Founder and CEO of Phenomenal Spirits Karthik Sudhir talks to us about his brand, Ron Izalco, why Central American rum deserves your attention and why the future is bright for the category…
Former Indian track and field athlete Karthik Sudhir is a passionate man. He’s excited when he’s explaining how he founded his company, Phenomenal Spirits, in June of 2017 after leaving behind a software career in the US. He’s excited when discussing the potential of Central American rum. He’s especially excited when we talk about Ron Izalco, the first brand he has created.
He has good reason to be. His first release, Ron Izalco 10 Year Old, has already become a darling of trade shows and has been showered in awards. From gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Festival to double-gold in the International Spirits Challenge and even Masters awards at the Rum & Cachaça Masters World Masters and The Rum Masters (The Spirits Business) competition, Ron Izalco 10 Year Old has already made waves. It was only launched in April 2018.
“Every whisky maker, every Tequila maker, every rum maker is going to say ‘my booze is the best booze’. I know Ron Izalco is great, but I also wanted that industry validation,” says Sudhir. “I am beyond overwhelmed with the response that we have received. At the 2018 Paris Rhum Festival all we got was great feedback. For three days in a row, at four o’clock in the evening, we had big lines of people. The smallest booth in the entire Paris Rhum Festival had the biggest line. The response has been really, really positive.”
Ron Izalco 10 Year Old is a blend of Central American rum matured in ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at 43% ABV. “It’s designed to be a full-bodied, complex rum for sipping rum, although it does work in a craft cocktail like an Old Fashioned,” says Sudhir. “The whole idea of Ron was to challenge the status quo. We didn’t want to make a pirate-looking rum. We didn’t want to create a rum that’s very syrupy and sugary. We wanted to make a rum with balance, something complex with a long finish.
But what makes the early promise of Ron Izalco 10 Year Old particularly intriguing is that it’s casting a spotlight on Central American rum, which Sudhir believes is often overlooked. “Our blend consists of multiple countries from Central America, which we believe is a very underdeveloped market. It hasn’t got the prominence of Caribbean rum, for example. The Caribbean has done a phenomenal job of marketing themselves and they have some exceptionally good products. But Central America has got some really good products too.”
Sudhir hadn’t actually set out to create a Central American rum initially. In the year he and his blending team worked on the recipe, they imported and sampled rums from multiple countries. Through a blind tasting, they decided on a Central American rum to be the foundation of the blend. Every rum that was subsequently chosen for the blend also happened to be Central American. “It wasn’t by design. They were just the best rums we tried,” says Sudhir. “I subsequently started visiting multiple countries and studied the volcanic soil, the sugarcane, the high angel share and the use of ex-bourbon barrels and then I was able to understand why it was so special”.
Inspired by the new-found Central American identity of his rum, Sudhir looked to the same region to form the basis of his brand. The name he chose references the 6,447 feet stratovolcano in El Salvador. Izalco erupted almost continuously from 1770 (when it formed) to 1958, earning it the nickname of ‘Lighthouse of the Pacific’ was its fire was said to have guided adventurous explorers to safe harbours. But its impact goes beyond its spectacular fireworks, however. Combined with the tropical climate of Central America, its lava has helped create mineral-rich black soil which produces fruitful and succulent sugarcane fields. “Izalco is a true story and a story that’s relevant to the rum. I had to be honest. My great-grandfather’s not a bootlegger. I’m not going to make a story up for my rum, I want to be authentic,” explains Sudhir.
Throughout the course of our conversation, Sudhir makes a point of prioritising authenticity. He makes it very clear there is no Ron Izalco distillery, nor will there be: “We are not distillers, we do not have a distillery. We are master blenders.” He also ensured that before he blended a drop of rum he had formal education in spirits. He attended Moonshine University in Kentucky to get his distillation degree and then studied blending, ageing and other techniques with the American Distillers Association. It was here that the team behind Ron Izalco began to take shape. “One of the teachers there specialised in rum and happened to be a master blender. That’s was the beginning of how we formed a team together,” Sudhir says. “Our blenders have a multitude of backgrounds and hold multiple jobs. They are veterans in the industry.”
