Dr. Dustin Herb is doing it for us. We’re intrigued in doing something similar with cane, so we can actually officially prove that terroir, or where the cane grows, has an influence on how it grows and impacts the flavors that come from it. It’s been riveting doing it with barley. Believe it or not, no one has ever scientifically proven that terroir exists. The French just assume it’s there.

One of the things we found was that while the terroir makes a difference, the variety of grain, less so. In fact, minimal because they’re too genetically close together.

You have to go back to the ’60s where the genetics were wider apart to get varietal differences. Whereas with cane, the varieties have a wider window. At the moment, I think that cane variety will have a difference, and terroir as well.

Obviously, we can share information on traceability methods. We have software we designed for traceability. We can have traceability back to individual fields of barley, what happened to it, all the way through. That software we can adapt for cane here on Grenada. Terroir related traceability. And of course, there’s wood. We have an advanced knowledge of premium wood.

Matt Pietrek: What are the biggest challenges with the premium rum market today?

Mark Reynier: Authenticity.

Raw ingredients and the fact that the majority of rum is made with the same stuff. People can make rum anywhere in the world, and they do. The rules are therefore consequently non-existent. Most rum has been happy go-lucky, as any byproduct is; something for nothing, so I don’t think it’s ever been taken really seriously.

A premium spirit like cognac is made from wine. Grappa is made from the debris left over after you’ve made wine. One is held in great prestige, and the other one is something given away at the end of an Italian meal. There’s obviously good grappas, of course…

But generally speaking, rum has suffered from this happy go-lucky approach. You see it in the marketing. It’s often commodity supplied as opposed to being distilled for a brand. That integration between brand and distillery, as compared to whisky, is few and far between, and that link is very important.

If it’s commodity supply, somebody else adds the value, blending or doing whatever. I think that’s part of it. For authenticity, what can you believe? There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of deception, a lot of no one cares attitude. That’s the problem.

The rules? What rules? You’ve got GIs, but no one can even agree on those for commercial reasons.

Matt Pietrek: It’s also difficult to get them enforced.

Mark Reynier: I agree with that. It’s a bit of a mess. My view is that I know what I’m doing, I know how I’m doing it, I’ll share that with anybody who wants to see it. That’s the traceability we’re talking about, and you’ll be amazed when you see what level we can provide. This is how we do it and, hopefully, people will learn a bit.

Also, education is desperately important. Calling out the charlatans equally. It’s not dissimilar to Irish whiskey at the moment. It has a lot of enthusiasm. Naivety too, but also deception. There’re gray lines.

To the best of my ability, I’m doing a genuine, authentic, demonstrable, pure, natural spirit. I believe very much in natural spirits: no colorings, no additives, no enzymes in it, just doing it really, really purely.

I’m sure there’s other people doing the same thing. I think, bit by bit, more and more people will.  And that’s where this authority and trust will start to come out.

Matt Pietrek: Are there lessons the premium rum markets can learn from the Scotch whisky market?

Mark Reynier: I think one of the things which even the cognac producers missed out on, is that the Scotch Whisky Association is both a lobbying body but it’s also a regulator. It’s not ideal, but they did a good job of protecting the authenticity of whisky: how it’s made, what you can say, what you can and can’t put on the label.

Removing that marketing enthusiasm that over-stretches into outright misrepresentation is really important. Ensuring everybody knows what they’re reading on the label is real. It’s not just make-believe, and the age statement is what it is. If it says twelve years, everything in that bottle has been aged in a barrel for at least twelve years. Not an average, not a sum, not a solera age.

It’s that authenticity, that trust. You cannot take the whiskey out of the barrel a minute before midnight on the anniversary of its birthday. It’s audited by Customs and Excise.

Matt Pietrek: The benefits Scotch whisky has with consumer trust derive in part by being from a single country. Isn’t rum hindered in that regard?

Mark Reynier: That’s true. There is no unity. There are so many producers, each with their own traditions and standards, which is part of the problem. But for age statements at least, surely you’ve got to be able to believe the age on the label?

Matt Pietrek: Or implied age statements. A big 23 on the label. What does that mean?

Mark Reynier: Exactly! You simply can’t do that with Scotch whisky, there are rules from which Scotch whisky derives its authority, which determine what one can and cannot put on a label to avoid misrepresentation, deception or deceit. For rum to be taken seriously that needs to happen too. There’s too much wiggle room.

The SWA produces five pages of A4 [standard paper size] that determine what you can and cannot put on a whisky label to prevent deceiving the consumer. That’s the first place to start — stop deceiving the consumer.

Matt Pietrek: Is there anything else rum can learn from Scotch whisky?

Mark Reynier: Classification. The style mix.

Matt Pietrek: Do you mean like the Gargano categorization in rum?

Mark Reynier: It’s a start but I don’t necessarily agree with how he’s done it. It could be simpler. Even the classification of Scotch or Irish whisky is not really as clear as it ought to be. Take ‘pot still whiskey’ which is actually a mixed mash. Barley in a pot still is a single malt whisky from a single distillery or Blended malt from several single malt whiskies; or blended whisky from column and/or pot stills – from barley or any cheaper grain.

If they really wanted to, they could have made it much more practical, sensible, understandable and intuitive. It’s the same confusion for rum:  should any classification be about still types or the prime raw material? Or yeast inoculation? Or even, shall we call it, “local production idiosyncrasies”?

Credibility is what the rum industry needs to establish rather than deliberate obfuscation – any classification should be realistic, comprehensible, intuitive. Trying to categorize rums based on still types is as pointless as whether it’s made from fresh sugar cane juice, syrup or molasses. And don’t get me started on ester counts.  It can and should be simpler, but I don’t think anybody’s quite nailed it yet.

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