At the Bar Convent Berlin, we interviewed Don Benn, Operations Manager and Master Distiller of the West Indies Rum Distillery. We asked him a lot of interesting questions and got a lot of interesting answers. You can read the conversation below:
1. What does it take in a life to become a master distiler?
Well, the number one ingredient is time. It is not a quick thing. So when I started at the distillery in 1998, there was already a master distiller there, and he had started in 1970’s. So he has already been there for more than 20 years. I learned a lot from him. It wasn’t always easy. You know, he made it enjoyable, but he did not make it easy. I had to show, a-prove that I was willing to understand the solution, solve problems, and be in charge of the process eventually.
2. I heard on your masterclass that you will make an assistant for the master distillery in two months with somebody who is willing to learn.
-Oh, I said one year. One year. But maybe for you, if you work hard enough, it may be two months. But one year. And I wouldn’t quite say assistant master distiller, you would still have some time to go. Maybe you can, after one year, understand the process. You can work the still and maybe then you can decide if you want to become a master distiller. But as I say, it takes time.
3. When you compare the styles of the Rum, can you explain us the difference, as a master destiller, of English, Spanish and French styles of producing rum?
Well, it is not always between the stills that the differences are. Some of it may be about where you start. Are you using sugarcane juice, are you using syrup, are you using molasses? Then it can be how long your fermentation for. Because even between English Caribbean, there are so many varieties of rum.
4. What is your opinion about the misunderstanding of Rum production because there is no law on how to produce Rum, there is no age statement, there is no any legal document worldwide like it is for Cognac or Whiskey?
– It could be an advantage. I think it needs to be a little bit more structured so the rules are norm, but we don’t have to have rigid rules.
5. What is the secret of the yeast? Do you have a secret yeast that is doing impact on the flavor of the rum?
We have a nursery where we are growing our unique type of yeast. When I first started there was that type of yeast but after a few years it was hard to find enough of that yeast and we move the way. So now we are getting back to having our unique culture, but it is a challenge to maintain because if you let it day, you have to start from zero. When you get it, you have to keep it fed. Maybe give it a little bit of sugar all the time to keep it active. And then you can take that to seed your fermentation.
6. How is it to have a French guy who is managing who is owner?
– So the good thing about Alexander is that all I said he said it’s true. He does not my comanage. He likes to know, but he does not have to make a decision for you. He allows you to make a decision for you and your team. So when we are on Barbados, we are not thinking, “We have to wait for Alexander to call, to tell us how to distill. To tell us what to ferment. To tell us how much to make.” Alexander is different. He likes to know you are creative and you don’t mind to think. So even if he doesn’t work how you expect it will, maybe there is something that you did that can be used in the future. There is no failure if the outcome is different from what you imagined. He likes that idea, you think, you tried. Because of that, people come to work thinking that today will not be the same as yesterday, I will be able to try something new.
7. How does collaboration and traveling to the distillery in Cognac improve your work in rum?
I like to travel anywhere I get the opportunity to. Even when I go to other distilleries in the Caribbean, to look is it ok. What is their design like? What is their operating temperature? What is their pressure like? I do all this so I can sample products and start to understand how what they do influences the end product.
8. I heard from your colleague Alexander that you have become part of the growers in the Cognac region. You planted your juniper tree. So this is something that will be a part of your heritage to French people’s lagacies in the production of Gin.
– I hope so! I have my name next to the tree. So I will go back and be sure that it’s growing every year. But it is slow growth for now. And the important thing for us is that we want to support the farmers. We want to show that there is a strong link between what the farmer does and the product you see on the shelf. Not only in Cognac, we have also started to do this for rum.
9. In 2019. there was a whole boom dedicated to Rum, and at that time, when we were doing interviews, everybody was predicting that Rum would be the new Gin. What do you think? Is there any option that Rum will take main role as Gin is doing it?
– So my thinking is very different from what I keep hearing. I do not like to call Rum the new anything. Rum will be Rum, it has been there before. People now noticed it and it will always be there. How fast will it grow? That’s a question I cannot answer. Maybe if Covid did not happened, things would be different. I think once people in the Caribbean understand that there is a big world out there where people want to have rum, it will grow fast.
10. And the final question is your advice. How to enjoy Rum?
I like to say that Rum is about fun. And it is about your shared experience. I do not like to drink rum alone. It is a boring thing to do. So when you have rum, you may not like a sipping Rum, you may like your Rum in a cocktail, but If I know you have a cocktail and I have a sipping Rum,we can still enjoy it. We don’t need to drink the same thing. But I just say have fun. In the Caribbean, people always say that the fun is in Limbo. It is true, but not the only thing. People in the Caribbean like to work hard. But when they work hard, they like to reward themselves with a party. To enjoy. That is the real fun. That’s what you see internationally: fun. You don’t always see the hard work. So use Rum when ever you are minding down. Use Run when you want to enjoy yourself.