The rum revolution is underway, with the popularity of this fun drink on a significant upswing. Leah van Deventer went all the way to the Caribbean, the historic home of rum, to chat to Master Blender at Angostura Rum, Carol Homer-Caesar, to find out about the art – and science – behind rum blending.
How long have you been with Angostura?
This year will be 23 years.
Did you start in a different position and work your way up?
Yes, I started as head of the laboratory, doing new product development, research and development and quality control. Then I ended up being responsible for the quality systems too, which is our ISO certification, as well as our health and safety and our laboratory accreditation. And now blending has been added to my portfolio.
Generally, the liquor industry is male dominated. Have you felt your gender has affected your work, whether positively or negatively?
Well, actually at Angostura 75% of our management staff is women. My predecessor was a woman as well, so my gender didn’t affect me in any way, you know, in terms of being the head of a department in production operations. Interestingly enough, the new head of bottling is also female, and so was herpredecessor. So we’ve never really had any sort of resistance at Angostura. In fact we have a female CEO now too, for the first time.
That’s wonderful, and it makes sense since women actually have more refined palates! Do you think it’s the same throughout the rum industry?
I would have to say the rum industry is more male dominated. With our West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association there are only two female directors presently. Then there are probably 10 or 15 members who represent their distilleries, and again only two of them are female. But while it is male dominated, I must say, within the West Indies group wearerespected. I do a lot of lectures for them, and we have a lot of technical workshops, and I’ve never felt that I didn’t have a place there.
In terms of the art and science of blending, what would you say the ratio is? How much is technical skill and how much is up to your nose and palate?
I would say the sensory side of it is more. If I were to put a ratio on it I would say at least 60% is what you smell and taste, and what you craft to end up at a particular style of rum. Then 40% you have to monitor, you have to test, and you also have to create a controlled environment to end up with a consistently high-quality rum. You have to have controls in place.
If 60% is up to personal skills, is it difficult to maintain consistency when one master blender takes over from another?
Um, no, because for example although I’m I charge of blending, the blenders below me are trained by me, and they know that there is a procedure, a process to follow. For us, because we are ISO certified – we’re also safety certified – everything we do is well documented. So from one blender to the next we’d be following the same protocol.
So if I had to buy a bottle of Angostura 1919 rum that was produced in 2015 and another that was produced last year, they’d taste the same?
Yes, they would have one flavour profile.
How are new rums developed?
Our new product development is marketing driven, so they’ll present us with a product brief, which will state the profile they would like. They’d say whether they want a light or medium-bodied rum, whether they want layers of cream in the notes, whether they want a Cognac, bourbon or sherry finish, whether they want it to have a fruity background or if there’s a particular top note they want. So we’d work with that. Sometimes there may be products in the market they’d like us to benchmark, so then of course we’d analyse the benchmarks. But from experience we’d have a sense of what style of rum they’re looking for, with or without a benchmark.
Tell us about the blending process.
Once we have our brief we pick our aged rums. We monitor the aging of our rums in terms of both sensory evaluations and chemical testing, so we have what you might call a history of all the rums we put into aging. We know what each type of aged rum looks like, tastes like, smells like.
Using this inventory, aging and warehousing pulls pallets of the aged rums, and then the lab withdraws samples and runs tests, like gas chromatography, to check their flavour profiles and make sure none of the rum is sour.
We’ll then bring them together in prototypes – at least four – and present them to marketing. They do blind tastings, and decide which one is most along the lines of what they want. Then we do a pilot blend, which we send to our agents and distributors for feedback. We pool the information, and run statistics, and then we decide what the final blend should be.
Wow, it’s a quite a process! What else do you have to consider?
[Laughs] Yes! We also have to do shelf-life testing, and decide if the rum will be chill filtered, or if we have to do double filtration, or whether we need to put the blend back in a cask and age it… all those decisions need to be made along the way to be able to craft a specific style of rum.
Now I’ve always imagined a blender physically tinkering with different ratios of rum – adding a bit of this and a bit of that – until they have a winner. Is that how it works?
Yes, at the lab level. Then it’s bulked and put together in a huge vat.
Do you have any personal favourites when it comes to flavour profiles?
I particularly like the Angostura 1919, because it’s light bodied and you can have it with soda water, with coconut water, or neat. And it makes for diverse cocktails, so it’s versatile. I also like our 15YO, the Angostura 1787, and that I’ll drink neat or on the rocks. I like to pair that with 75% dark chocolate.
This post first appeared on Crush Online Magazine on 12 March 2018.