The rum is blended in California, where his team and Phenomenal Spirits is based. Sudhir can’t reveal which distilleries or producers the blends are sourced from, simply because he has non-disclosure agreements with them that he wants to respect. What Sudhir does tell me, however, is some of the countries included and what profile each brings to the blend. “Nicaraguan rum is phenomenal as a base because of its structure. Panama has got this beautiful caramel element and creates a long finish. Then you have Guatemala which has got this molasses, brown sugar and toasted oak notes.” Sudhir pours us a glass each as he describes Ron Izalco 10 Year Old and hand’s one to me with the widest of smiles. In my professional opinion, it’s bloody delicious.
Sudhir has no intention of resting on his laurels, however. There’s more to come from Phenomenal Spirits. Sudhir explains that there are two things which he absolutely loves: rum and rye whisky, the latter of which he is in the process of adding to the Phenomenal Spirits portfolio. But more pressingly, Ron Izalco is preparing to launch a 15-year-old bottling of rum, which will eventually be followed by a 21-year-old expression.
The upcoming 15-year-old is a blend of five rums from five different Central American countries aged for 15 years in their own respective distilleries in ex-bourbon barrels. It will be bottled at cask strength, 55.3% ABV, and according to Sudhir, “It has zero additional ingredients, no sugar, no caramel, nothing”.
Once again, Sudhir gleefully pours us a glass each. It’s exceptional, and pleasantly it’s also a real departure from the 10 Year Old. “This is a completely different beast from the 10 Year Old. That was intentional,” says Sudhir. “It was designed to create a completely different taste profile with the purist in mind. It’s for people who like Agricole-style rum or cask strength or high-ester Caribbean rum. I don’t think anything of that nature exists from Central America, so that’s what we wanted to create. It’s earthy, it’s a little drier, there’s tobacco but it’s very fruity too”.
As we talk and sample rum, one thing that stands out is that Sudhir is consistent in his description of Ron Izalco as a premium rum brand. “I don’t believe rum has ever been through premiumisation as a category,” says Sudhir. “Rum is the next big market. It’s already happened for vodka, it’s already happened for gin. Tequila has been done, as has bourbon, rye, Scotch and Cognac.” But it’s clear he thinks that’s all about to change.
“Spirits enthusiasts and rum lovers are curious and eager to move on to the next level. We are seeing early stages of rum premiumisation in Europe and we are predicting this trend will cross over to North America in the coming year,” he explains. “They want to try something less sweet and more full-bodied, with complex fruity notes that are evenly balanced with a long finish. This is exactly what Ron Izalco 10 has to offer to rum lovers.”
It has been a long time coming. People have predicted the ‘year of rum’ for seemingly every year in this last decade, but after it broke through the £1bn sales barrier in 2018 and became second to gin as the UK’s most popular spirit (according to those lovely folks over at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association), there is renewed optimism. There is four times the number of rum brands in the UK now than there were in 2006, with 200 of them now competing on the market. “It’s going to explode. We’ve only scratched the surface. It’s a matter of time,” says Sudhir. “From Diageo to Pernod Ricard and Bacardi to Havana Club, everybody is investing in super-premium brands, everybody is innovating, investing in packaging, coming up with higher age statements, or newer products, The message is becoming more and more clear,” he says.
He attributes this move a couple of factors. The first is the impact of bartenders. “The mixologist is driving this expansion. They’re tired of providing sugary drinks. That tiki bar market will always be there and it’s great. I love the daiquiris, I love the piña coladas, I love all the fizz. But these mixologists are coming up with creative ideas and because there are some really good rums available, not just some deep sugary rums people are willing to explore.”
Sudhir also believes that consumers are much more knowledgeable and that modern drinkers are ready for a change. “That’s why our market strategy is ‘Ron Izalco is the new ritual’. What is ‘the new ritual’? The new ritual means that you don’t have to only drink whisky or Tequila. Sipping rum has arrived! That’s the new ritual.” Tasting Ron Izalco, you can see why Sudhir is so optimistic.
Ron Izalco 10 Year Old Tasting Notes:
Nose: Lovely balance with sweet vanilla, milk chocolate and brown sugar, then some stoned fruits such as dark cherries and dried apricots. Zesty notes of oak and juicy oranges emerge among syrupy dried fruit. It ends with wafts of toffee and caramel.
Palate: Initially it’s quite woody with a lot of spicy oak and some real zesty notes of marmalade. With time comes wonderful complexity of it, subtle sweetness of rum-soaked raisins, dried prunes, dark caramels and rich vanilla. The mid-palate has a slightly herbal feel to it.
Finish: The finish is long, rich and pretty spicy with a fruity kick to the end. There’s a satisfying note of oak throughout and plenty of nuances to keep things interesting.